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Heaven's Gate was an American UFO religion based in San Diego, California, founded in the early 1970s and led by Marshall Applewhite (1931–1997) and Bonnie Nettles (1928–1985). On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group who had committed suicide in order to reach what they believed was an alien space craft following the Comet Hale–Bopp, which was at its brightest.
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 the Book of Revelation 11:3 in the Bible. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to run an inspirational bookstore, they began traveling around the United States of America 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—prior to the adoption of the name Heaven's Gate (and at the time Vallée studied the group), it was known as Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM). The group re-invented and renamed itself several times and had a variety of recruitment methods. Marshall believed that he was directly related to Jesus, meaning he was an "Evolutionary Kingdom Level Above Human".
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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 DiAngelo 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 19–20, 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 aided Applewhite and Nettles in personally starting from clean slates. They no longer were the people they had been prior to the start of the group, but had taken on a new life; this concept 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 who chose to join Heaven's Gate, follow Applewhite and Nettle's belief, and make the sacrifices required by membership 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 earned revenues by offering professional website development for paying clients under the name Higher Source.
The cultural theorist Paul Virilio has described the group as a cybersect, due to its heavy reliance on computer mediated communication as a mode of communication prior to the group's collective suicide.
On March 19–20, 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 he 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 from Sam Koutchesfahani, paying $7,000 per month in cash. 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 were autopsied, and medical examiners found the people had taken cyanide and arsenic. The bodies were later cremated.
The members took phenobarbital mixed with applesauce or pudding, washed down with vodka. Additionally, they secured plastic bags 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 Decades 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). 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 deaths. Fifteen members died on March 24, fifteen 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. Among the dead was Thomas Nichols, brother of the actress Nichelle Nichols, who is best known for her role as Uhura in the original Star Trek television series.
Only one of the group's members, Rio DiAngelo/Richard Ford, did not kill himself: weeks before the suicides, in December 1996, DiAngelo 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 ultimately committed suicide in February 1998.
Known to the mainstream media (though largely ignored through the 1980s and 1990s), Heaven's Gate was better 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."
The 1982 film, The Mysterious Two, was loosely based on reports of the cult's activities during the 1970s, which had received extensive media coverage at the time. Applewhite and his co-founder would go on to occasionally use the name "The Mysterious Two" in their web site's materials. By contrast, the 1980 film Heaven's Gate has no relationship whatsoever to the Heaven's Gate group.