Heaven’s Gate Cult Members Commit Mass Suicide

As Comet Hale-Bopp approached Earth, thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, led by Marshall Applewhite, committed suicide, believing they would be transported into the cosmos to reunite with a “mother ship” traveling behind the comet from “the level beyond human.”

Summary of Event

Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles met at a hospital in Houston, Texas, in March, 1972, on the propitious day of the spring equinox. Applewhite had recently lost his position as music director at the University of St. Thomas, and his wife had earlier left him because of his several homosexual affairs. The loss of his job and ambivalence over his sexuality made him depressed. According to his account, however, he was not a patient but a visitor at the hospital, where Nettles worked as a nurse. She wrote an astrological column for a Houston newspaper; information that she used for her column came from a nineteenth century Franciscan friar, “Brother Francis,” whom she believed she was channeling. She was also active in the Theosophical Society. Her group in Houston held weekly séances. When Nettles met Applewhite, her marriage was also dissolving. Religious cults
Cults, religious
Heaven’s Gate cult[Heavens Gate cult]
[kw]Heaven’s Gate Cult Members Commit Mass Suicide (Mar. 23-25, 1997)
[kw]Cult Members Commit Mass Suicide, Heaven’s Gate (Mar. 23-25, 1997)
[kw]Mass Suicide, Heaven’s Gate Cult Members Commit (Mar. 23-25, 1997)
[kw]Suicide, Heaven’s Gate Cult Members Commit Mass (Mar. 23-25, 1997)
Religious cults
Cults, religious
Heaven’s Gate cult[Heavens Gate cult]
[g]North America;Mar. 23-25, 1997: Heaven’s Gate Cult Members Commit Mass Suicide[09660]
[g]United States;Mar. 23-25, 1997: Heaven’s Gate Cult Members Commit Mass Suicide[09660]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Mar. 23-25, 1997: Heaven’s Gate Cult Members Commit Mass Suicide[09660]
Applewhite, Marshall
Nettles, Bonnie
Humphrey, Charles

Applewhite and Nettles became inseparable, although their relationship was described as strictly platonic. She introduced him to Theosophy, spiritualism, and channeling. They founded the Christian Art Center in a Houston church and taught astrology, Theosophy, and spiritualism. Lack of funds and rumors that they held séances in the church caused the center’s closing within six months. Both of them had been hearing voices from unidentified flying objects (UFOs), which persuaded them that they had a destiny that required leaving behind their ordinary lives.

The two abruptly left Houston in January, 1973, on a “trip into the wilderness” to find their calling and headed westward. They eventually reached the Oregon coast, where after a month of meditation they learned their destiny from their UFO voices: Like the two witnesses described in the biblical book of Revelation, they would be martyred, resurrected, and then taken in a spaceship to heaven on another planet. Those who wished to join them in that journey would have to undergo a metamorphosis, which required giving up property and human attachments and being celibate, since sex took energy away from “the Process,” as they called that metamorphosis. The Process would be completed when they and their followers boarded the UFO. Meanwhile, their lack of money and hostility to convention led them to defraud motel keepers and credit card companies. They were arrested in August, 1974, for failing to return a rental car; both spent time in jail in St. Louis, Missouri.

Once Applewhite was released from jail in early 1975, he and Nettles went to Los Angeles, where they began to win followers. When they left the city two weeks later, twenty-four people went with them. The believers were told that they could transform their human bodies into eternal, genderless, extraterrestrial beings, at which time UFOs would pick them up to take them home. The two traveled widely, speaking in forty states and two Canadian provinces over the next two years. Their audiences were made up mostly of college students, and soon they had some two hundred followers. They began to call themselves “Bo” and “Peep,” shepherds of their flock. Peep received a revelation that a UFO would pick them up in Colorado; and when it failed to appear, most members left the group, reducing it to about twenty people.

After being heckled at a meeting in Kansas in April, 1976, “Do” and “Ti,” as they now called themselves (referring to notes in the musical scale), became secretive and stopped proselytizing. Little is known about their lives over the next years except that they dashed from place to place across the western states expecting to board a UFO. In 1983, Ti was diagnosed with cancer, and she died in Dallas, in June, 1985. In Do’s words, she had left her “earthly vessel” and gone to the next level. He declared that she had come from another planet to teach him the Process, and she had returned to the “level beyond human,” as Jesus had done two thousand years earlier.

Marshall Applewhite.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Do and his followers reappeared in public in 1993, making a video, advertising in magazines, and creating a Web site to win converts. The site was called “Heaven’s Gate,” which became the popular name for the group. They formed a successful business called Higher Source for creating Web sites. Members took new names for use within the group. Their time was tightly regulated when they left the group to conduct business, which they always did as male and female pairs, and they had to phone in regularly. After two members were arrested for vagrancy because they had no money, members carried five-dollar bills and several quarters for making the required phone calls. The group ate out frequently, ordering exactly the same menu items, and they were described as dressing identically and having the same haircuts, making it difficult to tell the women from the men. Also in 1993, eight men in the group, including Do, were castrated to remove their sexual drive.

By then, Do was suffering from coronary arteriosclerosis, and his message became more urgent. In 1996, the group moved from a ranch in New Mexico and rented a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, an affluent community near San Diego, with money they had made from their Web site business. They rose before dawn every morning to scan the sky for a sign that they would soon be taken from Earth. When Comet Hale-Bopp Comet Hale-Bopp[Comet Hale Bopp] came into view in 1997, