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.
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