Heaven’s Gate sounds like the final barrier to eternity in paradise, the last step before being reunited with lost family and loved ones. Many believe it’s God’s final check point, only allowing the faithful inside. One man however, Marshall Applewhite founder of the religious group Heaven’s Gate, had beliefs of a more sinister notion and would result in the deaths of thirty-nine people.
On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of thirty-nine members of the group who had participated in a mass suicide in order to reach what they believed was an extraterrestrial spacecraft following Comet Hale–Bopp. A strong belief, instigated by the spiritual teachings of Marshall and a woman named Bonnie Nettles.
In the early 1970’s, Marshall took a sudden interest in biblical prophecy. After being fired from a university in Texas over an alleged homosexual relationship with one of his students, he met Bonnie Nettles, a 44-year-old married nurse with an interest in theosophy (philosophies maintaining that a knowledge of God may be achieved through spiritual ecstasy, direct intuition, or special individual relations and biblical prophecy), in March 1972. According to Marshall, the two met in the psychiatric hospital where she worked during his stay there and they quickly became close friends. He later claimed that he felt like he had known her for a long time and concluded that they had met in a past life. She convinced him their meeting had been foretold to her by extraterrestrials, persuading him that he had a divine assignment.
The couple pondered the life of St. Francis of Assisi and heavily studied teachings about Christology, asceticism, and eschatology. Marshall also had a keen interest in reading science fiction, including works by Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke.
By June 1974, Applewhite and Nettles’ beliefs concluded that they had been chosen to fulfill biblical prophecies, and that they had been given higher-level minds than other people. They wrote a pamphlet that described Jesus’ reincarnation as a Texan, a thinly veiled reference to Marshall himself. They also concluded that they were the two witnesses described in the Book of Revelation and occasionally visited churches or other spiritual groups to tell them of their identities, often referring to themselves as “The Two”, or “The UFO Two”. Although strange, they were relatively harmless beliefs, however they soon became more sinister as they believed that they would be killed and then restored to life and, in view of witnesses, they would be transported onto a spaceship. This event, which they referred to as “the Demonstration”, was to prove their claims to all their disbelievers. Unsurprisingly, but to their dismay, these ideas were poorly received by existing religious communities. Unfortunately they would soon find people who were not only willing to listen to them, but follow them to their final days on Earth.
They published advertisements for meetings, where they recruited disciples and refereed to them as “the crew”. At theses events, they professed to represent beings from an extraterrestrial source, the Next Level, who needed participants for their experiment. They stated that those who agreed to take part in the experiment would be brought to a higher evolutionary level and In 1975, during a group meeting in Joan Culpepper’s home, they shared with eighty people their “simultaneous” revelation that they had been told they were the two witnesses written into the Bible’s story of the end time.
Later in 1975, after selling all their “worldly” possessions and saying their final farewells to loved ones, they assembled at a hotel in Oregon, where they shortly disappeared during the night. Their sudden disappearance gained them a national media response, sparking the mystery of whether they’ve been taken on a so-called trip to eternity or if they had simply been taken.
In reality the couple had taken their group underground where they assigned new names for each other. They became known as Do and Ti (pronounced “doe and tea”) and with their crew, of almost one hundred faithful followers, they traveled across the country sleeping in tents and sleeping bags and begging in the streets. While evading the authorities and media the group focused on Do and Ti’s doctrine of helping members of the crew to achieve a “higher evolutionary level” above human, which the couple claimed to have already reached.
During 1985 in the wake of Nettles death, Applewhite’s subsequent revision of the group’s doctrines that the crew gained an eventual reputation as a “cyberculture” form of religious thought reform; by the mid-90s, the group had become reclusive, calling themselves by the mysterious business name “Higher Source,” and began recruiting via uploaded internet content. Rumors began spreading throughout the group in the following years that the upcoming Comet Hale–Bopp housed the secret to their ultimate salvation and ascendance into the kingdom of heaven. These rumors continued through various video uploads onto the web page, which gained a mass-following.
Marshall Applewhite had a revelation that they may have to abandon their human bodies to achieve the next level, as Jesus had done.
in March 1997, thirty-nine of the Heaven’s Gates’ members, including Applewhite, wearing black track suits and sneakers, ate apple sauce laced with barbiturates which they washed down with vodka. They then put bags over their heads, purple shrouds over their bodies, and laid down to leave their earthly “vehicles” behind. According to their strong beliefs, they weren’t killing themselves, they thought they were freeing their souls to ascend to a spacecraft flying in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet, which was just passing by Earth and were going to be taken to their new home in space.
Police found their bodies on March 26th, and the mental images of the white and black Nike trainers poking out from under the purple cloths would haunt them for many years to come. The coroner’s reports showed that the suicides were not simultaneous. The members killed themselves starting Sunday using a combination of phenobarbital, alcohol and hydrocodone, probably consumed with apple sauce or pudding. The members then put plastic bags over their heads and suffocated to death, after which they were covered in shrouds. Applewhite was a late death, but not the last to die.
A document was found that outlined a process by which a group of fifteen people would kill themselves, assisted by eight other people, then a second group of fifteen would die, also assisted by eight people. Given that 39 victims were found, that would have left a final group of nine.
Some members escaped with their lives. They still question their decision to this day. Are they lucky to be alive or did they miss moving to the next level? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!