Background of Heaven’s Gate
The date was March 26, 1997. For my fellow University of San Diego High School classmates and me, it was a time when we were eagerly preparing for high school commencement: a monumental milestone that paves the way for soon-to-be adulthood. However, this particular day went down in the history books for something bigger, an event almost unforeseen even for those directly involved. You see, this was the day when the upscale, sleepy San Diego community of Rancho Santa Fe lost its innocence and became the culprit of a mass media storm.
It was on this day when an anonymous tip to local police suggested that 39 men and women committed mass suicide at 18241 Colina Norte, a 9,000-plus square-foot home, which housed the cult known as Heaven’s Gate. It’s one of those peculiar situations, albeit 25 years later, that begs us to examine how peoples’ lives can be so dichotomously different, even if they’re just a few miles apart. People, from all walks of life, engaging in their daily routines of work, school, and family amidst a fanatical group who believed that suicide would grant them entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The members of Heaven’s Gate eagerly looked up to their leaders, Bonnie Lu Trousdale Nettles and Marshall Herff Applewhite. The two went by Ti and Do, respectively. A self-proclaimed prophet who felt he was the second coming of Jesus Christ, Applewhite, in his earlier years, proved to be a man of normal means. He attended various universities and served in the United States Army. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he had musical talent and enrolled in the University of St. Thomas, initially pursuing a degree in education. However, in 1970, Applewhite left the institution due to emotional turmoil. He was dismissed from his teaching position at a university in Alabama for having a sexual affair with a male student. Then came the dissolution of his marriage in 1972, prompting voluntary admittance to a psychiatric facility in Houston. It was here when he met Bonnie and the rest is history, as they say.
Bonnie was a registered nurse who was also dealing with marital issues. Soon, both she and Applewhite would form a close friendship, sharing a mutual interest in theosophy and mysticism. Believing that they both possessed divine talents, they eventually left to commence their study group and bookstore, known as the Christian Arts Center. Their unique philosophy mirrored the Bible and the musings of theosophy founder Helena Blavatsky. Mixed in was an amalgamation of ufology, astrology, and science fiction. In 1973, Applewhite and Nettles began to travel around the United States to spread their viewpoints. A hiccup occurred in 1975 when Applewhite was jailed due to failure to return a rental car. Ample time was granted while incarcerated and he further developed his theological beliefs.
After his stint in jail, he and Nettles traveled to California and Oregon to spread their philosophy. While traveling, the pair had little money and often resorted to selling their blood or working odd jobs. Due to low funds, they camped out and often subsisted on bread. In a megalomaniac fashion, Do and Ti felt that they were granted higher-level minds and had been chosen to fulfill biblical prophecies. They concluded that they would be murdered, then return to life and beamed up in a spaceship. The pair told their followers that the only path for eventual salvation was to go with them and abandon everything associated with their earthly lives. They also convinced their students that they were the ultimate source of truth and to obey them at all times. Being the charming and charismatic person that he was, Applewhite was hardly seen as dictatorial.
Do and Ti’s teachings centered on the idea that followers could travel to Heaven after transforming into immortal alien species by discarding their human elements. They ascribed to the belief that they were sent from beyond to fulfill the same mission as Jesus. The pair felt that they were very old ETs who reincarnated in human bodies as a way to “harvest souls” to help fulfill their warped undertaking. Do and Ti referred to themselves as “The Two” based on the two witnesses in the Book of Revelations who were slain and ascended to heaven. It’s as if they blended the essentials of science fiction, New Age theories, and biblical scriptures and mixed them all together with an added dose of distorted imagination. Those that chose to follow in their path were obsessed with escaping the reality of human life so much so that it ultimately camouflaged any rational ability to discern mental illness or psychosis in their leaders.
According to Nettles, her meeting with Applewhite was foretold to her by ETs, ultimately convincing the latter that he was among the divine. By 1975, the pair adopted the names Bo and Peep and had around 70 followers. In addition to abandoning friends, family, and sexuality, followers were given biblical names ending in “ody.” By 1976, Applewhite and Nettles chose the names, Do and Ti and split their members into small groups known as “Star Clusters.” From 1976 to 1979, the cult resided in campgrounds in various areas, such as the Rocky Mountains and Texas.
Tragedy struck the cult in 1985 when Nettles succumbed to brain cancer. Two years prior, she had one of her eyes surgically removed due to that diagnosis. Applewhite failed to inform her children that she passed away alone until many months later. Sadly, her daughter was located just a few hours away from her and felt ripped to shreds when she found out about her mother’s demise. Do descended into a big depression after her passing and felt that he was left behind because he had more to learn. He taught his followers to believe that Nettles’ spirit ascended to a spaceship and received a new body and that they, too, would follow in her path. It seems as though her untimely death was the catalyst for introducing tight regimented schedules for his students. They were soon taught to dissociate from anything on the outside of their mission.
