Heaven’s Gate

How does a group of like minded individuals become a cult? Is it their shared beliefs on religion or societal issues? Or do they join based on a kind of mob mentality? Wikipedia defines cults in modern English as a social group that is defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or by its common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal.

This is 2 Girls and a Campfire and I’m Allison. And today we’re talking cults. We are doing a special 2 episode look at 3 different cults and the psychology behind them.  Sara isn’t feeling well so I’ll be talking about the cult, Heaven’s Gate today. 

It was founded in 1974 and led by Bonnie Nettles (1927–1985) and Marshall Applewhite (1931–1997).

The son of a Presbyterian minister and a former soldier, Marshall Applewhite began his foray into biblical prophecy in the early 1970s. After being fired from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas over an alleged relationship with one of his male students, he met Bonnie Nettles, a 44-year-old married nurse with an interest in biblical prophecy, in March 1972. The circumstances of their meeting are disputed. Applewhite later recalled that he felt as though he had known Nettles for a long time and concluded that they had met in a past life. She told him their meeting had been foretold to her by extraterrestrials, persuading him that he had a divine assignment.

Nettles and Applewhite first met in 1972, and went on a journey of spiritual discovery, identifying themselves as the two witnesses of Revelation, attracting a following of several hundred people in the mid 1970s. In 1976, the group stopped recruiting and instituted a monastic lifestyle. Scholars have described the theology of Heaven’s Gate as a mixture of Christian millenarianism, New Age, and Ufology, and as such it has been characterised as a UFO religion.

By June 19, 1976 Applewhite and Nettles’s beliefs had solidified into a basic outline. They 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,which was a thinly veiled reference to Applewhite. They also concluded that they were the two witnesses described in the Book of Revelation and occasionally visited churches or other spiritual groups to speak of their identities, often referring to themselves as “The Two”, or “The UFO Two”.  They believed they would be killed and then restored to life and, in view of others, transported onto a spaceship. This event, which they referred to as “the Demonstration”, was to prove their claims. To their dismay, these ideas were poorly received by existing religious communities. Shooker.

The Two would gain their first follower, Sharon Morgan, in May 1974,  who abandoned her children to join them. A month later Sharon left The Two and returned to her family. Nettles and Applewhite were arrested and charged with credit card fraud for using Morgan’s cards, despite the fact that she had consented to their use. The charges were later dropped. However a routine check brought up that Applewhite had stolen a rental car from St. Louis 9 months earlier, which he was still in possession of. Applewhite subsequently spent six months in jail primarily in Missouri, and was released in early 1975, where he rejoined Nettles.

Eventually, Applewhite and Nettles resolved to contact extraterrestrials, and they sought like-minded followers. They published advertisements for meetings, where they recruited disciples, whom they called “the crew”. At the events, they claimed to represent beings from another planet, which was called the Next Level, who sought participants for an experiment. They stated that those who agreed to take part in the experiment would be brought to a higher evolutionary level. In April 1975, during a meeting with a metaphysical group of eighty people led by Clarence Klug in Joan Culpepper’s Studio City, Los Angeles home, they shared their “simultaneous” revelation that they had been told they were the two witnesses written into the Bible’s story of the end time. While accounts of the meeting differ, all describe it as momentous and that agree that Applewhite and Nettles presented themselves as charismatic leaders with an important spiritual message. About 25 people decided to join the group as a result of the meeting.

Later, in September 1975, Applewhite and Nettles preached at a motel hall in Waldport, Oregon. After selling all “worldly” possessions and saying farewell to loved ones, around 20 people vanished from the hotel and from the public eye and joined the group. Later that year, on CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite reported on the disappearances, in one of the first national reports on the developing religious group: “A score of persons … have disappeared. It’s a mystery whether they’ve been taken on a so-called trip to eternity—or simply been taken.”

 In reality, Applewhite and Nettles had arranged for the group to go underground. From that point, “Doe and Tee”,Do as in DO and Ti  as the two now called themselves, led the nearly one-hundred-member crew across the country, sleeping in tents and sleeping bags and begging in the streets. Avoiding the authorities and media enabled the group to focus on Doe and Tee’s doctrine of helping members of the crew achieve a “higher evolutionary level” above human, which they claimed to have already reached.

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—prior to the adoption of the name Heaven’s Gate, it was known as Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM). The group re-invented and renamed itself several times and had a variety of recruitment methods. Applewhite believed he was directly related to Jesus, meaning he was an “Evolutionary Kingdom Level Above Human”.

Indeed, Applewhite’s writings, part religion and part science fiction, suggest he believed himself to be Jesus’ successor and the “Present Representative” of Christ on Earth. Doe and Tee taught during the religious movement’s early beginnings that Doe’s bodily “vehicle” was inhabited by the same alien spirit which belonged to Jesus; likewise, Tee (Nettles) was presented as God the Father.

