Heaven's Gate was an American UFO religion based in San Diego, California, founded and led by Marshall Applewhite (1931–1997) and Bonnie Nettles (1928–1985). On March 26, 1997, in a period that Comet Hale-Bopp was at its brightest, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group who had committed suicide.
According to Jacques Vallée in his 1979 book Messengers of Deception, the group began in the early 1970s when Marshall Applewhite was recovering from a heart attack during which he claimed to have had a near-death experience. He came to believe that he and his nurse, Bonnie Nettles, were "the Two", that is, the two witnesses spoken of in Book of Revelation 11:3 in the Bible. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to run an inspirational bookstore, they began traveling around the country giving talks about their belief system. As with some other New Age faiths they combined Christian doctrine (particularly the ideas of salvation and apocalypse) with the concept of evolutionary advancement and elements of science fiction, particularly travel to other worlds and dimensions.
Applewhite and Nettles used a variety of aliases over the years, notably "Bo and Peep" and "Do and Ti". The group also had a variety of names. Before the name Heaven’s Gate was used and stuck, it was known as Human Individual Metamorphosis. At the time Vallée studied the group, it was called HIM (Human Individual Metamorphosis). The group re-invented and re-named itself several times and had a variety of recruitment methods. Marshall himself believed he was directly related to Jesus, meaning he was an "Evolutionary Kingdom Level Above Human".
Heaven's Gate members believed that the planet Earth was about to be recycled (wiped clean, renewed, refurbished and rejuvenated), and that the only chance to survive was to leave it immediately. While the group was formally against suicide, they defined "suicide" in their own context to mean "to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered", and believed that their "human" bodies were only vessels meant to help them on their journey. In conversation, when referring to a person or a person's body, they routinely used the word "vehicle"; when shown a picture of his son in an interview, Rio Di Angelo commented, "Look, there's the little vehicle."
The group believed in several paths for a person to leave the Earth and survive before the "recycling", one of which was hating this world strongly enough: "It is also possible that part of our test of faith is our hating this world, even our flesh body, to the extent to be willing to leave it without any proof of the Next Level's existence".
The members of the group added "-ody" to the first names they adopted in lieu of their original given names, which defines "children of the Next Level". This is mentioned in Applewhite's final video, "Do's Final Exit", that was filmed on March 19, 1997, just days prior to the suicides.
They believed “to be eligible for membership in the Next Level, humans would have to shed every attachment to the planet” (Balch, 2002, p.211). This meant that all members had to give up all human-like characteristics such as their family, friends, sexuality, individuality, jobs, money, and possessions (Balch, 2002, p.211).
These basic beliefs of the cult stayed generally consistent over the years however, “the details of their ideology were flexible enough to undergo modification over time” (Lewis, 2001, p.16). There are many examples of the cult adding or slightly changing their beliefs over the years. This includes modifying the way one can enter the Next Level, changing the way they describe themselves, placing more importance on the idea of Satan, and adding several other New Age concepts. One of these concepts was the belief of extraterrestrial walk-ins. When the cult began, “Applewhite and Nettles taught their followers that they were extraterrestrial beings. However, after the notion of walk-ins became popular within the New Age subculture, the Two changed their tune and began describing themselves as extraterrestrial walk-ins” (Lewis, 2001, p.16). The idea of walk-ins is very similar to the concept of being possessed by spirits. A walk-in can be defined as “an entity who occupies a body that has been vacated by its original soul” (Lewis, 2001, p.368). An extraterrestrial walk-in, which is what Heaven’s Gate came to believe, is “a walk-in that is supposedly from another planet” (Lewis, 2001, p.368). The concept of walk-ins actually aided Applewhite and Nettles in starting from a clean slate personally. They no longer were the people they had been prior to the start of the group, but had taken on a new life and this idea actually gave them a way to “erase their human personal histories as the histories of souls who formerly occupied the bodies of Applewhite and Nettles” (Lewis, 2001, p.368).
Another New Age belief that Applewhite and Nettles adopted was “the ancient astronaut hypothesis. The term ‘ancient astronauts’ is used to refer to various forms of the concept that ufonauts visited our planet in the distant past” (Lewis, 2001, p.16). Applewhite and Nettles took part of this concept and taught it as the belief that “aliens planted the seeds of current humanity millions of years ago, and have to come to reap the harvest of their work in the form of spiritual evolved individuals who will join the ranks of flying saucer crews. Only a select few members of humanity will be chosen to advance to this transhuman state. The rest will be left to wallow in the spiritually poisoned atmosphere of a corrupt world” (Lewis, 2001, p.17). Only the individuals that chose to join Heaven’s Gate and follow Applewhite and Nettle’s belief and make the sacrifices that membership required would be allowed to escape human suffering.
Group members gave up their material possessions and lived a highly ascetic life devoid of many indulgences. The group was tightly knit and everything was shared communally. Seven of the male members of the group, including Applewhite, voluntarily underwent castration in Mexico as an extreme means of maintaining the ascetic lifestyle.
