In March of 1997, Heaven’s Gate earned instant notoriety after the horrific discovery of 39 bodies in the Rancho Santa Fe compound which sparked a media circus. The shocking willingness of each member to commit suicide caused many people to wonder what in the world (or out of this world) drove so many otherwise ordinary people to these insane beliefs.
But Heaven’s Gate wasn’t your ordinary cult; nobody had seen a cult-like this before. It was led by two Texas natives, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. Their group consisted of very devout followers of some ridiculous beliefs, which took some aspects of Christianity and combined them with sci-movies. Literally.
Unlike Any Other Cult
Most famously, they believed in Aliens, UFOs, reincarnation, and an ability to transcend their life on Earth by evolving into a more advanced “spiritual” state of being. Their followers were convinced that Applewhite and Nettles had the answers they’d been looking for and were willing to listen to their teachings all the way to the devastating end.
Look, I believe in aliens as much as the next guy. But all these people were brainwashed and went way beyond alien hunting in their backyard. This reminds me of the Jonestown Massacre, only nobody drank the Kool-Aid! Instead, they thought they were dead and reincarnated on another planet.
Without further ado, let’s get into the details. Here is the story of Heaven’s Gate, aka The Alien Cult.
Marshall Applewhite Grew Up Religious
Marshall Applewhite was welcomed into the world to middle-class parents in Spur, Texas, on May 17, 1931. He was raised in a very religious household, and his dad was a Presbyterian minister. Just to be clear, Applewhite didn’t exactly abandon his Christian upbringing; he just took on additional beliefs and combined them all.
According to Rolling Stone, Marshall came to the conclusion that God was an alien, Heaven was just the “Next Level,” and he himself was the Second Coming. Makes total sense.
A Shift in His Belief System
I know his beliefs sound insane, but Applewhite put a lot of thought into it and even doubted himself for years before he completely developed his beliefs. In his younger years, Applewhite was bright and charismatic; he initially planned to use his talents to become a minister. However, in the 1950s, he left his studies to pursue a music career.
Because of his religious upbringing, it was very difficult for him to come to terms with his feelings of being sexually attracted to men. In 1952, he married a woman named Ann Pearce; the couple had two children together.
He Quit Music and Became a Teacher
Eventually, Applewhite lost his musical aspirations and decided to get a job as a teacher. He worked as an assistant professor at the University of Alabama, but he was terminated after being accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a male student. This was a serious accusation and would start Applewhite’s downward spiral.
The inappropriate romance and subsequent questions about his sexuality contributed to the end of his marriage. Apparently, he quit his job and had a nervous breakdown in 1970, according to Biography.
Meet Bonnie Nettles
During that time, in the early 1970s, Bonnie Nettles was dealing with marital issues of her own. Encyclopedia reported that she was raised in a devout Baptist household in Houston. In 1949, she married Joseph Segal Nettles, and they welcomed four children together.
Nettles attended the Hermann Hospital School of Professional Nursing and found a job as a registered nurse. But Nettles was looking for something more than just her professional and family life. An interest in the occult developed, and she became a member of the Houston Lodge of the Theosophical Society in America by February 1966.
She Was Into Black Magic
Nettles became more interested in fringe theories as she continued to seek spiritual answers. She began holding seances and consulting with the dead. Most notably, she communicated with an entity she called Brother Francis, a 19th-century monk who would offer her advice and guidance.
She also started visiting fortune-tellers, and according to The New York Times, they predicted that around 1972, a mysterious, tall man with light features (much like Marshall Applewhite) would walk into her life. Her black magic and spiritual beliefs eventually put a strain on her marriage. Witchcraft and communicating with the dead can do that to a relationship.
We Don’t Know Exactly How They Met
Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite first crossed paths in 1972. Apparently, they felt an intense (albeit platonic) connection. Their fateful meeting ultimately put many historical events in motion, but how they met remains unclear. There is just no confirmed record of it.
