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.
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.