The group funded itself by offering professional website development for paying clients under the name Higher Source.
Cultural theorist Paul Virilio has described the group as a cybersect, due to the group's heavy reliance on computer mediated communication as a mode of communication prior to the group's collective suicide.
Mass suicide and aftermath
Template:Refimprovesect On March 19, 1997, Marshall Applewhite taped himself speaking of mass suicide and asserted "it was the only way to evacuate this Earth". The Heaven's Gate group was against suicide but they believed they had no choice but to leave Earth as quickly as possible. After claiming that a space craft was trailing the comet Hale-Bopp, Applewhite convinced 38 followers to commit suicide so that their souls could board the supposed craft. Applewhite believed that after their deaths, a UFO would take their souls to another "level of existence above human", which Applewhite described as being both physical and spiritual. This and other UFO-related beliefs held by the group have led some observers to characterize the group as a type of UFO religion. In October 1996, the group purchased alien abduction insurance to cover up to 50 members at a cost of $10,000.
The cult rented a 9,200-sq.-ft. mansion, located at 18241 Colina Norte (later changed to Paseo Victoria), in a gated community of upscale homes in the San Diego-area community of Rancho Santa Fe, California from Sam Koutchesfahani, paying $7,000 per month in cash. The thirty-eight Heaven's Gate members, plus group leader Applewhite, were found dead in the home on March 26, 1997. In the heat of the California spring, many of the bodies had begun to decompose by the time they were discovered. The corpses underwent autopsies, where cyanide and arsenic were found. The bodies were later cremated.
The suicide was accomplished by ingestion of phenobarbital mixed with applesauce or pudding, washed down with vodka. Additionally, plastic bags were secured around their heads after ingesting the mix to induce asphyxiation. Authorities found the dead lying neatly in their own bunk beds, faces and torsos covered by a square, purple cloth. Each member carried a five dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets. All 39 were dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, brand new black-and-white Nike Windrunner athletic shoes, and armband patches reading "Heaven's Gate Away Team" (one of many instances of the group's use of the Star Trek fictional universe's nomenclature). Six males of the deceased, including Applewhite, were discovered to have undergone castration in the past. The adherents, between the ages of 26 and 72, are believed to have died in three groups over three successive days, with remaining participants cleaning up after each prior group's death. Fifteen members died on March 24, 15 more on March 25, and nine on March 26. Leader Applewhite was the third to last member to die; two women remained after him and were the only ones found without bags over their heads.
One of the group's members did not kill himself: weeks before the suicides Rio Di Angelo agreed with Applewhite to leave the group so he could ensure future dissemination of Heaven's Gate videos and literature. He videotaped the mansion in Rancho Santa Fe; however, the tape was not shown to police until 2002, five years after the event.
Two former members of Heaven's Gate, Wayne Cooke and Charlie Humphreys, later committed suicide in a similar manner to the group. Humphreys had survived a suicide pact with Cooke in May 1997, but successfully committed suicide in February 1998.
Media coverage prior to suicide
Although not widely known to the mainstream media, Heaven's Gate was known in UFO circles as well as a series of academic studies by sociologist Robert Balch. They also received coverage in Jacques Vallée's Messengers of Deception, in which Vallée described an unusual public meeting organized by the group. Vallée frequently expressed concerns within the book about contactee groups' authoritarian political and religious outlooks, and Heaven's Gate did not escape criticism.
In January 1994, the LA Weekly ran an article on the group, then known as The Total Overcomers. Through this article Rio DiAngelo, a surviving member of the group, discovered the group and eventually joined them. DiAngelo was the subject of LA Weekly's 2007 cover story on the group.
Louis Theroux contacted the Heaven's Gate group while making a program for his BBC Two documentary series, Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends, in early March 1997. In response to his e-mail, Theroux was told that Heaven's Gate could not take part in the documentary as "at the present time a project like this would be an interference with what we must focus on".
- Lalich, Janja, Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults. University of California Press, 2004. ISBN 0-520-23194-5. 329 pp.
- Investigative Reports: Inside Heaven's Gate
- Balch, Robert W., "Bo and Peep: a case study of the origins of messianic leadership", In Roy Wallis, ed. Millennialism and charisma. Belfast: Queens' University, 1982
- Balch, Robert W., "Waiting for the ships: disillusionment and revitalization of faith in Bo and Peep's UFO cult", In James R. Lewis, ed. The Gods have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds, Albany: SUNY, 1995
- Balch, Robert W., "When the Light Goes Out, Darkness Comes: A Study of Defection from a Totalistic Cult". in Religious Movements: Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, Rodney Stark, (Ed), Paragon House Publishers, 1985, pp. 11–63
- Theroux, Louis, The Call of the Weird, Pan Macmillan, 2005, pp 207–221
- DiAngelo, Rio, "Beyond Human Mind-The Soul Evolution of Heaven's Gate", RIODIANGELO PRESS, 2007, 128p
- Hexham, Irving; Poewe, Karla (7 May 1997). "UFO Religion - Making Sense of the Heaven's Gate Suicides". Christian Century. pp. 439–440. http://www.ucalgary.ca/~nurelweb/papers/irving/HGCC.html. Retrieved 2007-10-06.