In Applewhite’s writings, he claims he saw first saw Nettles in a hospital where she was working when he went to visit a sick friend. However, Nettles’ eldest daughter tells a different story. She insists that they met at a theater when Applewhite was working as a drama teacher and Nettles’ son was taking classes.
He Was a Psychiatric Patient
Other reports claim that they met when Applewhite checked himself into a psychiatric institution where Nettles worked as a nurse. Nevertheless, both Nettles and Applewhite were certain that they had already met in a past life, so this wasn’t even their first encounter.
They both were very knowledgeable about the Bible, but Nettles replaced her Christian beliefs with knowledge of astrology, the paranormal, and the occult. Applewhite, on the other hand, had religious visions and was convinced of his own divinity. Despite where they actually met, they were certain their meeting was cosmic fate. The unlikely couple became inseparable.
The Beginning of a Spiritual Journey
Although presumably unhappy, Bonnie Nettles was still married when she met Marshall Applewhite, but that would soon crumble. Nettles and Applewhite started living together, and her husband was understandably not happy with the living arrangements, so he divorced Nettles.
Unfortunately, Nettles lost custody of her three youngest children and pretty much cut off contact with her 20-year-old daughter, Terrie. But none of that mattered to them. Nettles and Applewhite were so focused on their mission that they left their families behind to embark on a spiritual journey together.
He Didn’t Seem Crazy…
One of Applewhite’s friends, Hayes Parker, admitted to The New York Times that Applewhite told him that “a presence had given him all the knowledge of where the human race had come from and where it was going… [Applewhite] was serious. And he didn’t seem crazy.”
How does that not seem crazy?! Just reading it makes me think they were all insane. Like, come on, a “presence” gave him knowledge. Seriously? Who believes this stuff? Applegate was a delusional human being who clearly needed to be institutionalized, not lead a cult.
Spreading Their Message
Anyway, according to Encyclopedia, the duo decided to open up a metaphysical bookstore and spiritual center in Houston called the Christian Art Center and Know Place. They taught classes in philosophy, religion, and the occult. They also held classes for art and music.
But the store turned out to not be very satisfying. They were determined to spread their message all across the country. They closed the bookstore on New Year’s Day of 1973, and the couple decided it was time for them to head west.
Life of Petty Crime
After closing their bookstore, Bonnie Nettles and Marshal Applewhite roamed around the country, bouncing around seeking further spiritual enlightenment. This meant they had no steady source of income, and cash was running low.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that on August 27, 1974, both of them managed to get themselves arrested in Harlingen, Texas: Nettles for credit card fraud, and Applegate was charged for stealing a rental car. Should we change Marshall’s name to Clyde? Because this is beginning to sound like Bonnie and Clyde 2.0.
Applewhite Spent Six Months in Jail
Soon enough, the charges against Nettles were dropped, but nine months earlier, Applewhite rented a Mercury Comet in Missouri but failed to return it. He was charged with auto theft. In 1974, Tim Braun was serving as the St. Louis County public defender when Applewhite’s case file came across his desk.
“Very seldom do we see a statement that ‘a force from beyond the Earth has made me keep this car,’” he told People Magazine. Despite his insanity defense, Applewhite was convicted and spent the next six months in the slammer. While he was behind bars, Applewhite continued to read and write all sorts of things about his cosmic beliefs while Nettles waited for his release.
BO AND PEEP
It didn’t take long for Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles to conclude that they were, in fact, the two witnesses mentioned in the Book of Revelation, and they would be risen up to Heaven in a flying saucer. I’m being completely serious. They truly believed that.
Together, the pair went by many names such as Bo and Peep, and later, Do and Ti. However, to their followers, they were simply known as “The Two.” They traveled all across the country and eventually ended up in California.
Gaining More Followers
They made their first moves in Studio City in May 1975. According to The New York Times, they held group meetings at the house of one of their very first converts, Joan Culpepper. They told their audience of 80 people that they were “The Two prophesied in Revelation… God has sent us here as an experiment.”
Many of the listeners were completely taken by this information. These people honestly thought that Bonnie Nettle and Marshall Applegate were their saviors. They were convincing enough that they continued racking up more followers.
