On Wednesday, March 26th of 1997 San Diego police received an anonymous tip which lead them to the 9,200 square foot mansion inhabited by the Heaven’s Gate cult. Upon entering the residence police quickly discovered the corpses of 39 cult members, this included their leader, Marshall Applewhite. Autopsies conducted on the 18 male and 21 females proved that the group had committed suicide over the span of a few days, beginning on Sunday night and ending on Tuesday. Each had consumed phenobarbital and vicodin mixed with pineapple or applesauce, then vodka had been ingested. To ensure death, each had secured a plastic bag around his or her head. The corpses were mirror images of one another; all were discovered lying neatly in their own beds, faces and torsos covered by a square purple cloth. They donned perfectly matching clothing, a patch on their arm which read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team”, and identical Nike Decades adorned their feet. Each member’s pockets contained a five-dollar bill plus exactly three quarters, this was said to be required for an interplanetary toll. You’ve probably already heard all of the morbid details listed above, but do you know how Heaven’s Gate came about?
Marshall Applewhite had been brought up in Texas by a strict Presbyterian Minister father. It appears that he had a fairly uneventful childhood; Applewhite grew up with 3 siblings, he was a great public speaker who possessed a beautiful baritone voice perfect for the Opera, and he had a flare for theatrics. Applewhite would go on to become a college professor who taught the arts which he loved so well. As a young man he graduated college, served in the Army, and was wed to a woman named Anne Pearce with whom he would have two children. But this marriage wouldn’t last, Marshall Applewhite had been living a lie: he was homosexual. This was undeniable after losing a position at the University of Alabama for pursuing an unprofessional relationship with a male student; when Anne learned of her husband’s indiscretion in 1965, she abandoned the marriage.
Applewhite’s sexuality was a constant source of pain throughout his life. Having been born the son of a Southern minister, Applewhite had despised the fact that he was attracted to other men; at one time he even checked into a treatment center in order to “cure” the gay. Applewhite had wanted nothing more than to erase his own sexuality, negate what he believed to be his own impure thoughts, and remove all traces of sex and gender from his existence; later in life he would convince his followers to do exactly the same.
In 1972 Applewhite needed medical care for one reason or another (some accounts state that the man had a near death experience, others claim a mental breakdown. I’m prone to believe it was a psychological issue) and this is how he met his life partner, Bonnie Lou Nettles. Bonnie had been a middle-aged nurse interested in astrology, biblical prophecy, and anything else you could consider new age; Applewhite was very much intrigued by all of this. These two immediately hit it off, and they developed a very close bond; Bonnie and Applewhite became platonic soul mates, if you will. Together the pair invented their very own belief system composed of the Christian Bible (they really liked the book of Revelations), UFOs, astrology, reincarnation, and things they saw on Star Trek; it was just a bunch of various ideas and beliefs all mushed together. They invented cutesy nicknames for one another, such as Ti and Do, and began telling people that they had been the two witnesses mentioned in the Bible. Because the pair believed themselves to be so important, and so much more intelligent than any other mere mortals, they thought it very likely that someone would try and assassinate them. The pair told their followers that they’d then be brought back to life, and Scotty would beam them up into a spaceship in front of witnesses. Yes, people actually believe this would happen!
Together Applewhite and Bonnie would travel across the country preaching their beliefs, gathering upwards of 200 followers, and committing petty crimes for which they would serve a few months in jail. Eventually the pair would find themselves in California.
Members who joined the Heaven’s Gate cult were expected to immediately forsake most aspects of their individual lives; this included giving up their friends, parents, spouses, and children. Unlike many cults which forcibly isolate their members from all outsiders, Heaven’s Gate did still interact daily with the world. No one was ever held against their will, and they had the opportunity to leave the cult whenever they wanted; these people got themselves to work every day, they were free to come and go.
Still, there had been very strict rules for living within this cult. There were to be no differences between the members, individually was strictly forbidden. Men and women dressed the same, they all performed the same types of chores, there were no differences at all – not even when it came to food. Every member ate the exact same thing every single day, whether hungry or not. The amount of food was always carefully measured out, down to each drop of milk poured into their morning bowl of cereal. But the control was much more than just physical, even thoughts were policed. If a man had “earthly” thoughts about a woman he’d noticed walking down the road, he would need to confess that thought as soon as he returned home. Since sex and sexuality had been such a major issue for the man throughout his life, Applewhite actually opted for physical castration; several of the group’s male members followed suit.
As far as how the mass suicide came about, for many years Applewhite did not consider it to be an option at all – as a matter of fact he had actually spoken out against it! The cult had originally believed that dying in any way would be unnecessary as members would be taken straight to their idea of heaven, or “next level”. It wasn’t until Bonnie Nettles passed away from cancer in 1985 that Applewhite decided leaving their “containers” here on Earth might be required, and that new bodies would be given to them when they reached their destination.
Finally Applewhite came to the conclusion that the cult was meant to meet up with a spaceship traveling directly behind the Hale-Bopp comet, and that March of 1997 would be the perfect time for the cult to exit planet Earth. On that Sunday in which the suicides began, the cult went out to eat at Marie Callender’s; even for their final meal they were not permitted to order what they wanted. They all drank the same amount of iced tea, ate a salad with a vinaigrette dressing, for the entree they had turkey pot pie, and dessert was a slice of cheesecake. Their waitress later recounted they had all seemed rather joyful; no one could have guessed that these people were all planning to die after leaving the restaurant.
15 members committed suicide that very Sunday, another 15 died on Monday, and the final 9 ingested the poison on that Tuesday, March the 26th. Applewhite and two female assistants were the very last of the group to die, the trio had stuck around to assist the others with their suicides before taking their own lives. After a former member stopped by and saw that everyone was deceased, a call to 911 was placed. A lengthy video of Applewhite speaking just before he died was released by that surviving member, as was footage of the aftermath. The media, of course, had a field day; clips of this beautiful home chock full of corpses found their way onto our evening news. Back in the 90’s we weren’t as desensitized as we are today, to see an actual dead body on TV was not a common occurrence! We watched intently as the amateur videographer panned the home; there was the peaceful sound of wind chimes singing in the background as we gazed at the deceased from our sofas. The world was mesmerized by the outrageousness of it all.
There have been quite a few death cults, but Heaven’s Gate stands out amongst the others. It is unique, and that’s probably because these people made the choice every day to remain under the control of Marshall Applewhite; more often than not this isn’t the case when it comes to these cults. Usually there are terrifying stories told by members who narrowly escaped with their lives, but most surviving Heaven’s Gate members do not have anything too bad to say about the cult. If you watch the interviews made right before the mass suicide, you’ll notice that these individuals were not upset about their impending doom – they were ecstatic about their future journey!
As illogical as Heaven’s Gate beliefs seem to the rest of us, cult members bought what Applewhite was selling hook, line, and sinker. Somehow Applewhite was able to manipulate this large group of people without using terror, drugs, or physical abuse. To this very day there is still a working website promoting the cult. If you have a question or you’re interested in material about Heaven’s Gate beliefs, a handful of the members who stayed behind (still believers, might I add) will send you that information without asking you for a single cent. It’s all so strange, and so very intriguing.