Humanity’s Next Step and Heaven’s Gate

Comets are fantastic celestial bodies that have captured our attention for centuries, and the rarer the comet, the more excitement it generates. When the Hale-Bopp comet passed within our view for 18 months in 1996-7, it brought with it the end of Heaven’s Gate’s time on Earth. Heaven’s Gate, was a religious group and later cult founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in 1974, believed that a spaceship followed behind the Hale-Bopp comet and would be their key to “graduation from the Human Evolutionary Level,” that they would ascend to some higher being (“How and When it May be Entered”). On March 19-20, 1997, 39 members of the cult would commit mass suicide to be taken away on their supposed journey.

To briefly describe the beliefs of Heaven’s Gate members, its members thought that Earth was to be essentially restarted, and the only way to save their consciousness would be to ascend to a “Next Level” that Applewhite and Nettles themselves belonged to. Originally believing that a spaceship would come and deliver them to this Next Level, Nettles’ death in the 80s caused a slight shift that they would have to part with their bodies and humanity in order to ascend. This culminated in the belief in the ship following Hale-Bopp, and that by willingly leaving their bodies when the comet passed close to Earth, they would reach this ascension. Psychiatrist Marc Galanter and other scholars even stated that standard society generally accepted many of the concepts Applewhite based the cult’s ideas from. The group started in the 70’s, right during the UFO craze, so belief in extraterrestrials was not uncommon. Also, the idea of a higher existence, or Heaven, was and still is the backbone for the major religions that Applewhite pulled from. The typical member “accepted many of these ideas in isolation [but] were particularly intrigued by the way that Applewhite and Nettles had combined them” (“Death and Dying”). The facts against the belief are plentiful, without even delving into some of the more ridiculous claims. No spaceship was ever observed trailing Hale-Bopp. No evidence would support the existence of a higher human plane, let alone that Applewhite and Nettles came from it, and no evidence has been found that alien life even exists or visited us.

The member’s backgrounds largely play into how the cult even gained its footing. Since the group started in the 70s, many of its members consisted of hippies who at rejected the traditional religious dogmas and sought to “find themselves”. This gathering of people seeking to find themselves would largely contribute to the maintenance of the belief, and would give a sense of communal belonging that is similarly seen in Flat Earthers today. Often, even after leaving the group, former members typically still believed in the groups ideas, but just couldn’t maintain the disciplined lifestyle. One social influence and kind of syndrome that greatly contributed to the belief of Applewhite and Nettles was from “folie à deux” (“Death and Dying”). Sufferers of this syndrome have a shared sense of delusion, and reinforce each other’s delusion further. Additionally, the confirmation bias seemed to have a heavy hand in the formation of their early beliefs. The pair, already believing to have known each other in a past life, scoured the Bible and came to rely heavily on passages that would support their idea of the Next Level. They would even come to believe that they were the two witnesses referenced in the book of Revelations, that Applewhite was even the Second Coming, and Nettles the Heavenly Father.

The cognitive effect I found most interesting was the effect that cognitive dissonance had on the group after Nettles dies in 1985. This death and some post-hoc reasoning would ultimately result in the groups mass suicide more than a decade later. Before Nettles’ death, the group believed their bodies would leave with them to outer space, yet hers didn’t, even though she was already supposed to have been a part of the Next Level. In order for this to have not refuted the cult’s beliefs, a couple factors had to be present. First, the members had to have held these ideas really strongly, and have behavioral consequences. By this point, longtime members had changed the behavior and undergone activities to “limit human thoughts,” (“Death and Dying”) to prepare for their ascension. Second, they had to have taken drastic actions that are difficult to undo. Many had moved, cut off their families, and some men even castrated themselves – including Applewhite – to adhere to the strict lifestyle that their ability to ascend relied on. Third and fourth, the death absolutely refuted the belief, and the group members recognized that Nettles’ body didn’t ascend. Lastly, the members needed to have social support, which they found in the other members of the cult and most importantly, Applewhite. Thus, they came to the conclusion that the Nettle’s consciousness left her body when she died, and her ascended self was actually piloting a spaceship to eventually deliver the other members to their ascension. This would further their idea that they had to cast off all aspects of humanity in order to ascend, including their own bodies.

When Hale-Bopp came 12 years later, Applewhite realized that with it would come Nettles’ return and the group’s time to leave Earth. Finally, on March 19 and 20th, 39 people cast off their human body to reach the stars. The beliefs of Heaven’s Gate would come about with a shared delusion, the cherry picking of the bible and a group of religious strays, strengthen with the cognitive dissonance caused by a founder’s death, and then end with the coming of a magnificent comet.

Works Cited:

“Death and Dying.” Encyclopedia of Death and Dying,

“Heaven’s Gate – How and When It May Be Entered.” Heaven’s Gate – How and When It May Be Entered,

Melton, J. Gordon. “Heaven’s Gate.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 7 Oct. 2013,

Ramsland, Katherine. “The Heaven’s Gate Cult.” The Real End – The Heaven’s Gate Cult – Crime Library,

Zeller, Benjamin E., and Robert W. Balch. Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion. NYU Press, 2014. JSTOR,


14 thoughts on “Humanity’s Next Step and Heaven’s Gate

  1. This theory is one of the theories that you read and see how harmful a conspiracy can become. This one cost 39 lives. Do you think that there could have been any intervention done to have stopped these suicides from happening. It’s so hard to change peoples views, but is there something we could do/learn from this tragedy?

