30 Questions You've Always Had About the Heaven's Gate Cult
On March 26, 1997, police followed an anonymous tip and discovered 39 people dead on a lavish compound outside San Diego. They were all members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, and they all committed suicide within three days of each other.
It was one of the largest and most shocking mass suicides in human history, and the media ran wild with coverage. More than two decades later, the UFO-believing religious cult is still making headlines. In case you need a refresher course, we’ve put together 30 questions you might have about the Heaven’s Gate cult and its infamous mass suicide.
What Is Heaven’s Gate?
Heaven's Gate is a religious cult that started in the 1970s based on the teachings of Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, who believed humanity was at its endpoint. Applewhite and Nettles convinced followers that they needed their souls to escape planet Earth under their guidance.
Who Was Marshall Applewhite?
Applewhite was a Texas native who attended several colleges and became a music teacher at the University of Alabama. He later returned to his native Texas to head the music department at the University of St. Thomas but left in 1970, citing emotional distress.
Who Was Bonnie Nettles?
Before 1972, Nettles was a registered nurse who was married with four children. But that was the year Nettles started believing a monk from the 19th century named Brother Francis was giving her instructions. That was also around the time she conducted seances and studied astrology, spiritual ecstasy and occult studies.
How Exactly Did They Meet?
This is up for debate. According to Applewhite's writings, it was a moment of divine intervention. While he was visiting a friend in the hospital, Nettles walked into the room, and their eyes instantly connected, with their gaze revealing a shared recognition of divine secrets.
How Did They Create a Cult Following?
Applewhite and Nettles created Heaven's Gate as equals. Nettles served as the wise connection to the heavens and aliens above, and Applewhite was the mouthpiece for their faith. They built their first following in 1975 along the West Coast. That's where they hosted their first lectures on the ways UFOs would make contact with the human race.
What Exactly Did Their Religion Believe?
Their religion was a combination of Christianity, science fiction and studies related to the end of humanity. Bodies were seen as temporary "vehicles" for souls that would ascend to The Next Level in the Kingdom of Heaven. The last leader who had this kind of insider knowledge about souls and ascension was Jesus Christ, some 2,000 years ago.
What’s with the Nicknames?
Applewhite and Nettles shared many nicknames during the formation of Heaven’s Gate. At first, they referred to themselves as "Guinea" and "Pig," as they thought they were instructors in a lab experiment. Then, the names evolved to "Bo" and "Peep," as they felt like shepherds to their flock of 70 followers. They finally settled on "Do" and "Ti," like the musical notes in a song.
Why Wasn’t Nettles Found with the Others in San Diego?
As the cult expanded and carried on with UFO ascension tests over the years, Nettles continued her role as a spiritual advisor, but her health was fading. In 1983, she had to have one of her eyes removed due to cancer, and doctors informed her that the disease was spreading throughout her body.
What Is “The Next Level?”
All of humanity on Earth was destined to be recycled, according to the apocalyptic Applewhite and Nettles, and only their followers could escape this fate. Members of Heaven's Gate had to achieve The Evolutionary Level Above Human, or TELAH, to ascend to The Next Level.
Where Was the Cult’s Final Home?
After taking the Heaven's Gate cult across the Midwest, Applewhite and his followers landed in a 9,200-square-foot compound outside San Diego. They rented the sprawling, upscale home for $7,000 a month, paying in cash every time.
What Was in the Recruitment Video?
Applewhite recorded a series of videos to help recruit and indoctrinate new followers at the compound. In the opening section, he warned viewers, "Planet Earth is about to be recycled. The only chance you have to evacuate is to leave with us."
What Does Comet Hale-Bopp Have to Do with Any of This?
Comet Hale-Bopp was the most widely observed comet of the 20th century. It was visible to the naked eye for a record 18 months and was dubbed "The Great Comet of 1997." It was also the perfect vessel for Heaven's Gate, according to Applewhite.
How Did the Cult Die on the Same Day?
According to toxicology reports, 39 members of the cult committed suicide in three groups over a series of three days. The members, who ranged in age from 26 to 72, died in their own beds after succumbing to a fatal last meal.
