The members of the Heaven's Gate cult believed they were destined for another world — and in the end, there was only one way to get there.
“Funny and charismatic, an overachiever who was on the honor roll.”
That’s how Louise Winant, Marshall Applewhite’s sister, remembered her brother.
None of Applewhite’s acquaintances 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. It was strange even among the bizarrest of the new age beliefs cropping up in the 1970s — a time when a generation of hippies and free spirits were leaving the conventional behind to find themselves.
It was curiously techy: it had a website before many businesses did, and its beliefs were like something out of Star Trek, involving aliens, UFOs, and talk of ascension to a higher evolutionary rung.
But it also had strains of the familiar. It borrowed from other religions, as Applewhite claimed to be able to save his followers from Lucifer. (Applewhite, luckily, was possessed by the same alien spirit that had once inhabited Jesus’s body.)
It was a combination that provoked laughter and ridicule more often than it converted — but somehow, it did convert.
And in the end, nobody was laughing. Not when 39 cult members turned up dead, victims of a 1997 mass suicide that stunned the nation with its deliberate imagery and heartbreaking motive.
How Did The Heaven’s Gate Cult Start?
The earliest incarnation of Heaven’s Gate, as the cult came to be known, began in the 1970s under the leadership of Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles.
Applewhite was born in 1931 in Texas. In the early 1970s, he was a music professor in Houston — until he was allegedly fired for having a relationship with one of his male students.
He met Bonnie Nettles, a 44-year-old married nurse, in 1972 in the hospital where she worked. Applewhite’s sister said it was Nettles who convinced her brother that his near-death experience — reportedly the result of heart trouble — was a sign that he’d been saved for a purpose.
Applewhite himself would tell a different story, saying he was visiting a friend in the hospital when he met Nettles and felt an instant spiritual connection.
The pair began to discuss their beliefs. Nettles had an abiding interest in astrology, while Applewhite leaned toward gnostic and mystic texts.
Their studies in scripture convinced them that they were the two witnesses described in the Christian Book of Revelation — the two tormented prophets who were killed for their gift, then resurrected by God and brought to heaven moments before an earthquake destroyed the town.
They called themselves Bo and Peep, and later Do and Ti. Sometimes they went by Winnie and Pooh or Tiddly and Wink.
Theirs was a platonic, sexless partnership — in keeping with the ascetic life they would come to encourage among their followers, even to the point of castration. Nettles was the mystic and the diviner, while Applewhite was the charismatic speaker.
How The Heaven’s Gate Cult Recruited Followers
In 1975, Bo and Peep gave a presentation about Heaven’s Gate in Oregon, distributing a flyer that was a bizarre mix of conspiracy theory, science fiction, and proselytization. “UFO” appeared in big letters at the top — but underneath was a disclaimer: “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.”
In this presentation and others like it, Applewhite and Nettles promoted Heaven’s Gate — then called variously Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM) and Total Overcomers Anonymous — 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 TELAH, The Evolutionary Level Above Human.
Some 200 people attended the Oregon event — and a few were interested enough to follow up.
Through this grassroots approach, the founders of the Heaven’s Gate cult were able to convince people to leave their homes and belongings behind to travel around the country in extreme poverty for over two decades. The cult members didn’t have a real home, and they maintained anonymity.
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.
According to members, Heaven’s Gate was especially attractive because of its blend of asceticism, mysticism, science fiction, and Christian thinking.
Michael Conyers, an early recruit, said that the appeal of Applewhite’s and Nettles’s message was in how they were “talking to my Christian heritage, but in a modern updated way.”
For example, Heaven’s Gate taught that Mary was impregnated by being 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.”
From UFOs To The End Of The World
Members of Heaven’s Gate believed that suicide was wrong — but their definition of suicide, it became clear, was deeply flexible.
The problem was that the cult was operating on a clock. Cultists thought that if they stayed on earth long enough, they would face “recycling” — the destruction of the earth as the planet was wiped clean.
Nettles and Applewhite were convinced it wouldn’t come to that; a spaceship run by TELAH beings would arrive to pick them up well before the apocalypse.
Fate, however, threw a wrench in their plans when Nettles was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors told her her time was short, but Nettles, confident in her destiny, allegedly refused to believe them.
Her death was a severe blow to Applewhite, not only emotionally, but also philosophically; Nettles’s physical death had the potential to overset a number of their teachings about the cult members’ future.
It was then that Applewhite began to rely more heavily on one particular strain of the cult’s beliefs: human bodies were merely vessels, “vehicles” that were carrying them on their journey and could be abandoned at any time.
Nettles, he said, had left her body and returned to her home among TELAH beings, where she would continue to help them. He still had work to do on this plane of existence, however, and would finish out their project and guide the cult members to meet her.
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
It began on March 26, 1997.
The 39 active Heaven’s Gate cult members used the money they had made from a variety of online enterprises — a service to help people reconnect with lost friends, and a web design firm called Higher Source, among others — to rent a mansion in a gated community just outside of San Diego.
It’s not clear exactly where Applewhite got the idea that there was a UFO trailing behind Hale–Bopp, the brilliant comet whose forthcoming appearance was being forecast by an excited press.
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 it.
Applewhite saw it as a sign.
It was, he recorded himself saying, “the only way to evacuate this Earth.” The spaceship that followed in the wake of Hale–Bopp was the flight the Heaven’s Gate members had been waiting for; 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, wiped clean, with them still on it.
Beginning on March 26, over the course of three days, the 39 cult members ate a mixture of barbiturates and applesauce, then washed it down with vodka.
Group by group, they tied bags over their heads to ensure asphyxiation, then waited for death.
Those later in the lineup cleaned up the mess made by the first groups and laid the bodies out neatly in their bunk beds, covering their faces with purple cloth.
Applewhite was the 37th to die, leaving behind only two others to prepare his corpse and, alone in a house of bodies, take their own lives.
When a former cult member came to check on them, he found 39 people lying neatly in their bunk beds, identical black-and-white Nike sneakers poking out from purple shrouds. Matching armbands read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.”