The Story Of The Heaven’s Gate Cult And Their Infamous Mass Suicide

Published March 23, 2018
Updated October 12, 2018

The members of Heaven's Gate were not of this world and it took a mass suicide to descend their human bodies and enter a higher level.

Marshall Applewhite

YouTubeMarshall Applewhite, the leader of Heaven’s Gate, in a recruitment video.

Heaven’s Gate was a UFO cult that began in the 1970s under the leadership of Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. Though to the members of Heaven’s Gate it was considered a means of reaching a new world, the death of 39 people in 1997 was labeled a mass suicide.

“Funny and charismatic, an overachiever who was on the honor roll.”

That’s what Louise Winant, Marshall Applewhite’s sister had to say about her brother in his younger years.

Applewhite was born in 1931 in Texas. In the early 1970s, he was a music professor in Houston. After he was discovered allegedly having a relationship with one of his male students, Applewhite was fired.

He met Bonnie Nettles, a 44-year-old married nurse in 1972 and an instant spiritual connection was sparked. They talked about mysticism and ultimately decided that they were divine messengers.

They called themselves Bo and Peep and together they formed Heaven’s Gate.

After Heaven’s Gate was established, Applewhite and Nettles began the process of spreading their message and recruiting people.

In 1975, they gave a presentation about Heaven’s Gate in Oregon. A group called the Human Individual Metamorphosis who supported the presentation created a flyer that read UFO’s in big letters on the top, but underneath read, “Not a discussion of UFO sightings or phenomena.”

The flyer provided two paragraphs of information on Heaven’s Gate that began,”two individuals say they were sent from the level above human, and will return to that level in a space ship (UFO) within the next few months.” At the bottom, it gave the date, time and place as September 14, 2 p.m. at the Bayshore Inn in Waldport, Oregon.

Heaven's Gate Leaders

Getty ImagesMarshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. Aug. 28, 1974.

Based off the poster, over 200 people attended the event.

In this presentation and others like it, Applewhite and Nettles promoted Heaven’s Gate with the premise that a UFO would come and whisk the cult members away, elevating them to a new world and a better life they called T.E.L.A.H, The Evolutionary Level Above Human.

Through this grassroots approach, the founders of the Heaven’s Gate Cult were able to convince people to leave their homes and belongings behind, as overcoming urges and natural human desires was a staple of the cult’s beliefs, and travel around together for over two decades. They didn’t have a real home and they maintained anonymity.

As wild as their theories seemed, young people were attracted to the idea of it. Many were already seeking spiritual meaning. They wanted more from the world and from the lives they were leading.

Michael Conyers, an early recruit of Heaven’s Gate said that the appeal of Applewhite and Nettles’ message was in how they were “talking to my Christian heritage, but in a modern updated way.”

For example, they said that Mary was impregnated by being taken upon a spacecraft.

“Now as unbelievable as that sounds, that was an answer that was better than just plain virgin birth,” Conyers said. “It was technical, it had physicality to it.”

In an initiation tape created by Applewhite, he said “parents do not possess the offspring they have. It’s a very evil thing for them to think they’re theirs, that they are products of theirs, property of theirs.”

For young people who wanted independence from their parents, this aspect of Applewhite’s message could be an appealing one.

Members of Heaven’s Gate didn’t see suicide as death. They often referred to their human bodies as vessels that were carrying them on their journey.

Heaven’s Gate also believed that if they stayed on earth long enough, they would have to fight demons who were inevitably coming.

The cult’s members used several techniques to maintain the deity. Castration was a popular one, as it subdued “human mammalian behavior.” The group had a strict “no sex, no human-level relationships, no socializing” rule.

In 1985, Bonnie Nettles died of cancer, leaving Applewhite as the sole leader of Heaven’s Gate. On his own, Applewhite maintained the central message of Heaven’s Gate: “To be saved from Lucifer, human beings must give up all earthly pleasures.” Additionally, they needed to be prepared to leave the world they currently existed in, and ascend on a spacecraft into a new world.

Once the internet took off, the Heaven’s Gate members, who called themselves “the crew,” utilized it as a means of spreading this message to more people.

The culminating event happened on March 26, 1997. Thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate crew, including Applewhite, rented a mansion in a gated community in Racho Santa Fe near San Diego.

Heaven's Gate Suicide

YouTubeCNN coverage of the 1997 Heaven’s Gate mass suicide.

A few days prior, Applewhite had recorded himself saying that “it was the only way to evacuate this Earth.” The Comet Haleā€“Bopp was coming and he claimed that a spacecraft was trailing it, which would take them to the higher place they were seeking.

On the night of March 26, the 39 members ate a mixture of barbiturates and applesauce, washed down with vodka.

The next day, all 39 members lying neatly in their bunk beds, were found dead. Identical black-and-white Nike sneakers poked out from the purple cloths covering their faces and bodies.

Like the Jonestown Massacre, the incident was marked as a mass suicide. It brought widespread attention to people who hadn’t heard of Heaven’s Gate, the cult that said they weren’t from this world.

It’s reported that the crew had a final celebratory meal the weekend before the mass suicide. They went to a restaurant where they all ordered the same thing, identical turkey pot pies. The waiter asked where they were from.

One member replied, “from the car.”


After learning about the Heaven’s Gate cult and their tragic mass suicide, you can read about Evelyn McHale and “the most beautiful suicide”. Then learn about another cult by reading about the Jonestown Massacre.

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