Waiting for the Space Shuttle
By September 20, new followers made their way to Waldport, Oregon, leaving behind their jobs, families, and homes. They were in Oregon waiting for their first expected spaceship. Spoiler Alert: it never arrived. That’s when the group started wandering around, drifting between towns and camps across the West Coast. Finally, they settled in Bonny Reservoir, Colorado, for a while.
They stopped seeking new followers by 1976. Former Heaven’s Gate member Dick Joslyn told People, “Sometimes it got pretty boring, especially when you were waiting ten years for the spacecraft to come down.” As time passed, some members did dwindle, but the ones who stayed were the ones most committed to the cult.
Marshal Applewhite never seemed to be comfortable with any type of sexuality. According to the cult leader himself, the sex drive was a base desire that tied humans to Earth and prevented believers from reaching the “Next Level.”
He preached celibacy to his followers, but that wasn’t all. Applewhite and eight male followers got voluntary surgical castrations. That how brainwashed and manipulated by these insane beliefs they were. Dick Joslyn thinks it made “perfect sense” for them to become celibate, saying, “Why not end the battle with the sex drive? I’m really glad now that I didn’t do it. But it’s not as bizarre as people think it is.”
They Were Each Assigned a Partner
Although the cult was strongly anti-romance, followers were still assigned a partner; they were supposed to carry out their daily tasks together. In order to ensure things weren’t getting too friendly, the partners were regularly switched. That’s one way to prevent a long-term romance.
According to former member Leslie Light, “They set you up with the partner you’d least likely be attracted to.” I guess that takes care of the short-term hookups. Their followers knew they should obtain from sex, but they really took extreme measures.
They Had to Abstain for Physical Pleasures
Some days, they even implemented something called a “tomb time” – members were forbidden from speaking to each other altogether. On top of their vow of celibacy, Heaven’s Gate members didn’t drink, smoke, or wear flashy clothes.
All the followers were dressed in identical outfits and had the same haircut, regardless of gender. All of this was to prepare them to shed their human vessel (otherwise known as a body) upon the arrival of the Next Level entities who were coming to Earth to pick them up in a UFO.
They Believed Aliens Would Pick Them Up From Earth
The foundation of the Heaven’s Gate followers’ beliefs lie in the fact that they think Earth was set to be “recycled” through some kind of Apocalypse-type event in the very near future. The only way to escape the destruction of the world and being completely erased is to achieve “The Evolutionary Level Above Human.”
But reaching the next evolutionary level meant the followers had to get rid of their earthly life attachments so that their soul or consciousness could go on in a genderless, bodiless existence in outer space.
The Chosen Ones
Bonnie Nettles and Marshal Applewhite had been selected by these advanced spiritual beings to act as messengers and guide their herd of believers here on Earth. I may have forgotten to mention that they were said to be in regular communication with these extraterrestrial beings.
Apparently, the last messenger who showed up on Earth also did so in a human vehicle – in the form of Jesus Christ. Do they think they are that spiritual? They sound more like narcissists to me. Heaven’s Gate followers believed that God, himself, was just a highly developed alien.
A Blissful Existence
I know this sounds like a movie, but you can’t make this sh* t up. These poor people actually thought that they had to be Heaven’s Gate members in order to be saved. When the spaceship would finally arrive, it would take the believers up to a blissful existence on the “Next Level,” or what most people refer to as Heaven.
They would live along with the other advanced beings who had already abandoned their human vessels. Non-believers, however, would be wiped out completely, and the Earth would be renewed.
Followers Were Free to Leave
For all their ridiculous rules and extreme beliefs, “Bo” and “Peep” were surprisingly accepting if their members experienced doubt. It’s only natural to doubt yourself when you are willing to kill yourself because the aliens told you to.
Nettle and Applewhite never coerced, forced, or tricked members into staying in any way. If they didn’t want to be there, they didn’t have to be. In fact, they seemed to discourage members from joining the cult unless they were truly devout. Non-believers were free to leave at any time.