Applewhite felt that heaven was a planet inhabited by highly intelligent beings and that physical bodies were mandated to reside there. Furthermore, he concluded that evolution on other planets would evolve once they reached the Next Level. He instilled in his pupils that Jesus was an extraterrestrial and boarded a spaceship after he rose from the dead. Applewhite believed that “every two millennia”, humans were granted an opportunity to reach the Next Level. The early 90s would be the first time for this opportune chance to reach the Kingdom of Heaven since the time of Jesus.
In the early 90s, the group made nearly $400,000 per year, enabling them to recruit more members and publish an advertisement in USA Today and other newspapers. Do convinced his members that for them to reach the “Evolutionary Level Above Human,” they must abandon their bodies or “vehicles” and board an alien spacecraft that would arrive as a comet would make its way across Earth’s horizon in 1997. Once they boarded this eventual spaceship, the group would inhabit other bodies. Essentially, they were all higher beings who took control of an earthly body as a way to educate humanity and spread their principles. Applewhite eventually became paranoid, fearing a conspiracy against Heaven’s Gate. He strongly believed that malevolent aliens known as Luciferians desired to destroy him and his mission. During this time he discussed how the Earth was an overgrown garden and would soon recycle as a result of an Apocalypse.
The Heaven’s Gate Mass Suicide
The remaining cult members rented a large Rancho Santa Fe mansion in October 1996, the same year that brought about the Hale Bopp Comet, one of the most beautiful celestial showcases in the twentieth century. Named after Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp, the sky’s event was detectable in the Northern Hemisphere the subsequent year. During this time frame, Heaven’s Gate members recorded two video messages to let viewers know that this was the “last chance to evacuate Earth.” Adding fanatical pollution to this natural event, shoddy astronomer Chuck Shramek, went on the Art Bell radio show to discuss how he identified a massive object moving in unison with the comet as it approached Earth’s horizon. As if this wasn’t enough, a remote viewer named Courtney Brown along with Prudence Calabrese confirmed that a UFO was trailing the comet. This was done in an attempt to gain notoriety and undoubtedly fueled the belief systems of Heaven’s Gate.
As a way to engage the news reports of the cult, Applewhite chose to announce the group’s coming exodus from the mortal realm:
Whether Hale-Bopp has a ‘companion’ or not is irrelevant from our perspective. However, its arrival is joyously very significant to us at ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ The joy is that our Older Member in the Evolutionary Level Above Human (the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’) has made it clear to us that Hale-Bopp’s approach is 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. Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion – the ‘graduation’ from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave ‘this world’ and go with Ti’s crew.
The mass media labeled Heaven’s Gate a “UFO cult.” Like a flock of vultures, heavy coverage of the group existed before the collective suicide but proliferated after their deaths. At the time, the story was the primary interest of San Diego news stations. Even today, some 25 years since the tragedy, you can find various stories, interviews, and opinions about Heaven’s Gate. The group’s website is still active at http://www.heavensgate.com
Each member recorded exit statements designed to give the public a glimpse into why they chose this path and what it meant to them. When tuning into these recordings, it is highly likely that they were the victims of mind control and tried so hard to convince themselves of the validity of Ti and Do’s teachings. Here are just a few quotes from some of these students during their exit statements, to demonstrate this probability. These examples are offered not to criticize or judge the members, but to showcase the various reasons as to why people join cults.
SRRODY: “Just about anything that would be of significance to you is already on Heaven’s Gate.” Although he mentioned that it’s “silly”, he urged viewers to read or watch anything related to the cult. You’ll notice that he tried to convince himself of what he was saying and even questioned at one point if it was okay that he mentioned it.
YRSODY: “What we’re about to do is nothing to think negatively about. We’re all choosing of our own free will to go to the Next Level with Ti and Do.” Did she voluntarily believe that this was free will? Or, was she coerced into believing that? Of course, she was referring to the chosen paths of suicide. This alone demonstrated how she was victimized by Do’s principles. Throughout her interview, she pledged allegiance to her leaders and placed them on pedestals.
DSTODY: “Suffice to say, when I heard the information, I was overwhelmed.” He goes on to relay that the information provided by Ti and Do’s teachings resonated with him on a spiritual level. When listening to his exit statement, you can tell that he was searching for a greater dose of spirituality and the meaning of life. Hence, he expressed vulnerability. He even questioned what he did to deserve admittance into Heaven’s Gate. He described it as an “opportunity” and a “gift.”
