True crime: Life and death inside the Heaven’s Gate cult
Stories about cults tend to run a gamut of emotions, namely disturbing and sad. The outcomes usually don’t end well and what goes on behind the scenes can give people nightmares. While some cults are associated with a place more than the name, like Jonestown or Waco, there are cults associated with their name, such as Heaven’s Gate.
The Heaven’s Gate cult ended tragically. In the lead-up to the tragic ending, there were some interesting beliefs going on, to say the least. Let’s dive into the life and death of the Heaven’s Gate cult.
What was Heaven’s Gate?
Heaven’s gate is classified as a UFO religious cult. In the 70s, when there were all sorts of new and interesting beliefs, it was considered to be pretty out there. Founded in 1974 by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, Heaven’s Gate’s beliefs were an interesting hybrid. Nettles, a nurse, brought in astrology while Applewhite folded in religious texts.
Their partnership was platonic, sexless, which they encouraged in their followers. Some were even encouraged to the point of castration. While Nettles was the diviner and the mystic, Applewhite was the charismatic speaker, drawing others into their group.
Basic premise is that there were different levels of being. That one day a UFO would come to whisk members away, elevating them to a new world and better life. The pair recruited through a grassroots approach, having talks and signing up any interest in joining.
For over two decades, Heaven’s Gate members roamed the country, anonymous, and living in extreme poverty. People thought that Heaven’s Gate was attractive because of how it blended ways of thinking like science fiction and Christian theology. When Nettles died in 1985, Applewhite also brought in cyberculture as well. Heaven’s Gate had a website, reaching a whole other audience.
The group was also operating under a time constraint.
Now let’s make one thing clear, which is definitely a contradictory sort of thinking, the members of Heaven’s Gate were against suicide and believed that it was wrong. Their definition of what constituted a suicide was a little more flexible though. When Nettles died, Applewhite found his belief about human bodies.
Human bodies were mere “vessels” that were carrying them on their journey and could be abandoned at any time. So when Nettles’ human body died, she merely ascended into what they called TELAH or The Evolutionary Level Above Human. Nettles was amongst the TELAHs to prepare for their arrival.
On March 26, 1997, there were 39 active members of Heaven’s Gate. They lived in a large rented home known as “The Monastery” in a gated community of Rancho Santa Fe. They were preparing that day for their mass ascension to a UFO of TELAH’s behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
Applewhite believed that if the group did not “evacuate” Earth to join the TELAH’s on the UFO behind the comet that they would be on Earth through an upcoming Apocalypse. The members within the house prepared for the ritual suicide, which included videotaping final messages for those they were leaving behind.
The 39 members, broken up into three groups over three successive days, 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”. To kill themselves, they took drugs mixed with pudding or applesauce and chased down with vodka, they then put plastic bags over their heads.
Living members of the group would arrange the body and cover the face with a purple cloth for privacy. On their persons were a five dollar bill and three quarters to cover vagrancy fees and to make calls on a payphone.
Applewhite is believed to be the third to last member to die as he was laid out. The last two members were the ones who were not laid out for preparation.
A former cult member received the packages, verified what happened, and called the San Diego County Sheriff’s department to share what he discovered. The bodies were found by the Sheriff’s department. All 39 bodies were cremated.