  2. This theory is a prime example of the power of the mind and its capabilities. It seems innocent enough to surround oneself with likeminded people, but then these people’s beliefs begin to change your own perceptions to the point where you start thinking that taking your own life is necessary to sustain these beliefs and it becomes the only option. This is really sad and I wonder what behavioral red flags were displayed by the cult prior to carrying out their suicides. Also, as someone who speaks French, I found the concept of “folie à deux” as its direct translation is “madness of two”

  3. Very interesting theory. I was shocked to read that this women had a following at all. In a way this religion reminds me of scientology, in which members believe there is certain levels. The fact that 39 people took their own lives as a result is so disheartening. Normal rational would be that this womans body was still here after her death, and what she preached was all lies. However, people still went on believing her. This theory really does a great job demonstrating cognitive dissonance and how some cases can be extreme.

  4. Hello!
    This was a very interesting choice for your blog post with a very sad ending. I found it very sad that this large group of people were convinced that killing themselves would result in something extraordinary that has never been proved. I find it amazing and crazy that people can be taken that far to how strongly they believe something, to cost them their own life. Another commenter brought up intervention and I wondered too if anyone tried to help or if there was anything people could have done. Additionally, I found it was interesting that this group of people tied into their beliefs the bible. I think because of this, people may have been more convinced because of the widespread knowledge of the bible, afterlife, and such. Overall this was a well written blog post and enjoyed all the information you gathered!

  5. This blog post was really well-written, as I find the unifying power behind cults so interesting. Another popular cultish, mass-suicide was Jonestown, and while not as extraordinary in their beliefs as Heavens Gate, I think that the belief systems created in large groups like these, really play on the need and expectation of devoted guidance to an authority figure. Followers are promised a new narrative that seems like some untouched revival of faith that they cannot find anywhere else; with this, they devote their lives to the ‘good’ of the group and are willing to make sacrifices if they believe it will cause change or heavenly elevation of the human spirit. Super wild, but as long as free and belief exist, events like these will continue.

    • I’ve read a lot about Jonestown too, and it’s a bit of it’s own crazy animal beyond what Heaven’s Gate became. From my reading, the members of Heaven’s Gate committed suicide in groups over three days, and the remaining would arrange the bodies before they would end their lives. It seemed that no one was really having second thoughts, even two days after. Contrast this with Jonestown where it seems that when the suicide was happening, people didn’t know initially that they were all going to die that day. Recordings have surfaced from then where the people in the back of the line become terrified as people in front of them begin dying, and I honestly believe that Jonestown was more of a mass murder, especially by its end. Not to mention that Jim Jones ordered the murder of the congressman that had come to investigate the town.

  6. Hello!
    This belief shows how innocent some people are, but also give us warn that how horrible some beliefs can be. 39 people end their life because of misleading belief. It’s crazy that these believers denote everything for the Heavens Gate, including their relationship, their family, and even they own. I still feel regret from these people deeply believes religion even they don’t have credible evidence. Human’s mind is easy to be controlled, and I hope there is no more belief like this.

  7. On a completely random note, if the Heaven’s Gate people were actually correct (i.e. they would actually evolve), what do you think they would involve into? Aliens? Lizard people? I feel like they’re so vague about it, and I would love to know what they were actually thinking! ‘Cause, like, I feel like recruiting would be a very different process depending on what you’re gonna turn into!

  8. I think what is most interesting about this case is how the people who joined were seen as outsiders of the time as you said. It reminds me of the movie we watched in the class of the Flat Earthers and the relationships they lost because of their dedication to the belief. It’s quite saddening to think that the feeling of companionship and finding your niche can lead you to the extreme measure of losing relationships and taking your own life.

  9. I can’t even imagine being so devoted to something that I would kill myself for it. I think it crazy how many cults end with mass suicide. i wonder if it because maybe the leader knows deep down that these people wont stay with him forever and he would rather have everyone die and go down in history as a cult leader vs a man who was deserted by his followers.

  10. I find it interesting how Applewhite and Nettles saw the alien craze and that it just hit them that obviously it meant they had to die to ascend to a higher level. I understand that the alien craze was popular during this time but to automatically connect them with suicide is just shocking. I also find it interesting that they connected the Bible to this belief, they really did cherry pick a lot more than most religious people do. The two founders just isolated the other members and I feel like at that point, their families probably had no contact with them so there was no way to stop them. Although its not shocking that the members would try to make sense of Nettles body being there after death, I think at that point they were just more scared that it weren’t true. It was to prove to themselves that they just didn’t let someone die. This is why they fell back on Nettles’ consciousness leaving instead. Its really sad because at this point the proof that knew they were looking for and was going to happen was not provided and they followed anyway.

  11. One of the most dangerous belief. People who believes it are not stupid or lack of ability to recognize it. They are just deluded by others. Different than some urban legends or flat earth ones, government should do some mandatory policies to stop that.

  12. It’s really sad that people really had committed suicide because their parapsychological beliefs. The concept of afterlife world and the divine mission to ascend the whole body of mankind’s consciousness is not strange at all. It’s could be found in many kinds of religious and literature descriptions. I think one of the reasons why people would so obsessed with it is the fear of mortality. It would bring a lot of negative energy by only thinking about that we must die someday and no one would escape from the hand of death. This kind of theories might only be a place to hide from this cruel fate, by thinking we would all reach heaven through some kind of action. I don’t think it’s a problematic idea, but it should be take seriously when people would sacrifice their life to do this.

  13. Heaven’s Gates fed off issues that were slowly becoming more talked about like the world ending, religion, and mixing science and religion. Since the beginning of time, people have hoped to have a happy afterlife. By giving the idea to people that suicide was their way out of suffering the fate the others on the world would. The leaders managing to get people to believe that every authoritative figure was evil is dumbfounding.

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