The crew used numerous methods of recruitment as they toured the United States in destitution, proclaiming the gospel of higher level metamorphosis, the deceit of humans by false-god spirits, envelopment with sunlight for meditative healing, and the divinity of the “UFO Two”.

In April 1976, the group stopped recruiting and became reclusive, and instituted a rigid set of behavioural guidelines, including banning sexual activity and the use of drugs. Applewhite and Nettles also solidified that they represented the sole temporal and religious authority of the group. Benjamin Zeller described the movement as having transformed “from a loosely organised social group to a centralized religious movement comparable to a roving monastery”

Some sociologists agree that the popular movement of alternative religious experience and individualism found in collective spiritual experiences during that period helped contribute to the growth of the new religious movement. “Sheilaism”, as it became known, was a way for people to merge their diverse religious backgrounds and gather around a shared, generalized faith, which followers of new religious sects like Applewhite’s crew found a very appetizing alternative to traditional dogmas in Judaism, Catholicism and evangelical Christianity. 

A little side note, Sheilaism is a shorthand term for an individual’s system of religious belief which co-opts strands of multiple religions chosen by the individual usually without much theological consideration. So they just mashed random religious beliefs together.  The term derives from a woman named Sheila Larson, who is quoted as following her own “little voice” in a faith she calls “Sheilaism

Many of Applewhite and Nettle’s crew hailed from these very diverse backgrounds; most of them are described by researchers as having been “longtime truth-seekers”, or spiritual hippies who had long since believed in attempting to “find themselves” through spiritual means, combining faiths in a sort of cultural milieu well into the mid-1980s. However, remarkably, many of those same researchers note that not all of Applewhite’s crew were hippies recruited from alternative religious backgrounds—in fact, one such recruit early on was John Craig, a respected Republican and ranch owner who came close to winning a 1970 Colorado House of Representatives race, who joined the group in 1975. As recruit numbers grew in its pre-Internet days, the clan of “UFO followers” all seemed to have in common a need for communal belonging in an alternative path to higher existence without the constraints of institutionalized faith.

Identifying themselves using the business name “Higher Source”, and using their website to preach and recruit followers beginning in the early 1990s. Rumors began spreading throughout the group in the following years that the upcoming Comet Hale–Bopp housed the secret to their ultimate salvation and ascent into the kingdom of heaven.

The death of Nettles to cancer in 1985 challenged the group’s views on ascension, where they originally believed that they would ascend to heaven while alive aboard a UFO, later coming to believe that the body was merely a “container” or “vehicle” for the soul, and that their consciousness would be transferred to new “Next Level bodies” upon death.

Known to the media (though largely ignored through the 1980s and 1990s), Heaven’s Gate was better known in UFO circles, as well as through a series of academic studies by sociologist Robert Balch.

The death of Nettles to cancer in 1985 challenged the group’s views on ascension, where they originally believed that they would ascend to heaven while alive aboard a UFO, later coming to believe that the body was merely a “container” or “vehicle” for the soul, and that their consciousness would be transferred to new “Next Level bodies” upon death.

In January 1994, the LA Weekly ran an article on the group, then known as “The Total Overcomers”. Richard Ford, who would later play a key role in the 1997 group suicide, discovered Heaven’s Gate through this article and eventually joined them, renaming himself Rio DiAngelo.

Coast to Coast AM host Art Bell featured the theory of the “companion object” in the shadow of Hale–Bopp on several programs, as early as November 1996; speculation has been raised as to whether his programs on the subject contributed to Heaven’s Gate’s group suicide months later, while others blame more on Courtney Brown rather than Bell.

Louis Theroux contacted the Heaven’s Gate group while making a program for his BBC2 documentary series, Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, in early March 1997. In response to his email, Theroux was told that Heaven’s Gate could not take part in the documentary because “at the present time a project like this would be an interference with what we must focus on.”

In October 1996, the group began renting a large home which they called “The Monastery”, a 9,200 square feet (850 m2) mansion located near 18341 Colina Norte (later changed to Paseo Victoria) in Rancho Santa Fe, California. They paid $7,000 per month, in cash. In the same month, the group purchased alien abduction insurance that would cover up to fifty members and would pay out $1 million per person (the policy covered abduction, impregnation, or death by aliens). WTF!! Prior to this, in June 1995 they had purchased land near Manzano, New Mexico and had begun work creating a compound out of rubber tires and concrete, but had left abruptly in April 1996. Who wants to live in a house of tires and cinderblock when you could live in a mansion in San Diego??

EDIT– I was so wrong. The tire and cement houses are called Earthship houses. Some of them are amazing and you can even stay in some that are air bnbs.

