Approaching the 25-year anniversary of its tragic consequences, Heaven's Gate remains the most notorious and bizarre cult in American history, as it maintains the title for the largest mass suicide in the U.S.
From the prolific documentarian Clay Tweel, Heaven's Gate: Cult of Cults is a four-part mini docuseries that premiered on December 3, 2020, and is available to stream on HBO Max. The series follows the story of the events leading up to the cult's mass suicide in 1997.
With never-seen-before footage of the cult, along with interviews with former members and loved ones, the series brings new insights into the infamous cult that has been studied and investigated for years.
Watch the trailer for Heaven's Gate: Cult of Cults:
What is Heaven's Gate?
Heaven's Gate was a religious cult that committed the largest mass suicide on U.S. soil. The group was led by Marshall Applewhite, a former musician and Christian minister, and Bonnie Nettles, a former psychiatric nurse. The duo was referred to as "The Two," Bo and Peep, and Ti and Do. They and their followers believed they were not from this planet and were convinced of the imminent arrival of an extraterrestrial spacecraft that would deliver them to a heaven-like destination that they called the "Next Level." The group combined beliefs of science fiction, Christianity, Gnosticism, and Millennialism, while promoting the achievement of cognitive dissonance.
Around the same time as the nearing Hale-Bopp comet, the group committed mass suicide on March 26, 1997, by drinking a mixture of phenobarbital and vodka. Moreover, they covered their heads with plastic bags to provoke asphyxiation.
Why Did Heaven's Gate Members Commit Suicide?
Applewhite and Nettles emphasized that they were not from planet Earth, as their bodies, or what they referred to as human containers, were inhabited by the alien spirits of Jesus and God the Father, and they were destined to teach others about reaching a new stage of existence through suicide.
To reach the Next Level, members were convinced that if they shed their bodily "vehicles," they would be carried to the Kingdom of Heaven via a UFO spacecraft. This mass suicide was meticulously planned in accordance with the Hale-Bopp comet's arrival, which they believed to be a signal of the world's final days. This suicide demonstration was the ultimate goal of their belief system, as they accepted this as the only solution to reach Heaven, as well as an invitation for more disciples to follow in their footsteps.
Who Founded Heaven's Gate?
Heaven's Gate was founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles in 1974. After being fired by the University of St. Thomas for having sexual relations with a male student, Applewhite admitted himself to a Texas psychiatric hospital in hopes to cure himself of his homosexuality and met Nettles, who was his assigned nurse at the time. Nettles recruited Applewhite by doing his astrological chart and persuading him that they were destined to be spiritual partners for a "big project."
The two co-leaders went by the nicknames of "Ti (Nettles) and Do (Applewhite)," which came from one of Nettle's favorite movies, The Sound of Music. They viewed themselves as equivalent to God and Jesus, who were space aliens destined to lead their followers to the Kingdom of Heaven.
After Ti died in 1985 from cancer––twelve years before the mass suicide––Do took full control over the cult and its activities.
How Did the Heaven’s Gate Cult Recruit Followers?
In the late 1970s, Applewhite and Nettles recruited people who were invested in the UFO movement. They held meetings at various locations and hung up flyers that emphasized to readers that “If you ever entertained the idea that there might be a real, physical level in space beyond the Earth’s confines, you will want to attend this meeting."
In the HBO documentary, some former members recall the meeting as "euphoric" and that they felt like they were “sitting in front of the equivalent of Jesus."
Over time, the group went from hundreds of followers to then 39 members, who all followed through with the group suicide.
What Did Heaven's Gate Members Do?
During the group's beginning stages, hundreds of members lived a nomadic existence, where they blindly followed Ti and Do without any formal instruction. They camped at random locations and attended meetings where they spent most of their time tuning into frequencies of the next level with tuning forks. They lived solely on donations from people they attempted to spread the message to.
After the group suffered from a major media blitz, the meetings had lower attendance, and Ti and Do eventually cut its constituents to the exclusive amount of 39 individuals.
They adopted certain terminologies, such as referring to their human bodies as "vehicles", or containers for their souls.
