A Fatal Gate: Reflections on the Beliefs of a UFO Cult

When 39 bodies identically dressed and positioned were found in a San Diego suburban house on March 26th, 1997, people were understandably shocked. The incredulity grew when it was revealed that every person intentionally ended their life as part of a religious group claiming aliens had come to take their spirits onto a spaceship. Soon after, videos surfaced of interviews with many of the group’s members cheerfully discussing their planned exit to their new immortal life––the “Next Level” (Krajicek, 2017). The group was named Heaven’s Gate, and the 39 people were the remaining followers of a religious movement that spanned three decades. Their last act cemented their legacy among the deadliest mass suicides in modern history. Remarkably, the website they used to proselyte can be accessed as it existed in 1997 due to the work of two believing members who manage the page and continue to fulfill requests for their religious materials (Feinberg, 2014).

The group has its origins in a chance meeting in 1972 between Marshall Herff Applewhite, an unemployed college music teacher who had been receiving treatment at a psychiatric hospital, and Bonnie Nettles. Nettles was a nurse at the hospital with a growing interest in biblical prophesy and extraterrestrials, and she met Applewhite at a time when her relationship with her husband was tenuous. According to Robert Balch and David Taylor, two sociologists who studied Heaven’s Gate extensively, Applewhite and Nettles “felt an immediate connection” and came to believe that they had been together in a previous life (2002). Applewhite had recently lost his job after having an affair with a male student, and he struggled deeply with his sexuality. He subsequently began hearing voices and had vivid dreams of men dressed in white proclaiming he was meant to fulfill a messianic mission. Nettles saw this dream as a prophecy and claimed she had received revelation from an extraterrestrial about meeting a person like Applewhite. Convinced of their importance, Nettles and Applewhite embarked on a six-month quest of studying the Bible, meditating, and praying.

Eventually, they came to believe that they were the Two Witnesses written about in Revelation Chapter 11. In the Bible, these two prophets are martyred, resurrected, and then taken up into heaven on a cloud. They interpreted the cloud as a spaceship and renamed the event “the Demonstration,” since in it they would reveal to the world the secret of overcoming death. Further, they believed the Earth was “a garden” that extraterrestrials, or members of the Kingdom of Heaven, had seeded with consciousness with the intention of harvesting those who were ready. Jesus had attempted this harvest, in which followers would become immortal, androgynous beings, but it had been delayed. All other religions of the world had been deceived by carnal beings who rejected the Next Level. Thus, Nettles and Applewhite began having public spiritual meetings to find people willing to train with them from 1972 to 1975. They attracted both interested people and the curious media, who quickly dismissed them as a misguided UFO cult. They proclaimed their role as the only two people on Earth in communication with the Kingdom of Heaven, and followers would need to rid themselves of their human mortality in order to “leave their vehicle,” or body, behind (Balch and Taylor, 2002).

The 1970s was a popular time period for new spiritual experiences outside of organized religion, and Nettles and Applewhite communicated a message that resonated with people seeking for a greater purpose. During the next twenty years, the group waxed and waned until only the most devoted these “seekers” remained. Some left as they faced evidence against the teachings of Nettles and Applewhite, known then as The Two or Ti and Do. While many of their claims about the nature of existence are unfalsifiable, they did make a specific prophesy about their death at the hands of their enemies. This event was supposed to occur early on, but eventually, they modified their interpretation to claim that they had suffered a murder of reputation by the media. Another challenge came in 1985 when Nettles died of liver cancer. As he had done throughout the group’s evolution, Applewhite adjusted the belief system to accommodate Nettles’ death and began to talk about the possibility of suicide (Balch and Taylor, 2002).

Overall, a mixture of cognitive biases, intentional behavior control, and isolation facilitated stronger and stronger belief in Nettles and Applewhite’s teachings. In his book about cults, Steven Hassan organizes these strategies in the BITE model, which stands for behavior, information, thought, and emotional control (Hassan, 2015). Perhaps the most vivid example of this control is the absolute restriction of sexual activity which led eight members, including Applewhite, to seek castration in order to conquer their sexual desires (Davis, 2000). In addition, Heaven’s Gate is a tragic example of cognitive dissonance as explained by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter in When Prophecy Fails (1956). Like other doomsday or UFO cults, followers of Heaven’s gate were asked to voluntarily give away all their possessions and cut ties with anyone in their formal life as part of their belief. As the years passed and the arrival of the extraterrestrials failed to occur, both the leaders and followers faced real-world evidence that refuted their belief system. However, they had isolated themselves from the rest of society and relied completely on each other for social support. Thus, those who remained became even more entrenched in the belief. Even after the majority of the members died and no spaceship arrived, two surviving followers maintain the group’s website while two others enacted their own suicides.