Heaven’s Gate Members Wanted to Be There
In the 1970s, University of Montana sociology professor Robert Balch joined the cult in order to study them. His discoveries showed that the Heaven’s Gate followers were only there because they truly wanted to be there.
Balch said, “Bo and Peep were good salesmen, but people shopping for new cars routinely encounter much more pressure and manipulation. People joined the UFO cult with virtually no pressure to convert, and they enthusiastically adopted group norms even before the socialization process began.” So, basically, everyone was there at their own free will.
The Followers Were Regular People
Applewhite and Nettles were empathetic toward their followers. They wanted to create an emotional bond with them instead of asserting dominance and control. Although they might have been brainwashed, Heaven’s Gate members weren’t stupid, nor were they outcasts from society. Most of them were regular people like computer programmers or bus drivers.
Joan Culpepper, another former cult member, explained, “Many of these people weren’t losers with low self-esteem. Applewhite’s message connected to some belief in them… Most cults want to sweet-talk you, draw you in, and make you feel loved. These guys weren’t like that.” They were just looking for the meaning of life and got caught up in Heaven’s Gate.
Bonnie Nettles Passed Away
Life in the cult had been fairly uneventful until the 1980s when Bonnie Nettles got sick. According to The New York Times, she had been diagnosed with cancer, and it was spreading all over her body. Unfortunately, Bonnie was not going to get better. She lost an eye to the disease in 1983, and then the cancer eventually spread to her liver.
She suffered from the disease until it ultimately killed her. In 1985, Nettles finally succumbed to the cancer after putting up a tough fight.
Her Death Challenged Their Core Beliefs
Bonnie Nettles’ death devastated Applewhite and also complicated some of Heaven’s Gate followers’ most foundational beliefs. The couple had told the members that they wouldn’t need their physical bodies in order to board the spaceship.
But if Bonnie Nettles had technically already left her earthly, human vehicle, how could she board the UFO and reach the Next Level? Not only that, if Nettles was an advanced messenger as she claimed to be, how could she die such an ordinary death? But Applewhite found an explanation.
Explaining Away Bonnie’s Death
After a little while, Applewhite managed to explain away her death by saying that it didn’t matter when or how someone left their earthly vessel, as long as their consciousness left their physical body and rose to the Next Level.
He justified her death by claiming she left behind her “broken down vehicle,” saying that she “experienced no symptoms prior to the week she left her vehicle and, for the most part, her vehicle slept through the transition. We’re not exactly sure how many days it might have taken her to return to the Next Level,” according to The New York Times. This shift in belief − that it didn’t matter how you left your earthly vessel − would lead to the tragic death of the Heaven’s Gate members.
The Spaceship Was Coming
In July 1995, scientists announced the discovery of the Hale-Bopp comet. It was reported that the comet would come near Earth in 1997, as part of its 4,000-year orbit around the sun, an event that only happens once every 200 years!
Heaven’s Gate members were convinced that the spaceship they had been waiting for would be hidden in Hale-Bopp’s trail, on its way to Earth to pick up their souls. In preparation for its arrival, they rented a mansion in the Rancho Santa Fe suburb of San Diego in October 1996.
Leaving Their “Earthly Vessels”
Marshall Applewhite had determined that they needed to leave their earthly vessels in order for their souls to board the spacecraft. When the comet was close to Earth in March of 1997, Heaven’s Gate members got dressed in identical black outfits, black and white Nike Decades athletic sneakers, and armbands that said Heaven’s Gate Away Team. Then, they committed mass suicide.
Applewhite orchestrated a well-thought-out plan, in which 39 followers conducted ritual suicide over a three-day period. Remember, the sole reason for taking their own lives was so that their soul could leave their body and be free to board the spaceship.
The Mass Suicide
The first group consumed applesauce mixed with barbiturates, washed it down with vodka, covered their heads with bags, laid down, and died. (I thought they weren’t allowed to drink alcohol or take drugs.) The next day, the second group cleaned up after the first one, taking the bags off their heads, positioning them in bed, and then covering their bodies with purple cloaks.
