On March 26, 1997, the Heaven's Gate cult became forever infamous when 39 members were found dead after committing mass suicide. Here's why they did it.
“Funny and charismatic, an overachiever who was on the honor roll.” That’s how Louise Winant remembered her brother, Marshall Applewhite, who would go on to become the Heaven’s Gate cult leader.
None of Applewhite’s loved ones could understand how the man they knew — a friendly jester, a devout Christian, a devoted husband and father of two — could walk away from everything to found a cult. And not just any cult. Heaven’s Gate was considered bizarre even among the other strange New Age beliefs cropping up in the 1970s.
Heaven’s Gate was curiously techy. It had a website before most traditional businesses did, and its beliefs were like something out of Star Trek, involving aliens, UFOs, and talk of ascension to the “next level.”
But it also had strains of the familiar. It clearly borrowed from Christianity, as Applewhite claimed to be able to save his followers from Lucifer. It was a combination that provoked laughter and ridicule more often than conversion — but somehow, it did convert dozens of people.
And in the end, nobody was laughing. Not when 39 cult members turned up dead in a 1997 mass suicide that stunned America. Bursting through the national consciousness, Heaven’s Gate instantly became infamous.
Most recently explored in the HBO Max docuseries Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults, there’s no question that the cult’s story remains just as tragic and bizarre today as it was decades ago.
How Did The Heaven’s Gate Cult Start?
The earliest incarnation of Heaven’s Gate, as the cult would eventually come to be known, began in the 1970s under the leadership of Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles.
Applewhite was born in 1931 in Texas and by most accounts had a relatively normal life. Known for his musical talents, he once attempted to become an actor. When that didn’t pan out, he pursued music-focused careers at universities — which appeared to be going well.
But in 1970, he was allegedly fired from his job as a music professor at Houston’s University of St. Thomas — because he was having a relationship with one of his male students.
Though Applewhite and his wife were already divorced by that point, he struggled with the loss of his job and may have even had a nervous breakdown. A couple years later, he met Bonnie Nettles, a nurse with a strong interest in the Bible as well as a few obscure spiritual beliefs.
While the true story of how Applewhite met Nettles remains murky, Applewhite’s sister maintains that he entered a Houston hospital with heart trouble and that Nettles was one of the nurses who treated him. According to Applewhite’s sister, Nettles convinced Applewhite that he had a purpose — and that God had saved him for a reason.
As for Applewhite himself, he would say that he was simply visiting a friend in the hospital when he encountered Nettles.
But no matter how they met, one thing was clear: They felt an instant connection and began to discuss their beliefs. By 1973, they were convinced that they were the two witnesses described in the Christian Book of Revelation — and they would prepare the way for the kingdom of heaven.
It’s unclear when they added UFOs and other elements of science fiction to their belief system — but this would ultimately become a huge part of what they stood for.
Applewhite and Nettles began to call themselves Bo and Peep, Him and Her, and Do and Ti. Sometimes they even went by Winnie and Pooh or Tiddly and Wink. They shared a platonic, sexless partnership — in keeping with the ascetic life they would come to encourage among their followers.
How The Heaven’s Gate Cult Recruited Followers
Once they put together their belief system, Applewhite and Nettles wasted no time advertising their new cult. Preparing presentations for potential followers all over the country, Applewhite and Nettles would distribute posters that promoted a mixture of conspiracy theories, science fiction, and proselytization.
And yet, these invitations were undeniably eye-catching. The word “UFOs” would often appear in big letters at the top, with a disclaimer at the bottom: “Not a discussion of UFO sightings or phenomena.”
The posters usually claimed, “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.”
In 1975, Applewhite and Nettles received national attention after they gave a particularly successful presentation in Oregon. In this presentation, Applewhite and Nettles promoted Heaven’s Gate — then called Human Individual Metamorphosis or Total Overcomers Anonymous — with the promise that a spaceship would whisk their followers away to salvation.
But first, they had to renounce sex, drugs, and all their earthly possessions. And in most cases, they also needed to abandon their own families. Only then could they be elevated to a new world and a better life known as TELAH, The Evolutionary Level Above Human.
An estimated 150 people attended the event in Oregon. While many locals thought it was a joke at first, at least a couple dozen people were interested enough to join the cult — and say goodbye to their loved ones.
Through this grassroots approach, the founders of the Heaven’s Gate cult were able to convince more people to leave behind everything they knew to follow them and travel with them for about two decades.
It was a radical move, but for some, the choice encompassed the spirit of the decade — many were giving up the conventional lives they had started and seeking new spiritual answers to old questions.
But before long, some followers began to feel restricted by the cult’s rules. As if abandoning their families wasn’t enough, members were also expected to follow strict guidelines — including “no sex, no human-level relationships, no socializing.” A few members — including Applewhite — took this rule to the extreme by undergoing castration.
The followers were also expected to dress largely alike — and conform to incredibly specific rules about the most mundane things.
“Everything was designed to be… an exact duplicate,” survivor Michael Conyers explained. “You were not to come up with, ‘Well I’m going to make the pancakes this big.’ There was a mixture, a size, how long you cooked it one side, how much the burner was on, how many a person got, how the syrup was poured on it. Everything.”