What Was Their Take on Suicide?
News outlets around the world reported the events at the compound were a mass suicide. Members of the Heaven's Gate cult, however, had a different take on the event. Suicide, according to their website, could only occur when someone turned their back on The Next Level.
What Did They Eat While They Prepared for Their Departure?
Even though they considered their bodies "temporary vessels," their diets were quite healthy. They avoided sugary drinks and fried foods and went on liquid-only diets at times. The group drank nothing but lemonade, cayenne pepper and maple syrup for three months at a time.
How Did They Make a Living?
In order to pay for their extravagant compound, Heaven’s Gate members worked as pioneer software engineers. Their company, Higher Source, was a fledgling 1990s web design studio, but they had a series of loyal clients who supplied them with a healthy income.
Did They Do Everything the Same?
The Heaven's Gate cult made sure everyone was similar to each other. This approach helped establish everyone as one group entity and made members feel less like individuals. That meant everyone wore drab, baggy clothes and shared the same haircut.
What Did They Do for Fun?
Amusement parks and movie theaters weren't part of their routine, but they did have fun from time to time. The compound had a tennis court and pool, and the members also sang their own songs. During their last Christmas celebration in 1996, the class created their own rendition of "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound of Music.
What About Their Own Family and Friends?
Applewhite convinced his followers they must abandon their human forms to reach heaven. Human bodies were not meant for The Next Level, after all. As part of their indoctrination into Heaven’s Gate, members had to sever ties with all outside friends and family members.
Could You Leave the Cult Safely?
The number of members swelled and receded throughout the years as members joined and left the cult. Students who were not committed to the Heaven's Gate lifestyle were encouraged to leave, and departing members were even given financial help during their transition out of the group.
Did They Stay Inside All the Time?
Even though they removed themselves from their families and friends, the cult members weren't total recluses. Their last meal, for example, was a big group dinner that took place at a chain they frequented near their compound in Rancho Santa Fe, California.
What Farewell Messages Were Left?
Before their mass suicide, the departing members recorded their own exit video interviews. Most members expressed their excitement about reaching The Next Level with Ti and Do. Others used their last interview to challenge the way other religions always asked for money.
How Did They Announce Their Departure?
On March 22, 1997, the Heaven's Gate website was updated to announce their departure. Visitors to the homepage discovered a bright red message that said "RED ALERT - HALE-BOPP Brings Closure to Heaven's Gate." The website was also updated with a press release that explained their departure.
How Were Their Bodies Found?
At first, reports indicated that an anonymous tipster called 911. Many years later, the public learned who discovered the bodies and how they knew the Heaven's Gate members killed themselves. Rio DiAngelo, the ex-member of the cult referenced earlier, was the first person to discover the bodies.
What Did They Wear for the Mass Suicide?
Members of the group were found in their own cots with purple shrouds covering their faces. They were all wearing matching, black and white Nike Decades sneakers. They also each had $5.75 and identification, presumably meant for interplanetary toll fare.
What Happened to Their Belongings?
Their bodies were carried out by ambulance crews, but because of the chaos of the situation, their belongings were not secured. People were able to snag the shrouds that covered their faces, and the jumpsuits were also reportedly available for the taking.
Is Heaven’s Gate Still Active?
Heaven's Gate still has many active members. The number is unknown, but there are signs of their presence available online. One former member, who goes by the name Sawyer, has an active YouTube channel that features knowledge passed down from Applewhite.
How Has Heaven’s Gate Reacted to Their Legacy?
It depends. For example, Frank Ocean released a single off his 2016 album Blonde called "Nikes." It was a lullaby of a song, but his video included a blink-and-you'll-miss-it nod to Heaven's Gate. Ocean can be seen under a purple shroud on a bed wearing Nikes, surrounded by passed out party children.
What About Their Website?
It's still active! Nothing has been updated since that last press release that announced the departure of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult, but emails inquiring about their existence still receive a response, and books and videos are still made to order.