Heaven’s Gate is a destructive, doomsday cult centered in California. 21 women and 18 men voluntarily committed suicide in three groups on three successive days starting on 1997-MAR-23. Most were in their 40’s; the rest covered an age range of 26 to 72. 1 Two months later, two additional members, Charles Humphrey and Wayne Cooke attempted suicide in a hotel room a few miles from the Rancho Santa Fe mansion; Cooke succeeded. Humphrey tried again in the Arizona desert during 1998-FEB and was successful.
“Heaven’s Gate” was the latest of three organizations founded by Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie “Ti” Lu Trusdale Nettles, a.k.a. “The Two.” The first was Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM) which they organized in 1975. They traveled to the Colorado desert to wait for the arrival of a UFO. None came. Bonnie Nettles died of cancer in 1985. Applewhite organized a new group called Total Overcomers Anonymous or “TOA” in 1993. They placed an ad in USA Today, announcing that the Earth’s present civilization was about to be “recycled.” Applewhite originally went by the nickname “Bo”, and more recently was called “Do” (pronounced “Doe”). Marshall moved to San Diego County CA with the group, now renamed “Heaven’s Gate”, and lived on to become one of the 39 suicides.
They followed a syncretistic religion, combining elements of Christianity with unusual beliefs about the nature of UFOs. They interpreted passages from the four gospels and the book Revelation as referring to UFO visitation. In particular, they emphasized a story in Revelation which described two witnesses who are killed, remained dead for 3 1/2 days, were revived and taken up into the clouds. They look upon earth as being in the control of evil forces, and perceived themselves as being among the elite who would attain heaven. They held a profoundly dualistic belief of the soul as being a superior entity which is only housed temporarily in a body. Applewhite said that bodies were only “the temporary containers of the soul…The final act of metamorphosis or separation from the human kingdom is the ‘disconnect’ or separation from the human physical container or body in order to be released from the human environment.”
They believe that about 2000 years ago, a group of extra-terrestrials came to earth from the Kingdom of Heaven (the “Next Level”). One of these was “Do”. He was given instructions by “Ti”, his female companion, whom he referred to as his “Heavenly Father.” He left his body behind, transported to Earth in a space-ship, and incarnated (moved into) a human body, that of Jesus Christ. A second group of extra-terrestrials returned to earth, starting in the 1920’s. Do was the Captain of this expedition; Ti was the Admiral. They each moved into a human body, but somehow became scattered. Do and Ti held public meetings to disseminate their beliefs. They were pleasantly surprised to find that most of their converts were the long-lost crew members.
Members called themselves brother and sister; they looked upon themselves as monks and nuns; they lived communally in a large, rented San Diego County (CA) home which they called their monastery. Most members had little contact with their families of origin or with their neighbors. Many followed successful professional careers before entering the group. Some abandoned their children before joining. They were free to leave at any time. They dressed in unisex garments: shapeless black shirts with Mandarin collars, and black pants. They were required commit themselves to a celibate life. Eight of the male members, including Do, submitted to voluntary castration. This seems to have been a form of preparation for their next level of existence: in a life that would be free of gender and sexual activity.
The group supported themselves through a commercial effort called Higher Source which designed WWW pages for a profit. They also used the Internet as a recruitment tool; they have a site called Heaven’s Gate. On their site, Applewhite (calling himself the “Present Representative”) drew parallels between himself and the spirit from Heaven that occupied the body of Jesus Christ. Their main page says: “As was promised – the keys to Heaven’s Gate are here again in Ti and Do (The UFO Two) as they were in Jesus and His Father, 2000 years ago”. They discussed their task is “to work individually on our personal overcoming and change, in preparation for entering the Kingdom of Heaven.” Their web site was taken over by the FBI, but some individuals were able to download the site files and create mirrors at various locations.
Marshall Herff Applewhite was gay. There are rumors that he had one or more affairs with male students when he was a music teacher. He is believed to have checked himself in to a hospital over two decades ago in order to overcome his homosexual feelings. This occurred at a time when many therapists believed that a person’s sexual orientation could be changed. Needless to say, the therapy was unsuccessful. One theory being proposed is that he was unable to accept his sexual orientation because of the homophobia that he had adsorbed during his youth. This motivated him to live an celibate life and to create a group which also suppressed their sexual behavior. Another theory is that among UFO groups, there is a widespread belief that extra-terrestrials have no vocal cords, an atrophied digestive system and no sexual organs. This is symbolic of three common religious disciplines: silence, fasting and celibacy. Perhaps Applewhite was attempting to emulate both the UFO inhabitants and ancient Christian tradition.
In common with many other UFO groups, they believe that UFOs are inter-stellar space ships operated by extra-terrestrial beings who are attempting to bring humanity to a higher level of knowledge. However, they have a belief not shared by other UFO groups: that by committing suicide together at the correct time, they will leave their containers (bodies) behind. The soul goes to sleep until it is “replanted” in another container. Eventually, the soul will be grafted onto a representative of the “level above human.” The latter will be on-board a UFO space ship such as the one that they believe is currently hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet. A video tape taken shortly before their suicides showed them to be excited about the future. The timing of the suicide was apparently triggered by the arrival of Easter, and by the closest approach to earth of the comet, which they regarded as a celestial “marker”. The timing was apparently unrelated to the Spring Equinox of MAR-20. They feared persecution, death, arrest, physical torture or psychological torture while they remained on earth. They felt that this persecution would come from outside their group – either from “some irate individual or from “the powers that control this world.” There is one report that the group had a large cache of weapons and ammunition.
A couple of the surviving members of the group who did not “leave” have been maintaining their web site at http://www.heavensgate.com and distributing materials and information that the group left behind. During the 1980’s the group made over 500 audio tapes of their secluded classroom teachings. They also made 11 video tapes and wrote a large anthology of their teachings. The survivors have digitized over 200 hours of those audio tapes, and about 20 hours of Video material and stored the entire archive on three CD-ROM’s which can be played on a computer using the RealPlayer technology. They feel it is important to offer this world a permanent record of this groups activities. They are making the CD’s themselves available at no charge, asking only
that the shipping charges be covered by the recipient. Email email@example.com with your postal address to receive the material.
A Christian/New Age/UFO believing group. Total body count: 39 died initially; 41 total death toll.
- “List of mass suicide victims,” New York Times, 1997-MAR-29, at: http://www.rickross.com/reference/gate3.html
- The Heaven’s Gate web page is at: http://www.heavensgatetoo.com/
- Michael Nielsen at Georgia Southern University set up a mirror site at: http://www.psych-web.com/psyrelig/hg/hg.htm
- Yahoo has a number of links to sites describing the Heaven’s Gate group. See: http://www.yahoo.com/Society_and_Culture/
- The Higher Source Contract Enterprises web page is at: http://www7.concentric.net/~Font/
- The UFO group that proceeded Heaven’s Gate is described in: Jacques Vallee, “Messengers of Deception: UFO Contacts and Cults”, Ronin Publishers (1979).
- Roy Wallis, Ed, “Bo and Peep: A Case Study of the Origins of Messianic Leadership In Millennialism and Charisma”, Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland, (1982)
- James R. Lewis, Ed., “The Gods have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds”, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY (1995).
- Robert W. Balch & David Taylor. “Salvation in a UFO.”, Psychology Today 10 (1976)
- Robert W. Balch, “Seekers and Saucers: The Role of the Cultic Milieu in Joining a UFO Cult.”, American Behavioral Scientist 20, no. 6 (1977), P. 839-60.
Copyright © 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Essay first published: 1997-MAR-25
Latest update: 2009-SEP-22
Author: B.A. Robinson