30 Questions You've Always Had About the Heaven's Gate Cult

By Michael KasianLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:19:17 PM ET
Photo Courtesy: Heaven’s Gate Homepage/Archive.Org

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.

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The cult's religious texts explained their belief in celestial higher powers and UFOs. In order to ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven, the cult believed they needed to ride the Comet Hale-Bopp, which was soaring past Earth at the time of their mass suicide.

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.

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A year later, he fell into a deep depression after the loss of his father. While searching for his purpose, he met Bonnie Nettles, who ultimately became his partner in theology. Together, they explored his interests in mysticism and extraterrestrials as well as his desire to escape society's endless circle of seduction and consumption.

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.

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In that same year, Nettles reportedly went to see many fortune tellers, who told her she would meet a mysterious, tall man with a fair complexion. That description fit Applewhite perfectly. On New Year's Day in 1973, Nettles left her husband and children to devote her time to Applewhite and their beliefs.

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.

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According to Nettles’ children, it was hardly an encounter worthy of religious texts. Terrie Nettles, Bonnie's daughter, revealed that the two met in a drama class at a school where Applewhite taught. One of Nettles' sons was in the class, and the two sparked a casual conversation.

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.

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Most of the attendees thought it was a joke, but the lectures resulted in 70 people leaving their lives behind and following Applewhite and Nettles to Colorado. That's where they expected to board a spacecraft that would take them to The Next Level.

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.

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Applewhite and Nettles, or "Do" and "Ti" to their followers, created pamphlets to let their followers know the next Jesus was here and ready to take them with him. To ascend with "Do" and "Ti" to The Next Level, followers had to give up their belongings, desires and even their human bodies to ascend with them.

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.

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The purpose? To cultivate a sense of leadership and wisdom with their followers. Even regular members of Heaven's Gate got new names to further separate themselves from the outside world. Each member was given a two-syllable name ending in "ody" and using three letters for the first syllable like wknody, lukody and qstody.

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.

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Applewhite and Nettles refused to believe the news. After all, they hadn't ascended to The Next Level via UFO yet. But the cancer moved to Nettles’ liver, and she died some time around June 18, 1985, at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Texas.

How Did Applewhite Explain Nettles’ Death?

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After Nettles' death, Applewhite had to alter his view of ascension or risk losing his cult members. He had promised the group they would physically depart from the Earth via UFO in 10 years. With Nettles dead, and her physical body remaining on Earth, Applewhite needed a new story.


He ultimately assured his followers that Nettles was spiritually lifted to The Next Level, as her work on planet Earth was complete. While a visit via UFO was still on the table, they were then told they would be given a new body in The Next Level, which explained why their vehicles (physical bodies) could be left behind.

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.

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The Next Level, for all intents and purposes, is where your genderless, bodiless, spiritual existence goes after achieving TELAH. At The Next Level, Heaven's Gate members would see their true selves in new bodies after shedding all remnants of their human existence. Applewhite refined his beliefs and religious texts over the next 10 years to promote this theology.

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.

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They told the property owner they were a group of Christian-based angels. Together, Applewhite and his followers lovingly referred to their home as "The Monastery". It was at this compound where Applewhite recorded his recruitment video and prepared his followers for their ascent to The Next Level.

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."

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He also claimed that his father wasn't human, but a member of The Evolutionary Level Above Human (TELAH). And because he was the shepherd for Heaven’s Gate, there wouldn’t be a second coming of Jesus — because Applewhite was the second coming. He warned them this was everyone's last chance to follow him before it was too late. Comet Hale-Bopp was nearing Earth, and time was running out.

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.

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In March 1997, the cult believed a UFO was flying behind Hale-Bopp, and their souls would board that ship and head to The Next Level. Hale-Bopp was flying closest to Earth at the end of March, which is why they chose that time to take their own lives.

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.

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Each member committed suicide by eating their choice of applesauce or chocolate pudding laced with phenobarbital. Then, they washed their meals down with an unhealthy serving of vodka. Most members completed the process by tying plastic bags over their heads.