In a recent podcast about this ill-fated movement, parents of one of the women who died in 1997 try to reconcile the sweet, smart girl they raised with the woman found lifeless in San Diego wearing a “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” patch on a black shirt (Heppermann, 2017). It’s unimaginable to think that those we love could come to believe in something as extraordinary as Heaven’s Gate and die for it happily. But isn’t it human to want social connection and a higher sense of purpose? The truth is that we are all susceptible to cognitive biases and deception, even if we’re the ones who create the belief.

Curious to learn more? Use the links below to explore the Heaven’s Gate website or binge-listen the Heaven’s Gate podcast.

Works Cited

Balch, R. W., & Taylor D. (2002). Making Sense of the Heaven’s Gate Suicides. In Bromley, D. G., & Melton, J. G. (Ed.) Cults, religion, and violence. (pp. 209-228). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Davis, W. (2000). Heaven’s Gate: A Study of Religious Obedience. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 3(2), 241–267. https://doi.org/10.1525/nr.2000.3.2.241

Feinberg, A. (September 17, 2014). The Online Legacy of a Suicide Cult and the Webmasters Who Stayed Behind. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from https://gizmodo.com/the- online-legacy-of-a-suicide-cult-and-the-webmasters-1617403237

Festinger, L., Riecken, H., & Schachter, S. (1956). When Prophecy Fails. Mansfield Center, CT: Martino Fine Books.

Hassan, S. (2015). Combating Cult Mind Control: The #1 Best-selling Guide to Protection, Rescue, and Recovery from Destructive Cults. Freedom of Mind Press.

Heaven’s Gate – How and When It May Be Entered. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from


Heppermann, A. (Senior Producer). (2017). Heaven’s Gate [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.heavensgate.show/

Krajicek, D. J. (March 25, 2017). A look at the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide on its 20th anniversary – NY Daily News. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/heaven-gate-mass-suicide-20-years- article-1.3008847

19 thoughts on “A Fatal Gate: Reflections on the Beliefs of a UFO Cult

  1. I have never heard of this group and its beliefs until now and wow. I think it is very interesting how it began with a patient and a doctor, for that to be the relationship that embarks this theory is very telling of anyone’s ability to be susceptible. I also think the parent’s quote gives a revealing insight into how we are all searching for a group or purpose, I am almost amazed that a parent was able to conclude this after a tragedy.

    • I agree that the setting of their meeting is interesting, especially since she was a nurse overseeing his care at a psychiatric hospital. Rational thought would have told Nettles that Applewhite was in a distressed mental state, but it seems she was searching for any compelling reason to have a different life than the one she had. I should clarify about the last paragraph–the point about the susceptibility of belief was mine. If you listen to the podcast (highly recommend), you’ll hear that the parents place most of the blame on the group itself, not their daughter.

  2. One of the most interesting parts of this story for me is how the original founders took the biblical story in Revelations and turned it into one about aliens. Frequently, when we think about extremists, we think of people who interpret the bible very literally, but in this case the extremists are really stretching the literal interpretation. What do you think would cause them to interpret the heavenly cloud as a spaceship?

    • It seems incredible to link the Book of Revelation to aliens, but their belief actually fits into the context of popular beliefs during the 60s and 70s. For example, a book titled “Chariots of the Gods?” by Erich von Däniken was published in 1968 and became an international bestseller. Däniken’s premise is that ancient civilizations were visited by aliens and perceived them as Gods. This idea is essentially the idea of Nettles and Applewhite, though of course, they came to believe that they were personally involved.

  3. I am surprised that I have never heard about this event before. This large of a mass suicide is insane! I also think that it is interesting that the two started out in a position of doctor/patient. You often hear in the news about teacher/student inappropriate relationships, that probably have something to do with one person in a position of power. I was wondering if there is any evidence that Nettles was the higher up calling the shots in this UFO cult, or if the two were equally in charge? Very interesting conspiracy!

    • Yes, the nurse-patient relationship in the context of a psychiatric hospital an important aspect of how the group started. Based on what I’ve looked into, it seems that she was the true thought leader, especially since Applewhite was so mentally unstable. I wonder if he concluded that he couldn’t possibly maintain the group without her, so that’s why he made the transition to suicide.

