Heaven's Gate UFO Cult: The largest mass suicide in US history

A sign on a wall warning 'Danger Cult'
Heaven's Gate was founded by Marshall Applewhite who believed the Hale-Bopp comet was the key to salvation | Shutterstock

The fragrant hills of Rancho Santa Fe in California – where eucalyptus trees line the streets and the gardens are well-manicured – is the unlikely scene of a UFO cult’s final acts. In 1997, a sprawling mansion within this gated community was the scene of a mass suicide led by Marshall Applewhite, a preacher’s son turned UFO fanatic.

Marshall Applewhite had grown up in a family that was widely nomadic but close-knit. His father was a well-known Presbyterian minister who moved his family throughout southern Texas. During this time, he founded and built churches. The family ultimately settled down in Corpus Christi and in 1948, Applewhite graduated from high school.

He was deeply interested in religious ministry and had ambitions to follow in his father’s footsteps, hoping to one day become a minister. After graduating from the University of Colorado, he was employed as a music professor but was fired for allegedly having an affair with a male student. According to a report in The Houston Chronicle, he was let go for “health problems of an emotional nature”. (The Houston Chronicle, 28 March 1997 – ‘Comet a Signal for Cult Suicide’)

In 1972, Applewhite found himself in a Houston hospital. According to some reports, he suffered from a mental breakdown, but others suggested he had had a near-death experience. During the 1960s, Applewhite had become deeply infatuated and obsessed with the space race, but it was during his stay in hospital that his journey into the bizarre truly began.

Here, he met 44-year-old Bonnie Nettles, a married mother of four who was working as a nurse. Nettles had an interest in the occult and offered to give Applewhite an astrological chart. During this chart, she informed Applewhite that “God kept him alive for a purpose”. (The Atlanta Constitution, 29 March 1997 – ‘The two pied pipers who led the way to death’)

Applewhite and Nettles became inseparable, bonding over their shared interest in astrology, mysticism, and New Age. One afternoon, the duo were camping on the Oregon coast when they agreed that they were the two witnesses described in the Book of Revelation. This determination led them to conclude that they were destined to be martyred and resurrected before an unbelieving world. (Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Cult Religion by Benjamin E. Zeller)

Applewhite and Nettles came to believe that they were aliens from the so-called ‘Next Level’ and had been sent to Earth to recruit humans to join them on their quest back to outer space. Nettles abandoned her family, as did Applewhite. They were known as ‘The Two’ or ‘Bo and Peep’ or ‘Do and Ti’. Ultimately, they founded Heaven’s Gate and over the next two decades sought out followers to join them in their bizarre journey.

The 1970s were a time for spiritual searching. The US had just been left traumatized by the war in Vietnam and the social upheaval and violence that followed. Many of those who came across Heaven’s Gate had experimented with hallucinogenic drugs, yoga, and astrology in the past. However, it was upon joining the new mission did they feel like they had found spiritual truth; everything else had left them unsatisfied and searching for something more. After a while, Applewhite and Nettles took a step away from their initial New Age forays, focusing instead on apocalyptic millennialism.

The pair told their followers that they were going to be leaving Earth on a UFO that was going to whisk them all away to a much better life. When the UFO came for them, they would leave their bodies behind and evolve into extra-terrestrials. As Applewhite wrote in his book, Heaven’s Gate, they “were very much lifted out of this world – literally”. (The Vancouver Sun, 29 March 1997 – ‘Cult Message of an Afterlife in Space Met with Derision’)

Just as Heaven’s Gate was beginning to enter the limelight and become more well-known, it vanished. Some of the followers had become disillusioned and fled from the group and in 1976, it went underground. In 1985, Nettles passed away, and then in 1992, Heaven’s Gate made a public reappearance. It returned with a computer business named ‘Higher Source’ that supplemented its income. After the re-emergence, Applewhite was determined to connect with more people and share his beliefs far and wide. He published a manifesto and videos, urging people to come and join him.

According to Applewhite’s content, Earth was going to be recycled and if anybody wanted to survive the oncoming apocalypse, they must join Heaven’s Gate. Those who joined, abandoned their former lives, including their families, and renounced all forms of sexuality. Like Applewhite, many of them chose to be castrated under the belief that the ‘Next Level’ was a place without gender. They all stuck to a strict diet which was a lemonade diet. Applewhite contended that he and his followers would ascend to outer space, leaving their human “vehicles” behind.

Applewhite called the Hale-Bopp comet the “marker we’ve been waiting for – the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to ‘Their World – in the literal heavens.” He claimed that there was a spaceship behind the comet and when it passed California, all the members of Heaven’s Gate would ascend into it. In order for this to work, Applewhite and his followers believed that they needed to take their own lives. (The New York Times, 28 March 1997 – ‘On the Furthest Fringes of Millennialism’)

On the 22nd March and 23rd March, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate took their lives in a rented mansion in Rancho Santa Fe. They consisted of 21 women and 18 men, aged between 26 and 72; some were teachers, parents, grandparents, musicians, and computer geniuses. Before taking their lives, they had dined on a final meal at Marie Callender’s; they all ate dinner salad with tomato vinegar dressing, turkey potpie, and blueberry cheesecake.

Inside the mansion, they recorded themselves saying their final goodbyes to the families they had long abandoned. In the videos, they all expressed gratitude that they had been given this opportunity. They also updated the Heaven’s Gate website with the message: “Hale-Bopp brings closure to Heaven’s Gate… Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion – ‘graduation’ from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared ‘this world’ and go with Ti’s crew.” The website still remains online today.

All 39 members packed travel kits and placed a $5 bill and some quarters in their pockets. They all dressed in custom black tracksuits with a ‘Heaven’s Gate Away Team’ patch embroidered on the front with matching Nike shoes. They then ingested a cocktail of drugs and alcohol before climbing into their beds to die.

The suicides had been committed in two groups; after the first group died, the second group covered their bodies in purple sheets. Then when the second group died, two members who went last covered their bodies in purple sheets before cleaning up and taking their lives.

The mass suicides were discovered by a follower of Heaven’s Gate, Rio DiAngelo. He had left the cult around a month beforehand but came to the home to conduct a welfare check after seeing the goodbye videos online.

Heaven’s Gate was the very first infamous American cult of the Internet era. It was the brainchild of a man who desperately wanted to, and believed he could escape his earthly existence. The photographs of the suicide scene – the black tracksuits, the Nike shoes, the purple sheets – are forever ingrained into the public consciousness.

In the wake of the suicides, many would dismiss Heaven’s Gate as lemmings and even kooky fanatics, but in reality, their beliefs – albeit extreme – didn’t deviate that much from mainstream religions: a belief in a higher power, a belief of soul over body and a belief in an eternal fight for good versus evil.