Heaven's Gate

Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles founded Heaven's Gate, which was a cult that "combined Christian and some Theosophical doctrines with beliefs in UFO's [and] extraterrestrials" (Wessinger 2000, p. 233). Applewhite and Nettles went by many aliases during their time together. They went by Guinea and Pig, Bo and Peep, Ti and Do, and collectively they were referred to as the "Two." Applewhite and Nettles met at a hospital where Nettles worked in 1972. After the meeting, the two became close friends and Applewhite felt that he had met the "platonic helper he had longed for all his life" (Balch 1995, p. 142). Although they met in 1972, the cult really did not form until they began attracting followers in 1975.

The psychiatrist Marc Galanter argues that Applewhite and Nettles may have suffered from "the psychiatric syndrome of folie à deux, in which one partner draws the other into a shared system of delusion" (Galanter 1999, p. 178). They believed that they had come from the Next Level (i.e., heaven) to find individuals who would dedicate themselves to preparing for the spaceship that would take them there (Balch 1995). Their belief that they were from the Next Level is evidenced by both their assertions that they were the two witnesses referred to in Revelation 11 who had risen from the dead after being killed for spreading the

Identified as "The Two," Marshall H. Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Trusdale (siting at table) hold a meeting in Waldport, Oregon, September 14, 1975, to recruit followers. Over twenty years later, thirty-nine Heaven's Gate members committed suicide at the cult's mansion in Rancho Sante Fe, California. BETTMAN/CORBIS
Identified as "The Two," Marshall H. Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Trusdale (siting at table) hold a meeting in Waldport, Oregon, September 14, 1975, to recruit followers. Over twenty years later, thirty-nine Heaven's Gate members committed suicide at the cult's mansion in Rancho Sante Fe, California.
word of God, and their belief that Applewhite was the Second Coming of Jesus Christ incarnate, and Nettles was the Heavenly Father.

Applewhite and Nettles believed that evil space aliens called Luciferians had kept people tied to the human level, and therefore incapable of moving to the Next Level. Because Applewhite and Nettles were from the Next Level only they could provide the insight needed to prepare their followers, which made the followers extremely dependent upon their leadership. The process of preparing for the Next Level involved giving up all human attachments and was called the "human individual metamorphis" (Balch 1995, p. 143). Some of the human attachments that cult members were expected to give up included family, friends, sexual relationships, and gender.

The Followers

Sociologists Robert Balch and David Taylor and religious scholar Catherine Wessinger have noted that the members led a very regimented, monastic lifestyle within the cult. First, platonic male-female partnerships were formed, so each member could develop an "awareness of the human qualities each person had to overcome" (Balch and Taylor 1977, p. 842). Second, group members wore uniforms that were designed to conceal their human form in general and, in particular, their gender. Third, Balch notes that the cult had a number of rules and guidelines that "discouraged contact with the outside world" (e.g., do not contact parents or friends), "eliminate[d] old habits and identities" (e.g., no jewelry, no drugs), and "prevent[ed] the formation of interpersonal attachments within the group" (e.g., no sexual relationships) (Balch 1995, p. 149). Additionally, seven members, including Applewhite, had themselves castrated in order to control their sexual urges. Fourth, Applewhite and Nettles had group members engage in a series of activities or rituals that kept them busy for nearly all parts of the day. For example, Balch outlines an activity called "a tone," where group members were to keep themselves focused on a tone produced from a tuning fork at all times while doing other activities. The idea was to keep the group members focused on the Next Level, while ignoring human thoughts.

Many scholars provide commentary on the Heaven's Gate mindset. Marc Galanter points out that although the ideas that Applewhite and Nettles proposed are delusional and unreasonable, many of these concepts taken in isolation are relatively accepted by mainstream society. Balch and Taylor report that most of the people who joined Heaven's Gate accepted many of these ideas in isolation and were particularly intrigued by the way that Applewhite and Nettles had combined them. Moreover, Wessinger reports that those who left the cult still believed its ideas, but could not "adhere to the monastic discipline" (Wessinger 2000, p. 237).

The Suicide

In 1997 the Heaven's Gate members were living in a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California, where the group had been earning a living as web page designers. Applewhite became convinced that Nettles, who had died of cancer in 1985, was piloting a spaceship in the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet to take them to the Next Level. However, they could not go in their human form, so they committed suicide to shed their "physical containers" (Lewis 1998, p. 2).

The suicide began on March 22, 1997. On day one, fifteen members ate applesauce or pudding laced with Phenobarbital and drank vodka, and then other members helped fasten plastic bags around their heads to asphyxiate them. After their deaths, the plastic bags were removed and they were covered with a purple shroud. On the second day, the process was repeated for another fifteen members, followed by another seven members. Finally, the mass suicide was completed when the last two members killed themselves (Wessinger 2000).

In total there were thirty-nine people (20 women and 19 men) who committed suicide. The group members ranged in age from their twenties to age seventy-two. When the bodies were discovered, they were all dressed in black and covered with a purple shroud. On their left shoulders group members had a patch that read "Heaven's Gate Away Team," which was an apparent reference to the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. Additionally, "Each person had a $5 bill and quarters in the front shirt pocket" (Wessinger 2000, p. 231).

Differences from Other Forms of Cult Violence

Wessinger notes that Heaven's Gate was different from other cults that have decided to commit violence (e.g., Solar Temple, Jonestown) in that there were no children involved. Heaven's Gate members believed that only adults were prepared to make the decision about whether or not to go to the Next Level.

In Jonestown, Guyana, it is unclear how many people committed suicide versus how many people were murdered. In the Solar Temple cult, primarily a European cult, a number of the members were killed if it was felt that they were too weak to make the decision to kill themselves (Wessinger, 2000). However, Wessinger (2000) argues that there are several lines of evidence that suggest the members of Heaven's Gate were highly committed to voluntarily taking their own lives. First, the highly coordinated suicide (i.e., a farewell tape, preparation of the bodies) suggests that this was a well-thought-out plan. Second, the suicide took several days, yet no one tried to escape, unlike Jonestown where some members hid or escaped into the jungle. Moreover, two group members of Heaven's Gate who did not commit suicide in March later killed themselves in a similar ritualistic manner.

See also: Cult Deaths ; Jonestown ; Waco


Balch, Robert W. "Waiting for the Ships: Disillusionment and the Revitalization of Faith in Bo and Peep's UFO Cult." In James R. Lewis ed., The Gods Have Landed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Balch, Robert W., and David Taylor. "Seekers and Saucers: The Role of the Cultic Milieu in Joining a UFO Cult." American Behavioral Scientist 20 (1977):839–860.

Galanter, Marc. "The Millennium Approaches." In Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lewis, James R. "Introduction." Cults in America. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998.

Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2000.


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User Contributions:

bob mcdonald
remembering when bo and peep borrowed an automobile from budget rent a car in st Louis mo and sent letter that it was going to be returned at a later time. from what I remember budget did not prossicute inspight of keeping the car out of commission for a long time causing the company to lose revenue; they also put many miles on the rental car which they said they borrowed.

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