During their time in Heaven's Gate cult, members were to experience a "Human Individual Metamorphosis," before traveling to the Next Level. Since you couldn't enter heaven with any attachments or addictions to the human world, members were forced to cleanse themselves of anything that specified their identities as humans, such as haircuts, makeup, names, families, sexualities, money, and more. They had a check-partner system to ensure that everyone was following the rules.
They all eventually achieved an androgynous appearance due to the absence of gender within the cult.
The Dangers of Internalized Homophobia
Applewhite's self-hatred and internalized homophobia ended up shaping the ideologies and lifestyle conditions of the Heaven's Gate cult.
One of the cult's major restrictions was impure sexual thoughts, which derived from Applewhite's repudiation of his homosexual desires. When finding himself attracted to member Dick Joslyn, Applewhite suggested that the remaining male members castrate themselves to become fully celibate.
Applewhite's hatred for his own sexual identity leads to his desire to control and repress everyone else's identity, which is an unhealthy outcome of internalized homophobia.
The Mass Suicide Of The Heaven’s Gate Cult
Ti and Do referred to this exit from the human world as "The Demonstration," which initiated the end of the world and derived from the book of Revelation 11: 3-12.
In 1996, the cult began renting a mansion, named "The Monastery," in Rancho Santa Fe, California. The imminent passing of the Hale-Bopp comet became a sign of the group's ritual suicide.
To kill themselves, members took phenobarbital mixed with vodka and sealed their heads with plastic bags. All of the 39 members were dressed in identical uniforms consisting of black shirts and sweatpants, black and white Nike shoes, wedding bands that wed them to Do, and $5.75 in their pockets. All of their bodies were discovered blanketed under purple shrouds.
The cult members left earth in three different shifts. The autopsy reported back that some had died 24 hours prior to the discovery of the bodies, whereas others had been deceased for several days. Their bodies were found by San Diego deputies on March 26, 1997.
This incident remains the largest mass suicide ever committed within the United States.
Why are Nikes Connected to Heaven's Gate?
After the public became aware of the Heaven's Gate demonstration, one particular detail that became a signifier of the infamous cult was the black-and-white Nike Decades sneakers all members sported.
Cult expert Rick Ross told Oxygen that Applewhite was a fan of the Nike brand and the cult recited Nike's slogan "Just Do it," but pronouncing Do as "Doe" to resemble Applewhite's nickname.
Nike eventually discontinued the Decade style because of its morbid alliance with Heaven's Gate. The shoe has now become an emblem of the cult's mass suicide and is a collector's item. There is currently a 1993 pair of Nike Decades up for sale on eBay for $6,660.00––reflecting the devil's number.
How Did Heaven's Gate Impact Pop Culture?
Following the mass suicide, the cult was shamelessly parodied in pop culture. In the documentary, viewers can see vintage clips of Saturday Night Live, where Will Ferrell makes fun of Applewhite and his morbid belief system.
The series Family Guy, as well as the comedy Road Trip (2000), participated in the ongoing joke of mass suicide.
These jokes were designed to depict cult leaders as lunatics and cult members as unintelligent failures in hopes to create sharp disparities between the cult and other religious beliefs that might have parallels with the group.
This immediate response to make fun of such a thing is reminiscent of the media's response to Britney Spears's mental health crisis in the early 2000s.
Dr. Benjamin Zeller, Author of Heaven's Gate: America's UFO Religion, told Genius that America's response to the cult was to "quickly dehumanize them," but "the ironic thing is they actually already dehumanized themselves."
The resurgence of 90s nostalgia incited more Heaven's Gate imagery in popular culture, such as Lil Uzi Vert's album cover for Eternal Atake, Fall Out Boy's song "Heaven's Gate," and Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala's 2019 psychological thriller The Lodge.
Are There Still Members of Heaven's Gate?
According to Mirror, two remaining members of the cult were assigned the responsibilities of keeping the teachings alive and preserving the group's website: heavensgate.com. The two members are believed to be Mark and Sarah King, who live in Phoenix, Arizona.
The Kings created a company on behalf of Heaven's Gate called the TELAH Foundation, which stands for The Evolutionary Level Above Human.
The TELAH Foundation told the Brown Political Review that they "maintain the website, archive the information, protect the trademarks and copyrights and disseminate the information of the Next Level to the world."