Heaven’s Gate – the “Cult of Cults”

Katie Jenkins, Senior

In 1997, 39 people, dressed in tracksuits, were found dead. These were the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, founded by Bonnie Lu Nettles and Marshall Applewhite, who believed that they were angels sent to earth to help others ascend to heaven.

In 1972, Bonnie Lu Nettles was working as a nurse before she met Marshall Applewhite; she left her job and family in 1973 to start Heaven’s Gate. Nettles and Applewhite began hosting meetings in California and Oregon, collecting members, before settling in Dallas, Texas with the newly formed group. They lived communally as one family, with next to no contact with outside society. Nettles and Applewhite took on the names “Ti” and “Do,” or “the two,” while members received a name consisting of something about them, ending in their “family name” “-ody” (ex: tall-ody). They believed that they were there to learn together about how to undergo a biological change that would allow them to ascend to the heavens. This idea, however, fell apart following the death of Nettles.

Nettles died in 1985 of cancer, which had spread from her eye to her liver. Her death impacted Applewhite deeply, and almost put a stop to the cult, and created a turning point in the direction of the cult. Restrictions were loosened so members could visit family members; this created uncertainty in the future of the cult and provided the basis for the cult’s morbid end. Nettles’ death posed a problem to Applewhite as he tried to keep the group together, because it discounted the main idea of the cult. They believed that they were all capable of undergoing a biological change that would allow them to ascend to the heavens together. If Nettles was meant to undergo the transformation with them, why did she die of cancer? Nettle’s death was, consequently, the turning point for the cult. In order to keep the cult intact, Applewhite spun the tale so that death was the transformation they were to undergo, and Nettles had merely gone early to prepare the afterlife for them. In 1994, the cult’s expectation of this transition grew, ultimately leading them to California.

After moving to California in 1996, they began rerooting more by hosting their own website providing information on their beliefs. The website, which is still online, opens to a “Red Alert” that the Hale Bopp comet would bring closure to Heaven’s Gate. They believed that behind the comet, there would be a UFO hiding, waiting to “pick them up.” In 1996, Applewhite released a videotape titled “Last Chance to Evacuate Earth Before It Is Recycled,” in which he explained his philosophy and spoke of “the end of the age.” He said that it was time for “the mess that the humans had made during its civilization [to be] cleaned up. It is healed.” He then went on to explain that, “The only ones who survive the recycling are the ones who want to leave…{and} have found a teacher, someone who can give them the information they need to leave.” The cult was preparing for their “evacuation of [their] bodies,” uploading exit statements, press releases, and transcripts of these video tapes to their website.

In March of 1997, the cult rented a house in Rancho Santa Fe, California. They spent a few days there, ate a “family dinner” at a local Mexican restaurant, and were found on March 26th. They were wearing matching tracksuits, shoes, and purple shrouds, and left boxes of video tapes saying they were “shedding their containers.” There were 39 members found dead, mainly between the ages of 18 and 24. The cult, originally deemed “harmless” by an undercover sociologist, resulted in devastating heartbreak for members’ families, and shocked the nation.

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