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Heaven’s Gate was a religious cult led by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles which was founded in 1974. The group was preoccupied with prophecy, extraterrestrials, and secretive, ascetic lifestyles and, as a result, adopted terminology, clothing, and aesthetics inspired by science fiction. Heaven’s Gate had gone largely under the radar of most of the country, however, it was brought into the spotlight following a shocking mass suicide that captured the attention of the American media in the spring of 1997. This event was particularly notable due to the size of the cult: 38 members willingly died to fulfil what they believed to be an ascension rite. Additionally, and unique to other similar cults, the group did not welcome members under the age of 18; only very devoted adults were permitted to remain in the group. Their website is still active to this day, operated by surviving members at TELAH Services in Phoenix, AZ. TELAH is a reference to terminology used by Marshall Applewhite to describe “The Evolutionary Level Above Human,” who were benevolent extraterrestrials that had once been human and ascended to a higher level of existence.

  • The Official Logo of Heaven's Gate, from the official website of the cult
  • A commonly used image of Marshal Applewhite, screen captured from video broadcasts the group made in 1997

Marshall Applewhite had a number of nicknames and titles over the years including, Do, Older Member, Bo (as in Bo Peep), and the “UFO Two” (referring to both him and his partner, Bonnie Nettles.) He believed himself to be related to or a reincarnation of Jesus Christ of the Christian Religion, and made numerous claims that Biblical teachings were accurate to some degree, but misinterpreted.  Previous to the founding of his religion, Applewhite had taught music at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX and had studied Biblical prophecy for some time.  After his firing from the University, he met Bonnie Nettles, a nurse, allegedly during his stay in a psychiatric ward where she worked.  From that point on, the two became very close.  Sometime during 1974, Nettles and Applewhite formulated the basics of what would become Heaven’s Gate. 

 Heaven’s Gate first hit the news in 1975, at which point they collectively were known as “the crew,” or the “away team,” which was a reference to popular television series Star Trek.  At this time, Applewhite and Nettles presented themselves as the Biblical “witnesses,” prophets sent from god during the End Times.  The current members at that time met in a hotel where they sold their possessions and cut contact with loved ones.  The story was picked up by CBS, who reported on the member’s sudden disappearance.  At this point the group went underground, its approximately one-hundred member group living a life of roaming vagrancy.  During this time, the group underwent many changes, in both doctrine and membership.

 In 1985, Bonnie Nettles passed away and the group underwent a radical change and, going into the 90s, began to operate heavily on the growing internet.  It was during this time that the idea of a mass suicide began to form within the group, as the approach of the Hale-Bopp comet was taken to be a “sign” to escape the planet Earth and ascend.  In 1996, the group moved to a large mansion they called “The Monastery,” located in Rancho Santa Fe, just outside of San Diego, CA.  Approximately a year later, in March of 1997, the group enacted the “Closure to Heaven’s Gate,” which was the mass suicide of 38 members including Marshall Applewhite himself.  The mansion was later demolished and the lot is kept empty as of the creation of this article.  Additionally, the name of the road was changed to help resolve the stigma associated with the terrible event. 

Applewhite, Marshall. Hale-Bopp Brings Closure to Heaven's Gate. Heaven's Gate. Accessed June 07, 2017. Much of the information about the group is available on their official site.

Virilio, Paul. The Information Bomb. Verso Books. A source discussing how the group interacted with the outside world and new members through the internet

Bearman, Joshua. "Heaven's Gate: The Sequel." LA Weekly(Los Angeles), March 21, 2007. This article discusses the original news broadcasts about the cult, and much more.