Then, the second group repeated the process. The third group consisted of just Applewhite and two of his trusted followers. He ate the drug-laced applesauce first, so his followers arranged his body before taking their own lives.
The Heaven’s Gate Website Is Still Active
San Diego police discovered the 39 bodies on March 26 after receiving an anonymous tip. Word spread about the mass suicide, and it shocked the nation. Everyone wondered how these seemingly ordinary people got so deeply consumed by the group’s nonsensical beliefs.
Heaven’s Gate was one of the first cults to use the internet (new technology at the time) to connect with potential followers. According to Rolling Stone, the group made extra money by designing web pages under the business name Higher Source. That name cracks me up, although it shouldn’t surprise me.
Only Four Members Left
One of their key recruitment tools was their official website which they launched in the mid-1990s: heavensgate.com. The website still exists if you’re interested in checking it out for some reason. Four former Heaven’s Gate members are currently running the site.
The former cult members told Vice that they “joined at the beginning, in 1975, and have been with them for 45 years. There are us two here in Arizona and a couple more around the country.” These four are the only Heaven’s Gate members left – although they no longer refer to themselves as such.
No New Followers Allowed
The ex-cult members went on to explain, “The Group came to an end in 1997. There are no members or anything to join.” They do, however, remain Heaven’s Gate believers. They continue to keep the website going and always respond to emails. Shockingly, the website is not only still alive, but it’s attracting new followers!
The remaining members still regularly receive requests from people all around the planet who are interested in joining Heaven’s Gate. They explained, “We have told four today alone that they can’t join because the group ended in 1997… We average about five or so a day that want to join.”
Life on the Inside
When we hear about cults, we think about people being brainwashed into a belief system that seems outrageous to any outsider. In order to manipulate otherwise ordinary people, the leader implements rules for their followers to go by in order to gain a sense of power and control.
As we mentioned, Heaven’s Gate wasn’t trying to convince or convert non-believers, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t have their own set of rules. Marshall Applewhite came up with a few things that all members had to follow. This is how life was in Heaven’s Gate.
They Had to Change Their Names
When new members joined the cult, the first thing they needed to do was change their name. Marshall Applewhite was the first to do so, changing his name to “Do” – as in “doe, a deer.” It is said that the name was a reference to his past life as a college music professor.
Most followers would simply add the suffix “ody” to their adoptive first name in order to be classified as “children of the Next Level.” That’s one way to strip someone of their identity. However, there were some exceptions. One member, Richard Form, was renamed D’Angelo (or DiAngelo) – he was the one who filmed the infamous footage of Heaven’s Gate and sold the rights to their story to a production company.
One of the most fundamental parts about being in Heaven’s Gate was to leave materialism and everything about the physical behind. Therefore, they had to give up their possessions, stop having sex, and dress identically. They also had clear their mind of normal, human thoughts. They did this by using what they referred to as “the tone.”
While doing everyday activities, Heaven’s Gate members needed to focus their attention on a tone produced from a tuning fork. Yeah, apparently, this distracted them from their thoughts.
They Had to Give Up Their Money
Like most cults, Heaven’s Gate members were forced to give up their earthy possession; this included their hard-earned money. All followers had to let go of their savings and all other forms of materialism to purify their souls.
Basically, they believed that in order “to be eligible for membership in the Next Level, humans would have to shed every attachment to the planet.” They had to give their money to the cult, of course, and it allowed Applewhite to fund their lifestyle. In addition, some members had to take on jobs in order to make money, just to hand it over to the cult.
Followers Seemed Happy
One of the things that differentiates Heaven’s Gate from cults like Jonestown or the Manson Family was that the Heaven’s Gate members appeared to be having a good time. They didn’t seem to be sad or scared.
There are hours of video footage from inside the cult’s house. In each one, the followers look and act happy. Although they were probably inwardly under tremendous psychological stress, they can be seen laughing. In Inside Story’s Heaven’s Gate Cult, the followers are seen smiling as they wait for their approaching doom.