On March 26th 1997, the shocking story broke all over the world – police had discovered the bodies of 39 people at a beautiful mansion in the high-profile San Diego community of Rancho Sante Fe. It was the height of California spring, and the San Diego police force had a media sensation on their hands.
Marshall Applewhite founded the religious group Heaven’s Gate in the early 70’s, promising his followers a way to reach the ‘next level’ of existence. With the help of his friend Bonnie Nettles, they convinced members of what they fully believed themselves – that they were both chosen to fulfil biblical prophecies. As they toured around America trying to find ‘like-minded’ individuals, they also claimed to be in touch with alien beings. With their sensationalistic claims that their extra-terrestrial confidants were looking for human participants to be taken to a higher level of existence, most people laughed them out of the room. Sadly, others latched on the deluded belief system and became avid apostles of the deranged twosome.
Throughout their decades of activity, Nettles and Applewhite were adamant and consistent in their teachings, constantly using varying methods to try and gain a larger following. When Applewhite convinced the members of Heaven’s Gate that a spacecraft was trailing the comet Hale-Bopp, bringing with it their salvation, events reached a catastrophic conclusion. All they had to do, he said, was leave their physical bodies behind.
20 years on, we take a look at some shocking facts about Heaven’s Gate.
15. IT WASN’T APPLEWHITE’S FIRST ATTEMPT AT STARTING A CULT
Marshall Applewhite was no stranger to starting a cult, having tried several times in the past – but it never quite got off the ground. In the 1970’s, he attempted to gain followers by detailing a prophecy from the Book of Revelations. The first ‘successful’ cult he started was called the Human Individual Metamorphosis. Hardly a catchy title. Like Heaven’s Gate, the groups ideology centered around being a doomsday cult. While many people left and the majority of the group disbanded, some die-hard followers stayed on to transition to Total Overcomers Anonymous – which would later become Heaven’s Gate. It’s scary to think how many people just evaded an awful fate in the nick of time.
14. THEY TARGETED THE POOR
In a desperate attempt to gain members, the group would go out into less privileged areas, to give talks about how the Earth was going to be ‘recycled’ one day. They focused on the particularly vulnerable, trying to convince them that the only possible way they could be saved was to give up all of their earthly possessions. By giving up their personal relationships, friendships, even family and gender, they would be able to prepare themselves to ascend. By targeting poorer areas, they had a higher success rate – people in richer areas were less inclined to entertain the idea of giving up everything that they had worked for.
13. THERE WAS VOLUNTARY CASTRATION
Becoming ‘genderless’ was one of the founding principals of the cult. Some of the members took that literally, and along with Applewhite opted for voluntary castration. The group believed that this would enable them to refrain from their carnal urges and abstain from sex. Applewhite was a homosexual, having lost his job as a music professor from the University of St. Thomas in the early 70’s after he was caught having inappropriate relations with a male student. He was constantly looking for ways to repress his urges. According to one reporter who managed to go under cover within the group in 1975, Applewhite was trying to find a way of having a relationship without sex, on a platonic level. Castration was part of that process.
12. APPLEWHITE HAD A NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
During the 1970’s, Applewhite suffered a serious heart-attack – it was touch and go as to whether he would survive. According to his writings, he had a near death experience that he shared with his partner and co-founder of Heaven’s Gate, Bonnie Nettles. Marc Galanter (a psychiatrist who investigated the pair after the mass suicides) suggested that the two may have suffered from ‘the psychiatric syndrome of folie à deux, in which one partner draws the other into a shared system of delusion.’ What do you think? Was this the case, or were the two simply murderous?
11. HUMAN THOUGHTS WERE PROHIBITED
As we’ve discovered, all members of the cult were asked to give up virtually every aspect of their personalities and former lives. They had to cut themselves off from their families and friends, their earthly possessions and everything else – even their ‘human’ thoughts. In order to do it, Applewhite taught his followers repetitive exercises to train themselves into ignoring their thoughts. By doing this, he told them they would be preparing themselves for the ‘Next Level’. The Next Level was their ultimate goal – the end of the world as we know it and the transformation from being human to alien. Isn’t it unimaginable that people believed this?
10. THERE WAS A STRICT UNIFORM POLICY
All members of the cult were instructed to wear a uniform around the clock, consisting of the same black sweat pants and black and white Nike Decades. Again, this goes back to concealing gender. By wearing the same nondescript outfits, they would all appear equal. As well as this, it would remind members that their human forms were to be hidden away. Thinking about their bodies in any way was strictly prohibited – as was doing anything that may make themselves look like an individual. Make up, jewelry, everything that may distinguish a person or be an extension of someone’s vanity was a huge no no. The uniforms would become infamous as the crime scene photos circulated.
9. MEMBERS WERE NOT FORCED TO COMMIT SUICIDE
While the tale of Heaven’s Gate was shocking and tragic, it wasn’t the first time the world had been shaken by similar events. In 1978, 918 people in the settlement of Guyana in South America committed suicide on the orders of cult leader of People’s Temple, Jim Jones. In an extremely complex turn of events, it was ruled as mass suicide by ingesting cyanide by authorities, but survivors attest that the victims were forced to drink the poison, with over 300 of them being minors. They were not given a choice. Heaven’s Gate members in comparison, were not forced or placed under any duress to take their own lives. All 39 of the deceased were adults. Applewhite prohibited minors from participating as he believed they were not able to make a solid decision.