On March 19–20, 1997, Marshall Applewhite taped himself in Doe’s Final Exit, speaking of mass suicide and “the only way to evacuate this Earth”. After asserting that a spacecraft was trailing Comet Hale–Bopp and that this event would represent the “closure to Heaven’s Gate”, Applewhite persuaded 38 followers to prepare for ritual suicide so 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 he described as being both physical and spiritual. Their preparations included each member videotaping a farewell message.

On March 26, 1997, deputies of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department discovered the bodies of the 39 active members of the group, including that of Applewhite, in a house in Rancho Santa Fe. The 39 followers, 21 women and 18 men 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 deaths. WTF?? Caqn you imagine being in the third and final group? The suicides occurred in groups of fifteen, fifteen, and nine, between approximately March 22 and March 26.

 Among the dead was Thomas Nichols, brother of the actress Nichelle Nichols, who is best known for her role in the original television series of Star Trek. Leader Applewhite was the third to last member to die; two people remained after him and were the only ones who would be found with bags over their heads and not having purple cloths covering their top halves. Before the last of the suicides, similar sets of packages were sent to numerous Heaven’s Gate affiliated (or formerly affiliated) individuals, and at least one media outlet, the BBC department responsible for Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, for which Heaven’s Gate had earlier declined participation.

Among those in the list of recipients was Rio DiAngelo. The package DiAngelo received on the evening of March 25, as other packages sent had, contained two VHS videotapes, one with Doe’s Final Exit, and the other with the “farewell messages” of group followers. It also contained a letter, stating that among other things, “we have exited our vehicles, just as we entered them.” Upon informing his boss of the contents of the packages, DiAngelo received a ride from him from Los Angeles to the Heaven’s Gate home in Rancho Santa Fe so he could verify the letter. DiAngelo found a back door intentionally left unlocked to allow access, and used a video camera to record what he found. After leaving the house, DiAngelo’s boss, who had waited outside, encouraged him to make calls to authorities alerting them to his discovery.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department received an anonymous tip through the 911 system at 3:15 p.m. on March 26, suggesting they “check on the welfare of the residents”. In the days following the suicides, this caller was revealed to be DiAngelo.

To kill themselves, members took phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce or pudding and chased it down with vodka. Additionally, they tied plastic bags around their heads after eating the mix to induce asphyxiation. All 39 were dressed in identical black shirts and sweatpants, brand new black-and-white Nike Decades athletic shoes, and armband patches reading “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” Each member had on their person a five-dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets. What the hell is your spirit going to do with $5.75? Were the aliens charging a cover fee to get on the UFO?

 According to former members, this was standard for members leaving the home for jobs and “a humorous way to tell us they all had left the planet permanently”; the five-dollar bill was for covering the cost of vagrancy laws and the quarters were for calling home from pay phones. Once a member was dead, a living member would arrange the body by removing the plastic bag from the person’s head, followed by posing the body so that it lay neatly in its own bed, with faces and torsos covered by a square purple cloth for privacy. In an interview with Harry Robinson, the two surviving members said that the identical clothing was used as a uniform for the mass suicide to represent unity, whilst the Nike Decades were chosen because the group “got a good deal on the shoes”. Applewhite was also a fan of Nikes “and therefore everyone was expected to wear and like Nikes” within the group. Heaven’s Gate also had a saying within the group, ‘Just Do it,’ using Nike’s slogan. They pronounced Do as Doe, to reflect Applewhite’s nickname.

 Just before the mass suicide, the group’s website was updated with the message:

“Hale–Bopp brings closure to Heaven’s Gate …our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion — ‘graduation’ from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave ‘this world’ and go with Tee’s crew.” Since Tee had died back in the 80s.

News of the 39 deaths in Rancho Santa Fe motivated the copycat suicide of a 58-year-old man living near Marysville, California. The man left a note dated March 27, which said, “I’m going on the spaceship with Hale–Bopp to be with those who have gone before me,” and imitated some of the details of the Heaven’s Gate suicides as they had been reported in the media up to that point. The man was found dead by a friend on March 31, and had no known connection with Heaven’s Gate.

At least three former members of Heaven’s Gate ultimately died by suicide themselves in the months after the mass suicide event. On May 6, 1997, Wayne Cooke and Chuck Humphrey attempted suicide in a hotel in a manner similar to that used by the group. Cooke died and Humphrey survived this attempt. Having survived his first suicide attempt, Humphrey ultimately killed himself in Arizona in February 1998. Another former member, James Pirkey Jr., died by suicide by a self-inflicted gunshot wound on May 11. 

Two former members, Marc and Sarah King of Phoenix, Arizona, who operate as the TELAH Foundation, are believed to maintain the group’s website. They also say that there is only 2 more surviving members and now that Ti and Do are dead there is no group. You should really go check it out. Its bonkers. Heavensgate.com

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