What Drove Heaven’s Gate Followers to Mass Suicide?

It was one of the strangest and saddest news headlines of 1997. Inside a San Diego mansion, authorities discovered the remains of 39 members of a monastic religious sect—quickly dubbed a “suicide cult”—known as Heaven’s Gate.

Behind the Curtain of the Heaven's Gate Cult - JSTOR Daily

Lying under purple shrouds, the deceased were dressed in identical dark clothing, wearing white Nike sneakers, and with $5 bills and rolls of quarters stuffed in their pockets. Over two days, they had all committed suicide by ingesting a toxic cocktail of barbiturates and alcohol.

As details emerged about the group’s beliefs—a mashup of evangelical Christianity, New Age practices and UFOs—Heaven’s Gate and its eccentric leader (known to followers as “Do”) became fodder for late-night TV shows.

“They were in uniform, they were apparently into Star Trek, they were all wearing Nikes—it all seemed too bizarre to believe,” says Benjamin Zeller, a scholar of new religious movements and author of Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion.

But in his book, Zeller argues that Heaven’s Gate wasn’t necessarily the crazy aberration it was made out to be, nor was it a suicide cult. It was a group of “spiritual seekers” who latched onto popular trends in American culture—conspiracy theories, apocalyptic beliefs, the fusion of science and religion—that ultimately led them to a tragic end.

Marshall Herff Applewhite Meets Bonnie Lu Nettles

What Drove Heaven's Gate Followers to Mass Suicide?
Duane Braley/Star Tribune via Getty Images
Bonnie Lu Nettles (left) and Marshall Herff Applewhite (right) speak at a meeting on October 28, 1975, in the auditorium of the Native American Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The origins of Heaven’s Gate stretch back to 1972 when a nurse named Bonnie Lu Nettles met a seminary dropout named Marshall Herff Applewhite. Both Nettles and Applewhite were experiencing spiritual crises, says Zeller. Nettles was going through a divorce, and Applewhite, an evangelical Christian, felt like God was calling him to a new vocation.

The two became spiritual soulmates. Nettles claimed to be in communication with spirit guides and angels and practiced astrology and yoga. Applewhite sought answers in the Bible, particularly the book of Revelation, which foretells the events that will herald the end of the world.

Together, Nettles and Applewhite received their own revelation: The Bible, when it talks about God, Jesus and angels, was actually talking about extraterrestrials, a superior race of aliens who appeared to us as gods. In the last days, the aliens will arrive in their spaceships, destroy or “recycle” the Earth, and save the faithful who were ready to “graduate” to the “Next Level.”

“What Nettles and Applewhite were offering was an E.T. version of what other Christians would call the Rapture,” says Zeller, adding that the idea of mixing UFOs with religion wasn’t new; it was already popularized by the 1968 best-seller Chariots of the Gods. Specifically, Nettles and Applewhite came to believe they were the “Two Witnesses” prophesied in Revelation 11 who would testify and teach on Earth before the Final Judgment. According to the prophecy, the Two Witnesses would be killed and then resurrected.

“Not by magic or by a miracle, but by extraterrestrial technology,” says Zeller. “When the Bible referred to Jesus ascending to heaven in a ‘cloud,’ Nettles and Applewhite knew that the cloud was really a UFO. The UFOs were their salvation.”

‘The Class’ Attracts Students

By 1975, Nettles and Applewhite were fixtures of the alternative spirituality scene in California and Oregon. They opened a New Age store and began offering classes where they would share their message: this earthly life was an intermediate realm where we learn to battle evil (bad aliens), transcend our human bodies and transform into perfected beings.

“They never called themselves Heaven’s Gate,” says Zeller. “The group’s name for themselves was ‘The Class.’ Nettles and Applewhite were seen as ‘teachers’ and their followers were ‘students.’ To this day, ex-members call each other ‘Classmates.’”

Over time, Nettles and Applewhite received more revelations. They came to believe that they themselves were aliens who had been sent to Earth to prepare humankind for the end. Nettles and Applewhite changed their names to Ti and Do, and The Class took on a monastic feel. Members were encouraged to be celibate and to wear special clothing (modeled after Star Trek uniforms).

Even with their unusual beliefs and odd dress, Zeller takes issue with calling The Class a “cult” or saying that its members were “brainwashed.” If we choose to use those terms, he says, then the same could be said of all religions.

“They acted like a religion,” says Zeller. “They had beliefs and practices, rituals and prayers, they talked about the meaning of life, the end of the world, and what happened after death. They looked like a religion, but like some other religions, they had teachings which I would not promote or accept.”

After Nettles’ Death, a New Vision of the End

In 1985, Nettles died of cancer. This shook the group’s belief system to the core, since members previously thought they would be physically transformed into perfect beings while alive. After Nettles’ death, a new idea emerged—members would have to shed their imperfect human bodies, at which point their consciousness would transfer into a “Next Level” alien body.

Like Ti and Do, the members increasingly saw themselves as alien visitors temporarily inhabiting human bodies. Like other fringe groups, they developed elaborate conspiracy theories to explain why so few people had accepted their message.

“They didn’t call it the ‘Deep State,’ but they believed that the government was allied with the media and corporate interests to hide the truth from the people,” says Zeller, “that space aliens are real and that the government is working with bad aliens known as ‘the Luciferians.’”

In the early 1990s, Applewhite posted his first online writings, first to Usenet message boards and eventually on their own website called Heaven’s Gate. The response, Zeller says, was “uniformly negative,” which led Applewhite and other members to slowly give up on convincing the rest of the world to prepare for the Earth’s impending “recycling.”

Hale-Bopp Comet Discovery Prompts Group to ‘Graduate’ from Earth

Instead, the group looked for signs of the extraterrestrials’ arrival, which they found in the 1995 discovery of the Hale-Bopp comet. Astronomers calculated that the comet, which was 1,000 times brighter than Halley’s comet, would pass closest to the earth in March of 1997. Applewhite came to believe that the Hale-Bopp comet was the perfect cover to hide a “companion” alien spacecraft, and when it arrived the members of Heaven’s Gate would be ready.

On March 22 and 23, 1997, the members of Heaven’s Gate took what they believed was the final and necessary step to escape the Earth’s destruction and graduate to the Kingdom of Heaven and their exalted alien bodies. In the end, 39 people, including Applewhite, killed themselves in the hopes that their consciousness would ascend to the heavens to meet the passing spaceship.

The stunned rest of the world was left with hours of video recordings by Applewhite and extensive writing on the group’s website, including a page titled “Our Position Against Suicide.” Ultimately, the group concluded that “The true meaning of “suicide” is to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered.” When the Kingdom of Heaven was offered, they took it.

“Members said they joined of their own free will,” says Zeller. “They recorded exit statements. They wrote autobiographies that explained why they joined this movement. If we’re going to call that brainwashing, then I don’t know what we’re going to call free will.”

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