- AYRES Jr, B. DRUMMOND (March 29, 1997). "Families Learning of 39 Cultists Who Died Willingly". New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9400E7DB133AF93AA15750C0A961958260&sec=health&spon=&pagewanted=all. Retrieved 2008-11-09. "According to material the group posted on its Internet site, the timing of the suicides were probably related to the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet, which members seemed to regard as a cosmic emissary beckoning them to another world."
- "Mass suicide involved sedatives, vodka and careful planning". CNN. http://www.cnn.com/US/9703/27/suicide/index.html. Retrieved 2010-05-04.
- Vallee, Jacques, Messengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults. Ronin, 1979.
- Partridge, Christopher, Introduction to World Religions (Fortress, 2005), entry on "UFO Religions, Human Potential and the New Age", p. 444.
- Wojik, Daniel, "Apocalyptic and Millenarian Aspects of American UFOism", in Partridge, Chistopher, ed., UFO Religions. Routledge, 2003, p. 274.
- Ryan J. Cook, Heaven's Gate, webpage retrieved 2008-10-10.
- Steven Mizrach, Heaven's Gate?, Fortean look at facts vs. media hype.page found 2008-10-10.
- "Our Position Against Suicide". Heaven's Gate Web Site. http://www.heavensgate.com/misc/letter.htm. Retrieved 2007-08-23.
- "Heaven's Gate" Suicides By Rick Ross, October 1999,The Rick A. Ross Institute
- Weise, Elizabeth (1997-03-28). "Internet Provided Way To Pay Bills, Spread Message Before Suicide". Associated Press. Seattle Times. http://archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com/cgi-bin/texis.cgi/web/vortex/display?slug=2531080&date=19970328. Retrieved 2007-12-30.
- Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb (Verso, 2005), p. 41.
- ; By Edith Lederer; April 2, 1997; Associated Press; Retrieved March 12, 2008
- THE MARKER WE'VE BEEN...WAITING FOR By ELIZABETH GLEICK;CATHY BOOTH AND JAMES WILLWERTH/RANCHO SANTA FE, NANCY HARBERT/ALBUQUERQUE, RACHELE KANIGAL/OAKLAND AND RICHARD N. OSTLING AND NOAH ROBISCHON/NEW YORK Monday, Apr. 07, 1997
- Ramsland, Katherine. "Death Mansion". All about Heaven's Gate cult (CourtTV Crime Library). http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/mass/heavens_gate/5.html. Retrieved 2006-09-20.
- "First autopsies completed in cult suicide". CNN. 28 March 1997. http://www.cnn.com/US/9703/28/mass.suicide/index.html. Retrieved 2007-10-06.
- "Heaven's Gate: A timeline". The San Diego Herald Tribute. 18 March 2007. http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20070318/news_lz1n18timelin.html. Retrieved 2007-10-21.
- Purdum, Todd S. (May 7, 1997). "Ex-Cultist Dies In Suicide Pact; 2d Is 'Critical'". New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E06E7DD1E30F934A35756C0A961958260. Retrieved 2007-10-21. "A former member of the Heaven's Gate cult was found dead today in a copycat suicide in a motel room near the scene of the group's mass suicide in San Diego County, and another former member was found unconscious in the same room, the authorities said."
- Vallee, Jacques, Messengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults. Ronin, 1979.
- Dave Gardetta (21 January 1994). "They Walk Among Us". LA Weekly. http://www.laweekly.com/general/features/they-walk-among-us/15922. Retrieved 2007-08-23.
- Bearman, Joshuah (21 March 2007). "Heaven's Gate: The Sequel". LA Weekly. http://www.laweekly.com/2007-03-22/news/heaven-s-gate-the-sequel/.
- "Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends: UFO". http://www.veoh.com/videos/v266439DxcWKyTx.
- Official Website (created in Dec. 1996, it continues to run, unchanged since the suicides)
- "How and When HEAVEN'S GATE May Be Entered" (the cult book)
- All about Heaven's Gate cult by Katherine Ramsland – The Crime Library
- Some members of suicide cult castrated
da:Heaven's Gate de:Heaven’s Gate (Neue Religiöse Bewegung) es:Puerta del Cielo fr:Heaven's Gate (secte) ko:천국의 문 (종교) is:Heaven's Gate he:שער גן עדן lv:Heaven's Gate lt:Rojaus vartai ja:ヘヴンズ・ゲート (宗教団体) no:Heaven's Gate pt:Heaven's Gate (seita) ru:Врата рая (новое религиозное движение) simple:Heaven's Gate sr:Капија раја sh:Nebeska vrata (kult) fi:Heaven's Gate (kultti) sv:Heaven's Gate zh:天堂之門