On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 people in a rented San Diego, CA mansion. Dressed in matching black sweat suits and Nike sneakers, it was clear that they had committed ritualistic suicide. They were members of the Heaven’s Gate cult. The cult has since become known as the first cult to use the internet in its recruiting efforts.
Today, we’re going to take a deep dive into the history of the Heaven’s Gate cult. We will hopefully shine a light on the reason why people would choose to believe in something so absurd.
The Early 1970s: Marshall Applewhite Meets Bonnie Nettles
Despite the internet eventually becoming vital to the cult’s preservation, Heaven’s Gate long predates the web’s existence. In 1972, a man named Marshall Applewhite forged a friendship with a nurse Bonnie Nettles. Under the nicknames Bo and Peep, the two would go on to found and lead Heaven’s Gate. The exact circumstances of their meeting are prone to speculation. Some claim that Applewhite was a psychiatric patient being treated by Nettles.
After administrators learned that he had had sex with a male student, Applewhite was fired from his position as a music professor at the University of St. Thomas. He felt ashamed of his “homosexual tendencies” (not the unethical nature of having relations with students). He sought to free himself from his sexuality by building platonic friendships, something he found in Nettles.
Before long, the two were formulating the theology of Heaven’s Gate. It combined Christian theology with a belief in extraterrestrial visitations.
What Did the Heaven’s Gate Cult Believe Exactly?
By 1974, Applewhite and Nettles had attained a small group of followers, whom they referred to as “the Crew”. Applewhite preached that he was the second coming of Jesus Christ. Also, his father—God—was an alien (obviously). They were a doomsday cult. And they often referred to the Book of Revelation as evidence that they were living in the end times.
According to Heaven’s Gate theology, salvation was achieved by “reaching the next level.” The next level referred to being taken aboard God’s heavenly spacecraft, which was hidden within the rapidly-approaching Comet Hale-Bopp.
To reach the next level also required members to live in a state above that of a human; members isolated themselves within the cult, living in compounds in Salt Lake City, Denver, Dallas-Fort Worth, and eventually San Diego. They abandoned their families and turned all their money over to the cult. Richard Ford, one of the Heaven’s Gate survivors, described to Newsweek the group’s “Master Cleanses,” during which time they drank nothing but “a concoction of lemonade, cayenne pepper and maple syrup.”
Nine male members of the cult (Applewhite included) even went as far as to castrate themselves in an effort to distance themselves from sexual, “human-level” relationships.
Early Publicity for Heaven’s Gate
One of the earliest examples of the cult making headlines occurred in 1975, when the Crew visited the small town of Waldport, Oregon to give a lecture on extraterrestrial contact. The majority of the townspeople dismissed the lecture as a joke. But about 20 people were so convinced by Heaven’s Gate that they packed their things, told their loved ones goodbye, and began traveling alongside Applewhite and Nettles.
Thankfully, none of these 20 people lasted long enough within the group to have taken part in the ritual suicide.
1985 – 1997: The Death of Bonnie Nettles and Changes Within Heaven’s Gate
The cult had initially promised members that dying wasn’t a prerequisite for reaching the next level. However, this changed in 1985, when Nettles died from cancer. After losing his best friend and partner, Applewhite amended his teachings. He told members that they would be given new bodies when they reached the next level. Their original bodies wouldn’t be going with them when they left.
As a result of these changes, many members understandably became frightened and left the group. This is where the internet came in: Applewhite decided to use the burgeoning technology to recruit new members.
The cult founded Higher Source, a firm that implemented intranets, performed system analysis, and developed multimedia applications for a plethora of clients, including a Christian music store, a San Diego-based polo club, and a topiary company. Most clients didn’t even realize that Higher Source was tied to a cult.
Interestingly, the Heaven’s Gate website—which includes the cult’s doctrines—is still active today. Two surviving members operate it.
The Heaven’s Gate Suicides
Former Heaven's Gate Cult Member Reveals She 'Never Stepped Foot Out the Door' in New Interview https://t.co/1RMSMewz0e— People (@people) March 11, 2022
To the 38 members who took part in the ritual, Applewhite promised that after the death of their worldly bodies, God would bring their new celestial bodies aboard His heavenly spacecraft. The suicides took place over the course of three days. Starting Sunday, members started killing themselves by consuming a combination of phenobarbital, alcohol, and hydrocodone. Members then put plastic bags over their heads and suffocated to death. Applewhite was the last to die.
Alongside the Jonestown Massacre, the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide is one of history’s most extreme consequences of cult activity.
The Legacy of the Heaven’s Gate Cult
The cult is an example of the desperate measures people take to find community, to make sense of life and the pleasure and pain that comes with it. Many may pass off the cult’s members as “gullible” or “stupid”. However, the truth is that they were victimized by Applewhite. He used manipulation to drag others into his own downward spiral.
For more information on the cult, the acclaimed Heaven’s Gate documentary Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults is available to stream HBO Max.