MLLODY: In her interview, she describes exactly what a cult is; however, expressed that Heaven’s Gate was anything but that. She said, “I think everyone in this class wanted something more than what the world could offer. They were seeking some type of rightness or some type of goodness that they did not feel in this world.” This aligns with the common denominator of not being content with one’s life and striving for something greater. In actuality, this is something we all experience and desire at times.
OLLODY: Throughout his statement, you can tell that he’s separated himself from what he once was. He referred to his body as a “vehicle” and said, “This vehicle knew that it didn’t fit in this world.” The theme of vulnerability surfaces again. OLLODY talks about his childhood beliefs in little people (aliens) and his desire to find the meaning of those beliefs even as an adult. He then found Heaven’s Gate as the perfect means to seek the answers to his convictions. He said, “The little people I had been looking for had come to take me home.”
TDDODY: “I’m no longer satisfied or fulfilled by any human pursuit, indulgence, or activity. I’ve tried it all and there’s nothing on this planet that is worthwhile or of any interest to me.” One can argue that he may have been dealing with some depression and yearning to escape reality. Once again, susceptibility is showcased here.
On March 21st, the Heaven’s Gate clan ate their last meal at a Marie Callender’s restaurant, located at 5980 Avenida Encinas, off the 5 near Palomar Airport Road. They rejoiced and regaled as they consumed salad, turkey pot pie, blueberry cheesecake, and iced tea. Between March 22nd and 24th, the group helped each other die in shifts. Applewhite was the last person to pass, obviously making sure that no one chickened out at the last minute.
After the anonymous tip of mass suicide was provided to the police on March 26th, the first officers on the scene immediately knew that they were contending with death due to the pungent odor of decomposition permeating the sprawling mansion. Upon entrance, they soon found the entire home neat and orderly, except for the lifeless bodies arranged peculiarly on cots and bunk bed mattresses. Immediately depicted on televisions across the nation were the scenes of deceased cult members taken out of the Rancho Santa Fe mansion. These are images seared into the memories of many San Diegans and those across the United States.
Each person was wearing a matching black uniform with a badge that said, “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” Each lifeless body was adorned in black and white Nike shoes with purple shrouds and plastic bags covering their torsos and heads. It was soon discovered that they died after consuming a lethal concoction of applesauce and phenobarbital chased by vodka. They all had a passport secured in one hand along with $5.75 in the other. As a result, the Nike slogan of “Just Do It” took on a whole new meaning. Applewhite chose these particular black shoes with the recognizable white swoosh because he liked their look and was able to get a deal when buying them in bulk.
Now, you may be wondering why they needed passports and this exact amount of change. According to the book, Weird California: Your Travel Guide to California’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets, the answer may lie in a 1907 story, called “Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Trip to Heaven” by the legendary Mark Twain. The protagonist in this story departs for “an extended excursion among the heavenly bodies” on the rear of a comet, taking with him a passport and $5.75 in cash.
Ironically, Heaven’s Gate posted an article on its website discussing its stance against suicide. However, one can’t argue that they chose to commit just that. They held the conviction that it would be suicide to not go on to the Next Level. They relayed, “The true meaning of ‘suicide’ is to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered. These days, we are focused on two primary tasks: one – of making a last attempt at telling the truth about how the Next Level may be entered (our last effort at offering to individuals of this civilization the way to avoid ‘suicide’); and two – taking advantage of the rare opportunity we have each day – to work individually on our personal overcoming and change, in preparation for entering the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The Rancho Santa Fe mansion housing the Heaven’s Gate Away Team eventually sold for less than half its original value. In an attempt to thwart “lookie-loos” and secure privacy, the new owner changed the address and street name to 18239 Paseo Victoria. For those that are interested in driving by, be rest assured that the home is safely guarded by a security gate.
Why Are We Still So Fascinated by Heaven’s Gate?
The allure of these mass-scale cults exists because we yearn to understand the psychology behind them. We strive to make sense of why a group of seemingly normal and educated individuals would make the conscious (or perhaps, brainwashed) decision to strip everything they had to seek spiritual enlightenment. We desire to understand the “why” and “how” even though we may never quite unlock all the secrets. The Heaven’s Gate cult is no exception. Most will arrive at the consensus that the individuals duped by Ti and Do’s mentality had an insatiable thirst for belonging and togetherness. Each member most likely found some innate connection to the Heaven’s Gate doctrine.
When you think about it, aspects of cult mentality mirror that of outside, regular life. We all desire to belong and have solid relationships. We have to follow certain rules in our professional lives. From our infancy, we learn to deal with peer pressure from others. We learn at a young age that hard work and dedication lead to various levels of success. The familiarity with these common themes could be one reason why certain people get suckered into these extremist groups.