8. INITIALLY, MEMBERS WERE TOLD THEY WOULDN’T HAVE TO DIE
While they may have been given the option to live or die as they wished, when the group first started, death wasn’t on the menu at all. According to BBC reports at the time, the individuals were initially told that they wouldn’t be required to exit their ‘containers’ (AKA bodies) without having to harm themselves. It wasn’t until the death of Bonnie Nettles from cancer in the early 80’s that Applewhite conveniently decided that they may not have to keep hold of their physical bodies after all, and that their inner consciousness could ascend without it. It must have taken some convincing to update that small detail at the last minute, but unfortunately Applewhite was able to persuade his followers.
7. THE SUICIDES TOOK PLACE OVER 3 DAYS
Unless you weren’t around at the time of the tragedy, you may think that it all happened in one moment of madness – that all the deaths took place on the same day, at the same time as part of a ceremony. In a strange twist, the suicides took place over the course of 3 days. Coroners reports show that although all of the dead were found on Wednesday March 26th, the killings began earlier. On Sunday and Monday, groups of 15 took their lives. The final 9 submitted to their cause on Tuesday. Rather than coming to terms with the realities of their situation and being shocked out of it, the group maintained a steadfast resolve. All parties took a combination of phenobarbital, alcohol and hydrocodone in apple sauce or another sweet dish. As added insurance, they fixed plastic bags to their heads, ensuring that if the drugs didn’t kill them, the lack of oxygen would. Applewhite was one of the last to die.
6. THERE WAS A LAST SUPPER
Although all of the members were cut off from anyone they knew prior to being part of Heaven’s Gate, they didn’t cut themselves off from society. They even went out to dinner before they said goodbye to the mortal world, visiting a chain that they often frequented outside of their compound in Santa Fe, Marie Callender’s. A waiter at the restaurant told a paper, ‘They all ordered the exact same thing. It was set up before they came in. They all had iced teas to drink. Dinner salads beforehand with tomato vinegar dressing. Turkey potpie for the entree. Cheesecake with blueberries on top for dessert. They seemed very nice, very friendly, very polite. No one seemed depressed at all, or anything like that.’
5. ONE OF THE MEMBERS WAS THE SISTER OF STAR TREK’S LT. UHURA
It just goes to show that no-one is exempt from being brainwashed. The brother of actress Nichelle Nichols of original Star Trek fame, Thomas had been following Applewhite for many years before finally taking his life. In a final video farewell, he identified himself as the brother of Nichelle and proclaimed that he was ‘the happiest person in the world.’ According to Nichelle, her 58-year-old brother had joined the group about 20 years ago and had very little to do with her or their family. ‘My brother was a highly intelligent and a beautifully gentle man,’ she told Larry King in 1997. ‘He made his choices, and we respect those choices.’
4. 4 MEMBERS ARE STILL ALIVE
8 members of the cult didn’t commit suicide for varying reasons. Some were tasked with keeping the teachings of Heaven’s Gate alive, spreading the word to others who would hear it. Others were tasked with simply leading the authorities to the bodies. There are only 4 surviving members today, with the other 4 having died of natural causes. An interview held by one of the survivors proved that they still believed in the fundamental teachings of Applewhite. He believed that despite being dead, that Applewhite did ascend to the next plane and had the ability to contact them if he wanted to – and he simply didn’t want to at that moment in time.
3. THERE IS AN ACTIVE WEBSITE
There is still a maintained website ran by surviving members of the cult, who still to this day believe in the teachings of Applewhite. The media reported that they had spoken with people who knew the designers of the site, stating ‘They said the Web-site designers didn’t look particularly unusual for computer experts with a lot of work in the entertainment industry, with dark, collarless shirts and closely cropped hair.’ The people in question most likely behind the Higher Source website are Mark and Sarah King according to Motherboard. ‘The information must be available to mankind, in preparation for their return,’ the page’s admins told Reddit’s blog. ‘We don’t know when that will be but those who are interested will find the information.’
2. SURVIVORS ALSO HAND OUT PHYSICAL MATERIALS GLOBALLY
In another twist that shows just how dedicated the remaining members are, they send out information to anyone who inquires or wants to know more about the cult and the subsequent suicides. Applewhite and the cult as a whole relied heavily on media, from the internet to recorded tapes which they showcased to new members. There are over 200 hours of audio tapes – as well as an entire archive detailing the practices and beliefs of the group. Having been left strict instructions to spread the word, the members send out CD’s and anything else free of charge. They want the events to remain a part of modern history – and Applewhite’s legacy never to be forgotten.
1. THE MOVIE ‘HEAVEN’S VEIL’ IS BASED ON THE EVENTS
In 2016 horror movie The Veil was released, starring Jessica Alba and American Horror Story‘s Lily Rabe. The background of the film is based on the two cult groups, People’s Temple ran by Jim Jones and Heaven’s Gate. While like most Hollywood films it was subjected to the blockbuster treatment, it was successful in reminding audiences of the very real threat of religious fanatics. Unfortunately, that was all the film was successful in doing. It was a box office flop, boasting a terrible score of 23% on Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe the reminder was simply too much for audiences to bear – or, it could be the fact that Lily Rabe was the film’s only saving grace.
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