Heaven's Gate was the name of an American religious group led by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. Applewhite convinced 39 followers to commit suicide after telling them that the appearance of Hale-Bopp, an unusually bright comet, was the sign that they were supposed to shed their earthly bodies and join a spacecraft travelling behind the comet that would take them to a higher plane of existence.
On 26th March 1997, 39 members (21 women and 18 men) of the Heaven’s Gate group committed suicide in a rented mansion in California.
The mass suicide, which took place across three days, was scheduled in shifts with all members first drinking citrus juices to cleanse their bodies of impurities. A lethal concoction of Phenobarbital mixed with vodka was then consumed before plastic bags were secured over their heads to induce asphyxiation. All of the members were dressed identically in black shirts and tracksuit bottoms with brand new training shoes and arm bands which read ‘Heaven’s Gate Away Team’.
The group’s leader, Marshall Applewhite also took his own life. Two months later, two additional members - Wayne Cooke and Charlie Humphreys - attempted a copycat suicide in a hotel room. Cooke died but Humphreys survived, only to finally succeed in February 1998 when he killed himself in the Arizona desert.
The Heaven’s Gate cult was formed by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in the mid 1970s. Commonly referred to as ‘Bo and Peep’, the pair came to believe that they were extraterrestrials from Heaven (the ‘next level’), who offered humans yet another chance to move to a higher evolutionary level. Applewhite’s background reveals a life which was dominated from his early years by the fact he was gay but totally disgusted by his own feelings. He was discharged from the U.S. Army in his twenties on supposed charges of homosexual activity with a recruit.
To maintain a ‘cover’, he married in 1962 and had two children but was then later released from his position as a university music professor amid rumours he had seduced a male student. Applewhite’s sexual inclinations played a vital part in the formation of his subsequent groups and he met Nettles, while she was working as a nurse some years later in the hope she may ‘cure’ him of this ‘disease’.
The Heaven’s Gate group was in fact the latest of three ‘creations’ founded by the duo. First came the Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM) in which they travelled to the Colarado desert to wait for a UFO. Then when Nettles died of cancer in 1985, Applewhite formed the Total Overcomers Anonymous (TOA) group in 1993 and placed an advertisement in the USA Today newspaper announcing that the Earth’s present civilization was about to be ‘recycled.’
The group works on the philosophy that a person has several paths to leave Earth and that the human body is only a vehicle that made to help them on their journey. The structure of Heaven's Gate resembles a medieval monastic order. Group members give up their material possessions and live a life devoid of indulgences such as sex. The group is tightly knit and everything is shared communally. Some male members of the group voluntarily underwent castration before the suicide in 1997 as an extreme means of maintaining the supposed ‘ideal’ ascetic lifestyle.
In common with many similar groups, they believe that UFOs are inter-stellar space ships operated by extra-terrestrial beings attempting to bring humanity to a higher level of knowledge. However a belief that Heaven’s Gate adhere to - but is not shared by other UFO groups - is that by committing suicide together at the correct time, they will leave their containers (bodies) behind and the soul goes to sleep until it is ‘replanted’ in another container. Eventually, the soul will be grafted onto a representative of the ‘level above human’. The latter will be on-board a UFO space ship such as the group believes is currently hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
The timing of the mass suicide in 1997 was apparently triggered by the arrival of Easter, and by the closest approach to earth of the Hale-Bopp comet, which they regarded as a celestial marker.