I’ve always been fascinated with cults. How does one person (or in this case a couple) get so many people to follow him/her with such blind faith? How do people allow themselves to be talked into leaving families, friends, shunning personal identities and possessions, and taking up a mantle of communal living and following a leader? One could make the case that this happens with all religions, so what makes a cult a cult, and how do those who lead them know which people to target?
The definition of a cult from Oxford Languages is “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” This would cover most organized religions. So, what is the difference?
According to an article on the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Today, “cult” is a term that doesn’t refer to religion at all but is applied to a social movement. Those who accept the beliefs and rituals are members of the religion. But many outside consider the movement, and its followers, to be a cult. That definition doesn’t help me differentiate religion from cult very well, but I think it does apply to the particular cult I want to take a look at, Heaven’s Gate.
Beginning with the End
My first exposure to the Heaven’s Gate cult was with its ending. I was a 23-year-old college student on March 26, 1997, when San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies discovered the bodies of 39 group members, including that of the leader, Marshall Applewhite, in a house in the suburb of Rancho Santa Fe, California. The group shocked the world with its mass suicide in order to reach what they believed was a spacecraft following the Hale-Bopp Comet.
I remember being riveted to the television as news of the findings unfolded. These members were found in their beds, in a large rented mansion that they called The Monastery. The group had taken a mixture of phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce or pudding chased with vodka. To make certain they got the job done, they secured plastic bags around their heads to induce asphyxiation. All 39 were dressed in black shirts and sweatpants, brand new black-and-white Nikes, and armband patches reading “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” Each member was found with a $5 bill and three quarters in their pockets—a nod to Huckleberry Finn, in which it was stated that it costs $5.75 to ride the tail of a comet to heaven.
As the story goes, once a member had passed, a living member would remove the plastic bag from the person’s head, pose the body neatly in the bed with faces and torsos covered by a square purple cloth for privacy. The 21 women and 18 men between the ages of 26 and 72 are believed to have died in three groups throughout three days with remaining members cleaning up after each of the previous group’s deaths.
Thus began my obsession with reading and watching everything related to not only this sect but with others as well.
Cult leader, Marshall Applewhite, was the son of a Presbyterian minister. In March 1972, after being fired from the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas due to an alleged relationship with one of his male students, he met co-leader, Bonnie Nettles, a 44-year-old married nurse. What drew these two together seemed to be a shared interest in teachings on Christology, asceticism, and eschatology along with science fiction. Applewhite wrote that after meeting Nettles, he felt that he had known her for a long time and concluded that they had met in a past life. Nettles told him that extraterrestrials had given her a heads up about their meeting and persuaded him that he had a divine assignment.
The two concluded that they had been chosen to live as prophets and were the two witnesses foretold in the Book of Revelation. They often referred to themselves as “The Two” or “The UFO Two” and believed they would be killed and brought back to life and transported onto a spaceship.
In 1975, they began gathering followers by publishing ads for meetings where they would discuss their beliefs. At these events, they presented themselves as representatives of beings from another planet, known as The Next Level, seeking participants for an experiment. Those who agreed to be part of the said experiment would be brought to a higher evolutionary level. They began traveling across the country holding these meetings and gathering interested parties.
Eventually, they asked the followers to begin selling all worldly possessions, saying goodbye to loved ones, and disappearing into the void. The leaders, Do (pronounced “Doe”) and Ti (pronounced “Tea”) as they were now called, led the nearly 100-member group across the country sleeping in nature and panhandling.
After Nettles’s (Ti’s) passing from liver cancer (instead of her leaving on a spaceship) threw a wrench in the cult’s doctrine, Applewhite (Do) pivoted into extremism, pulling the followers into becoming more reclusive and using their Website as a primary recruitment tool. Applewhite spread the belief that the Hale-Bopp Comet was their ultimate source of salvation and ascent into Heaven.
In the HBO documentary, Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults, former members discuss some of the group’s more radical ideas and subsequent descent into extremism.
The group began with small changes at first which were embraced to help the members alleviate themselves from any form of sexual desire. It is speculated that this was done because of Applewhite’s discomfort with his homosexuality and attraction to one of the group’s members whom he asked to leave because of said attraction.
First, everyone in the group was asked to cut his/her hair in the same short, non-descript haircut. They also were asked to wear only modest, unisex clothing including slacks and long-sleeved shirts that were buttoned to the neck.
When members began reporting that they were still having sexual feelings (as people do naturally), the real madness began. Applewhite began asking for volunteers for those willing to be castrated. He thought this would remove the desires of the flesh and further elevate the members into that higher level of consciousness and further into androgyny.
The next step was the beginning of the idea of leaving Earth and traveling to the Next Level. Applewhite considered the shootout at Waco as a possibility for ushering his group home because he wasn’t sure that his followers would be willing to participate in mass suicide. He floated the idea of purchasing an armory and learning how to use the guns to become a “threat” in the eyes of the government—death by cop, if you will.
The members weren’t to into that idea and were worried that they would be maimed or harmed without actually dying and would be left on the Earth while others were able to ascend.
Eventually, Applewhite approached the concept of mass suicide with the group and, while he lost some of them, the majority of the members were willing to be a part of that in order to get to the Next Level.
One of the most striking scenes in the HBO documentary is the opening of the last episode where we are shown a group of followers singing a song about their “Exit” and how they will be joining Ti on the Next Level. They all seem joyful at the idea.
Just before the Exit, there arose a conspiracy theory that the government was hiding a UFO on the tail of the Hale-Bopp Comet. For members of Heaven’s Gate, this is important because they have been looking for a “marker” as a sign for the timing of the Exit.
Applewhite used this conspiracy theory to tell his followers that the Hale-Bopp Comet was Ti coming back for them and that they had to be prepared. The timing for the mass suicide was now upon them. “The Kingdom of Heaven is in our midst,” said Applewhite. “In other words, the door is open.”
The group began making videos, essentially saying goodbye to friends and families, and putting affairs in order. They also wanted to keep spreading their message after they were gone, so they sent these videos to former members of the group (this is how they ended up being discovered after their deaths). They even began taking mini vacations—a sort of bucket list—and putting messages on their website alluding to the fact that they would be exiting soon. And you know the rest of the story.
Watching the home videos of these people is gut wrenching. They all seem happy and fulfilled, and believe they are going home to be with their other leader. All trusted Applewhite with their very lives, and he led them to the slaughter.
Why did they trust him? What made him seem like the true idea of a savior?
There are, no doubt, a variety of reasons as personal and individual as those who had them. It may be difficult to understand, depending on your personality and beliefs. However, it seems to be part of the human condition that we’re all looking for something…something to believe in, something to follow, something to give our lives meaning. Unfortunately, there are those like Applewhite and Nettles who are always waiting to exploit that for their own reasons.