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.

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Their physical bodies were merely vehicles to carry them through their education until they could ascend to The Next Level. When Comet Hale-Bopp approached Earth, it was their time to hop aboard the ship that transported their souls.

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.

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Moderation was key for meals. The group's diet focused on proteins, grains and lots of vegetables. This provided a balance that supplied them with enough energy to work at their jobs while preserving their mental alertness, focus and direction.

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.

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At the same time, their website served as a not-so-subtle recruitment site. The site's frequent sci-fi references and spacey appearance resembled the Heaven's Gate website. Contrary to popular belief, their days were not spent pleasing their customers and studying Applewhite's lessons.

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.

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Dating among Heaven's Gate members was also not permitted. Applewhite preached abstinence, and the drab clothing helped keep men from being attracted to women. Nine of the men found dead had gone so far as to get castrated in Mexico to keep themselves celibate.

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.

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It was a heartfelt group project that served as a playful homage to Applewhite and Nettles. They weren't just the leaders; they were their tickets to a happy afterlife at The Next Level. By the time they all took their own lives, they were the only family they had.

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.

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Their entire worlds were consumed by the cult, and the other members became their new family. All of these sacrifices were necessary to board the alien spacecraft that hid behind Comet Hale-Bopp. If they didn't fully embrace their faith, they wouldn't make it to The Next Level and could no longer be part of Heaven's Gate.

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.

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Even though he resorted to using recruitment videos, Applewhite preferred quality over quantity in his followers. Some ex-members have launched honorary YouTube channels to preserve their presence. Other ex-members, like Rio DiAngelo, were asked to keep in touch for important reasons.

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.

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The waiter recalled they all ordered the same thing and were all very polite. It was important to present a united front to outsiders because the press had ridiculed the cult for years. This may explain why they left such reassuring farewell messages.

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.

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There weren’t any tears or farewell messages to former family members. Instead, they questioned how much time civilization had left. They felt very lucky to be going on this journey, and they knew the media would never understand.

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.

Photo Courtesy: Heaven’s Gate Homepage/Archive.Org

"By the time you receive this, we'll be gone — several dozen of us." It was a chance for them to get ahead of the narrative the media would likely use. They didn't want anyone to think their mass exodus wasn't by choice, but the messages didn’t explain how their remains were discovered.

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.

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DiAngelo received a FedEx package with videotapes and a letter that read, "You should be aware that we have exited our ‘vehicles,’ just as we entered them." Before anonymously calling 911, DiAngelo went to the compound, entered through the back door, and found his former cult members' lifeless 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.

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Everyone also wore matching tracksuits, complete with patches that read "Heaven's Gate Away Team." The patches were another nod to Applewhite's love of sci-fi. Fans of Star Trek can easily recognize his homage to the "Away Team" crew that traveled to alien planets on the show.

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.

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To this day, an exhibit at the Museum of Death in Hollywood recreates the scene from the mass suicide. The gallery walls are adorned with newspaper clippings and magazine articles from the 1990s. The shrouds, jumpsuits and bunk beds belonged to the actual cult members. Mannequins are dressed as former members, right down to the shoes.

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.

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Sawyer spent 18 years in the cult before leaving in 1994. To this day, he still believes that Ti and Do were "the return of The Holy Father and Jesus." He uses his channel as a platform to protect Ti, Do and Heaven's Gate from misrepresentation.

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.

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The song and video were Ocean's take on consumerism, and it didn’t seem to upset the remaining members. Lil Uzi Vert, on the other hand, was not so lucky. He released the cover art for his upcoming album that looked exactly like their trademarked logo, which they called "an infringement."

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.

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Two members of Heaven's Gate who left in 1987 apparently still manage the website. Why? Maybe they believe the information passed down from Applewhite needs to be preserved for curious minds who make it to their page, especially since active members believe Applewhite will return again.