Content warning: This series discusses the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate.
The 1997 mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate was probably my first awareness of cults as dangerous. I was either too young or not yet born to have noticed Waco or Jonestown. When 39 people killed themselves in matching track suits and Nike sneakers, it seemed utterly bizarre. When I heard they believed this suicide would let them ride the passing Hale-Bopp comet, I thought they were ridiculous. But I thought my own equally cultic theology was sensible, of course.
Heaven’s Gate was a UFO cult, borrowing or stealing elements of Christianity, Buddhism, and the New Age movement. It’s scattered theology appealed to spiritual UFO believers and New Age reformers alike. It promised people disillusioned with this world a better one, under the guidance of ancient aliens including Jesus Christ. Like most UFO groups, they believed ancient aliens had visited the Earth and helped humans on their evolution.
Heaven’s Gate was founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, originally under the name Anonymous Sexaholics Celibacy Church. The two had an incredibly close bond, and lived together as a platonic couple. Bonnie believed that she received messages from a 19th century friar named Brother Francis. This belief led to the dissolution of her marriage to Joseph Nettles, and she lost custody of their four children. Applewhite’s wife had divorced him and moved away with their children, upon learning of an extramarital affair he had with a male university student.
Before becoming a guru, Marshall Applewhite was a university music professor at the University of Alabama and later the University of St. Thomas in Texas. He was fired from University of Alabama for sexual misconduct with a male student at l though it is possible he lost the St. Thomas appointment for similar misconduct. Applewhite would briefly identify as a homosexual while living in Texas. Over his decades as a guru, Applewhite would struggle with sex and sexuality. Ultimately, he came to see sexual urges as a hindrance to spiritual ascension. Along with seven other members of the cult, Marshall was surgically castrated
In each other, Applewhite and Nettles found someone to believe in and agree with their interpretations of Scripture and the world around them. When Nettles found alignment in their star charts, Applewhite determined they must have known each other in a past life. He determined she was to be the “sage” and he was to be the “speaker”. The two started a bookstore and meditation center. When those failed, they took to traveling to New Age and UFO conventions to spread their message. In their first years together, they gained only one convert.