  4. I remember discussing Heaven’s gate in another psychology class I took. I always found it so fascinating how just one or two people can convince groups of people to believe in something and make it so powerful that it is worth dying for. Jim jones and waco are just two other examples of people dying out of devotion to the cult leader and the ideas he represents.

    • Agreed–I think it is difficult to really understand what it is like to be in such a strong belief system/group without personally experiencing it. Having grown up in a pretty high-demand religious group myself, I have a glimpse of the process of believing something so fantastical and what you might do for it. It’s a scary thing.

  5. I find this conspiracy theory incredible because of the way it incorporates elements of Doomsday cults with the Bible, spiritualism, as well as Extraterrestrial life. How did the people go about committing suicide? Once the snowball effect takes place of taking a belief and turning it into a community, I feel like it would be impossible to leave once connections with the outside world are severed. With no friends and family or any real grasp of reality, I am not surprised that people willingly took their own lives. One can only imagine the delusion they are experiencing, it really is a form of mental illness.

    • The question of mental illness in the context of these groups is so difficult. Applewhite obviously suffered from pathological psychosis and delusions, but were the group members who happily died for their “God” mentally ill? As a psychiatrist in training, it’s a particularly important question for me.

  6. I have heard the Heaven’s Gate many times and I still cannot understand why all 39 people completely believe it. To explain their belief, they also use the “nature” and even find a connection with the Bible. Overall, I think all this belief can be caused by extreme sad after Applewhite lose her job. Then, she starts to make the fantasy that she has a conversation with God and she will go to another world after she died. In sum, this post is really interesting.

    • I agree. Something important to understand about his group is that their beliefs were shaped over the course of ~25 years. At the beginning, suicide or castration was never on the table, but the beliefs spiraled downward as it became smaller and more devout. The podcast I cited is an amazing depiction of how it all happened (at least the best we can tell).

  7. That’s how cults work. People are so easily influenced by the surrounding and once they believe in something, they could try best to defend their belief even with life. Brave and useless, feel sad for death of them.

    • It really is tragic, not just for them but for their families as well. On the podcast, you get to hear the last phone call one of the families had with their daughter–it’s heartbreaking.

  8. So, I think I commented on another blog post about this. However, I had no idea that Applewhite and Nettles thought they together in a past life nor how they had connected themselves to the Bible. I feel like Heaven’s Gate is extreme example of apple-picking on how they took parts of the Bible and completely interpreted them to fit with the belief of aliens that they had at that time. I think getting rid of all their possessions and separating from their families might have be taken from the Bible as well as having a relationship with these higher beings are more important than being tied down by earthly possession and relationships. Its also interesting to see how quick and willing Applewhite was with changing around a few things just to accommodate for Nettles death. I just don’t understand why they couldnt wait till they died of natural causes but instead chose suicide as a way to be raised into the sky.

  9. This group reminds me of the seekers whom we learned about in class. I think it is interesting how after Nettles passed, Applewhite simply adjusted the belief system to accommodate for her death. Do you know if they lost any followers after this incident? I assume at this point their must be a lot of cognitive dissonance going on so perhaps not.

  10. It’s weird that they would try to find connections between bible and aliens. Although bible has great history and religious meaning, it’s still not count as scientific evidence for any existences. In this way, it’s get even more bizarre that trying to use one kind of myth to prove another myth. Just like Dante’s Divine Comedy to testify the existence of Demon. There’s no logic behind the theory. Maybe the only thing I could figure out, it’s their highly motivated confirmation bias.

  11. The confirmation biases in these accounts of the Heaven’s Gate cult carry so much weight. The fact that eight members were so enlightened as to castrate themselves to deter their sexual desires is mad!! On top of that, I want to know what happens in the brain that causes individuals to stay true to their beliefs even after they are proven wrong. I want to know if there is any specific chemical (neurotransmitter) increases or decreases. I’m sure there are some comparative studies out there that shows the differences between brain structure and chemical markers with cult followers as well as the average person. I always find the intensive persuasion of cult leaders to be fascinating.

  12. Cults such as these help people find meaning and a place they belong to. People such as Nettles and Applewhite seem like they took advantage of the people considered the outgroup of society. Leading people to believe in theories that end in fatalities is bad enough. People giving up their lives for something with no evidence? That’s a horrible movement that leads to tragedy.

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