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.
“Death and Dying.” Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, www.deathreference.com/Gi-Ho/Heaven-s-Gate.html.
“Heaven’s Gate – How and When It May Be Entered.” Heaven’s Gate – How and When It May Be Entered, www.heavensgate.com/.
Melton, J. Gordon. “Heaven’s Gate.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 7 Oct. 2013, www.britannica.com/topic/Heavens-Gate-religious-group.
Ramsland, Katherine. “The Heaven’s Gate Cult.” The Real End – The Heaven’s Gate Cult – Crime Library, web.archive.org/web/20150210050304/http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/mass/heavens_gate/4.html.
Zeller, Benjamin E., and Robert W. Balch. Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion. NYU Press, 2014. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qg80c.