On March 26, 1997, in what has become known as one of the most noteworthy mass suicides in history, thirty-nine men and women affiliated with the Heavens Gate cult took their own lives by ingesting a combination of Phenobarbitals mixed with applesauce and alcohol. Each was dressed all in black, their faces covered by a purple shroud. Those who wore glasses had them neatly folded next to their body, and all had identification papers for the authorities to find. The house was immaculate, tidier even than before the victims had moved in. It was as if, in preparing for their death, they were heeding the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live.” And while their abrupt end may seem rather strange, the way they lived is even more perplexing.
The group came together in the mid 1970s under the charismatic preaching of Marshall Herff Applewhite, and his companion, Bonnie Lu Nettles, a former nurse. It enjoyed a short-lived burst of notoriety, during which time they referred to themselves as Bo and Peep, before the couple took it underground in 1976. After existing in deep seclusion in various Southwestern cities, the group surfaced again briefly in 1994, when members sought out recruits with a series of public lectures. In the group’s documents, Applewhite and Nettles are described as representatives of an extraterrestrial plane called the Kingdom of Heaven, who have come to Earth “to offer the way leading to membership” to those who could overcome their attachment to money, sex, and family life. Such total separation, the group preached, was necessary because Earth’s human structures –governmental, economic and, especially, religious– were under the control of demonic forces: “Luciferians” and evil “space aliens,” in the group’s terms.
In time, they began calling themselves “the Two,” a reference to the “two witnesses” of Christ foretold in the Bible’s Book of Revelation. According to the Bible, the two witnesses are prophets who will be slain by a beast from the bottomless pit, then be resurrected and ascend to Heaven.
They were both anti-establishment and intolerant, calling for total separation from society, simple living with shared resources, and adherence to a rigorous moral code. Applewhite also required members of the cult to dress, talk, and look the same. He made them all wear the same clothes, shaved everyone’s head, and made them refrain from using personal pronouns such as “he” and “she”. They were also not permitted to marry, have sex, or drink. Members had to give all their possessions to the cult; several even voluntarily castrated themselves.
Much of the essential beliefs of Heaven’s Gate are spelled out in a lengthy, first-person statement published on the group’s website. Written in 1995 by Mr. Applewhite (under the title “An E.T. Presently Incarnate”), it reveals that Ms. Nettles died in 1985 (or, as he wrote, “separated from her borrowed human container and returned to the Next Level”). The rest of their faith system is detailed in a 200-page book that the members of Heaven’s Gate self-published. One of them wrote that they had spent 17 years undergoing a type of re-education, “a ‘metaphoric’ classroom experience of changing over their consciousness and behavior,” evolving to reach a stage in which they could enter the higher realm that Mr. Applewhite and Ms. Nettles preached. In these and other works, the group elaborated on its theology, based on a Christian framework, but with a whole new set of millennialist beliefs that seems more like the works of a renowned science fiction writer. The beliefs were these:
Two thousand years ago, the beings of the Kingdom Level Above Human appointed an “Older Member” to send to Earth a “Representative” (Jesus) to teach people how to enter the “true” Kingdom of God. But humans inspired by demonic forces killed this individual, also called “the Captain,” and transformed his teachings into “watered-down Country Club religion.”
Then a new chance was offered to humanity in the 1970’s, when the Kingdom Level dispatched a second team of two Older Members to take up human bodies (or “vehicles”) and resume the teachings. The documents also make clear that the group’s members took peculiar new names, another sign of their complete break with the outside world. Applewhite was identified on the Internet site simply as Do while Nettles was Ti.
The group’s followers arrived on Earth in “staged” spacecraft crashes and were temporarily disembodied before taking human form in bodies especially designated for that purpose by “other crews from the Level Above Human.”
The document is full of foreboding about the state of the world, warning that the Government, the wealthy and “moral” leaders are controlled by evil space aliens, who have also used all religions to deceive humans about God. It warns of a coming apocalypse that will destroy civilization. Gang wars and ethnic cleansing are offered as proof that the process has begun. Later there will be a “restoration period” in which another civilization will be born.
The group’s rigidly authoritarian code is also revealed. “The only way an individual can grow in the Next Level is to learn to be dependent on his Older Member as that source of unlimited growth and knowledge. So, any younger member in good standing forever remains totally dependent upon (and looks to) his Older Member for all things.”
The most recent (and final) posting on the Heaven’s Gate Internet site declared that the approach of the Hale-Bopp comet provided ”the ‘marker’ we’ve been waiting for — the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to ‘Their World’ — in the literal Heavens.”
Heaven’s Gate left no shortage of clues as to its negative thinking about the value of this worldly life. The group held fast to a gnostic religious view of the soul as a separate and superior being, temporarily inhabiting a physical form. Bodies, wrote Do, were merely ”the temporary container for the soul.” A soul, he added, could evolve to a higher level of being, at which point it would receive a new physical form to house it. ”The final act of metamorphosis or separation from the human kingdom,” he wrote, ”is the ‘disconnect’ or separation from the human physical container or body in order to be released from the human environment.”
In another document posted on its Internet site, Heaven’s Gate ironically declared itself ”against suicide” – but yet subtly left open the possibility. Yes, the group said, its members expected to exit Earth in their ”physical vehicles (bodies)” when a spaceship arrived to take them to the ”Next Level.” But should the forces of the world turn violently against them, it added, the group would be ”mentally prepared” for whatever came its way. They also allude to the example of the Jews at Masada who killed themselves rather than submit to Roman legions in A.D. 73.
Furthermore, the group said its understanding of suicide was not at all conventional: ”The true meaning of ’suicide’ is to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered.” In the group’s thinking, a spaceship, thought to be following in Hale-Bopp’s wake, would be offering just such an opportunity.
In conclusion, the entire aura of the Heaven’s Gate cult seems like something straight out of a late night TV movie. Like most millennialist groups, members held a firm belief in an oncoming apocalypse and that only an elect few would achieve salvation. The spread of their doctrine on the Internet brought about widespread concern over the power of the web. The argument has subsided, however, with the passage of time. I, for one, find the supposed link between the Internet and cult activities rather absurd. Extreme gullibility and brainwashing, I believe, would be the only ways a recruit would ever accept such an outlandish set of beliefs.