So how did a group like this once attract up to 200 members? According to former followers, Heaven’s Gate was appealing because of its blend of asceticism, mysticism, science fiction, and Christianity.
Michael Conyers, an early recruit, said that the cult’s message was appealing because they were “talking to my Christian heritage, but in a modern updated way.” For example, Heaven’s Gate apparently taught that the Virgin Mary was impregnated after she was taken up in 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.”
But before long, the cult’s belief system became progressively wackier — which would eventually lead to disaster.
From UFOs To The End Of The World
One of the cult’s major problems was that it was operating on a clock. Followers believed that if they stayed on Earth long enough, they would face “recycling” — the destruction of the Earth as the planet was wiped clean.
At first, Nettles and Applewhite were convinced it wouldn’t come to that. After all, a spaceship run by TELAH beings was supposed to arrive for them long before the apocalypse happened.
Fate, however, threw a wrench in their plans when Nettles died from cancer in 1985. Her death was a severe blow to Applewhite — not only emotionally, but also philosophically. Nettles’s death had the potential to call into question a number of the cult’s teachings. Perhaps, most pressingly, why did she die before the TELAH beings came to pick the followers up?
It was then that Applewhite began to rely very heavily on one particular tenet of the cult’s beliefs: Human bodies were merely vessels, or “vehicles,” that were carrying them on their journey, and these vehicles could be abandoned when humans were ready to ascend to the next level.
According to Applewhite, Nettles had merely exited her vehicle and entered her new home among the TELAH beings. But Applewhite apparently still had work to do on this plane of existence, so he would guide his followers in the hopes that they would be reunited with Nettles once again.
It was a subtle but important shift in the cult’s ideology — and it would have far-reaching and dangerous consequences.
The Mass Suicide Of The Heaven’s Gate Cult
Members of Heaven’s Gate believed that suicide was wrong — but their definition of “suicide” was far different from the traditional one. They believed that the true meaning of suicide was turning against the next level when it was offered to them. Tragically, this fatal “offer” was made in March 1997.
It’s not clear exactly where Applewhite got the idea that there was a UFO trailing behind Hale–Bopp, the brilliant comet that was about to make an appearance during that time. But he couldn’t let this idea go.
Some blame Art Bell, the conspiracy theorist and radio host behind the popular program Coast to Coast AM, for publicizing the delusion. But it’s hard to see how Bell could have anticipated what an increasingly worn and frazzled Applewhite would do with this idea.
For some reason, Applewhite saw it as a sign. According to him, it was “the only way to evacuate this Earth.” The spaceship behind Hale–Bopp was apparently the flight that the Heaven’s Gate members had been waiting for all along. It was coming to take them to the higher place they were seeking.
And it was coming just in time. If they waited any longer, Applewhite was convinced that the Earth was going to be recycled while they were still on it.
The 39 active Heaven’s Gate cult members had already used the money they made from designing web pages — the cult’s primary source of income — to rent a mansion near San Diego. And so they decided this mansion would be the place where they left their “vehicles.”
Starting on about March 22 or March 23, the 39 cult members ate applesauce or pudding that had been laced with a heavy dose of barbiturates. Some washed it down with vodka.
They did it group by group, placing bags over their heads to ensure asphyxiation, and then they waited for death. This was believed to have happened over the course of a few days. Those later in the lineup cleaned up any mess made by the first groups and laid the bodies out neatly, covering them with purple shrouds.
Applewhite was the 37th to die, leaving behind two others to prepare his corpse and — alone in a house full of bodies — take their own lives.
After the authorities were alerted via an anonymous tip on March 26, they found 39 bodies lying neatly in bunk beds and other resting places, dressed in identical black tracksuits and Nike sneakers and covered in purple shrouds. Their matching armbands read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.”
The anonymous tipster was later revealed to be a former member who’d left the group just a few weeks beforehand — and received a disturbing package of videotaped farewells from the group and a map to the mansion.
Of course, the aftermath of the discovery was chaotic. Reporters swarmed the scene, clamoring for details about the “suicide cult.” Family members of the victims demanded that their bodies be tested for HIV (all of them were negative). And Marshall Applewhite’s image was plastered on countless magazines — his wide-eyed facial expressions living on in infamy.
But after the initial uproar died down, those left behind had to cope with their loss. Former member Frank Lyford lost his closest friends, his cousin, and the love of his life in the mass suicide. Luckily, Lyford was able to find some semblance of grace despite the traumatic experience.
“We all have a connection to the divine within us, we all have that radio transmitter built in — we don’t need anyone to translate that for us,” he said. “That was the big mistake that we all made, in my mind — it was believing we needed someone else to tell us what our best path should be.”
But eerily enough, Heaven’s Gate still has four living followers who survived only because they were instructed to run the group’s website in the mid-1990s and have been doing so ever since. They still believe in the cult’s teachings — and they claim to be in contact with the 39 members who died.
After learning about the Heaven’s Gate cult, take a look at the Jonestown Massacre, another cult’s tragic end. Then, find out what life was like in the world’s most infamous cults — according to people who got out.