According to psychologist Steve Eichel, cults typically look for individuals who possess idealistic and optimistic traits. These are passionate people who desire to self-improve and live a more fulfilling life. These are common themes running through all of us. Intriguingly, a 2017 study of former cult followers discovered that 61% had more than 12 years of education. When reading about Heaven’s Gate, you will find out that many of its members were highly educated and experienced in their chosen career paths. Many of them were imaginative dreamers and attracted to spirituality.
Many radical sects seem attractive and welcoming on the surface but hidden deep within are sinister motives. Their leaders emphasize an initial sense of community while eventually inclining toward peer pressure. They aim to force members to separate themselves from society and maintain strict adherence to rules and policies governed by the cult. These groups discourage any critical thinking, especially if it falls out of the four corners of their forerunner’s mentality. Yet, they don’t discriminate based on the type of person you are on the outside; their main requirement is for newly indoctrinated members to pledge allegiance to what that group is all about. Victims that are besieged by its doctrines will not realize their eventual decrease in emotional, psychological, and spiritual growth.
Hank Hanegraaf of the Christian Research Institute felt that Applewhite was the quintessential spiritual con artist. According to him, “So often, they follow a leader who is presenting them the skin of the truth stuffed with a deadly lie. I don’t think that there is a more classic, current case of that than Herff Applewhite. When he told them that they had been impregnated with an alien spirit and that’s why his message resonated with them, they were immediately willing to follow the seductive siren call of the cult leader. In this case, follow it right to their deaths.”
Pervading interest in rebellious mentality exists because we crave to understand what propels people from sound minds to become so deceived by zealous creeds. We desire to scrutinize the exact moment(s) when these victims become so faithful to that, which is duping them. To comprehend the reasons for this, we must analyze the aspects of these individuals’ emotional and mental statuses, relationships with others, and life’s many challenges. In doing so, people may be better equipped to save friends or family from joining something that could ultimately destroy them.
For whatever reason(s), cult victims want security and the desire to make better sense out of their lives. Perhaps, the standard familial way of living is failing these individuals and they seek a way out. Maybe their current belief systems aren’t as attractive any longer. Typically, low self-esteem, depression, and a perceived lacking in life are underliers for those who find cults appealing. Those in extremely vulnerable states may find these sorts of groups beneficial. Whether due to the longing for escapism, the craving for deeper connections, or the aspirations to achieve greater spiritual ascension, the reasons why people join cults are as multifaceted as the groups, themselves.
Some psychologists easily dismiss the idea of cult brainwashing. Instead, they suggest that group members become dependent on their leaders because they can’t survive without them. They maintain that followers became enthralled with Applewhite’s narratives as opposed to him psychologically manipulating them. In this book, The Devil at Heaven’s Gate: Rethinking the Study of Religion in the Age of Cyber-Space, author Hugh Urban asserts that Applewhite’s life exhibited “the intense ambivalence and alienation shared by many individuals lost in the late 20th-century capitalist society” (Urban 268-302). His students shared similar nihilistic views, which further mesmerized them.
Additionally, one can argue that his students also became magnetized by his charismatic and charming nature. He was an engaging and articulate speaker, possessing the ability to draw people into his convictions. One ex-follower described feeling a sense of “fear and awe” upon meeting Do for the first time. As is the case with the majority of cult leaders, Applewhite was instantly seen as a prophet and all-knowing individual. Take Jim Jones of the Jonestown People’s Temple or David Koresh of the Branch Davidians: they had the innate aptitudes of captivating people from all walks of life.
In April 1997, People published an article about Heaven’s Gate and featured segments on each cult member. When reading about them, it’s astonishing but not surprising to learn that they were normal individuals with loving families, close friends, and secure jobs. However, two common themes existed in each of their biographic accounts: the need for belonging and the desire to engage their spiritual beliefs. Still, after all these years, we need to look beyond the curtain and dissect the often-obscure reasons for why these individuals adhered to extreme belief systems. This is the main impetus for why our ongoing fascination with cults remains in the depths of society.
Amidst the craziness of cults and their uncanny ability at brainwashing mind control, we do need to remind ourselves that the victims of these so-called groups were human beings tricked into something they felt was beneficial. The Heaven’s Gate crew all believed in a superior way of life beyond the stars. We can’t fault them for that. They were decent people beloved by their family and friends. As a communal society, we can try to fathom their principles without dismissing them. Perhaps, their deaths have given us a deeper glimpse into their lives and a deeper awareness of their motivations. Maybe that’s their collective legacy, a timeless existence that lets humanity unlock the psychological secrets of cult temperament. Let’s hope that they’ve all found eternal peace and the answers that they were striving for in life on Earth.
Written by Nicole Strickland
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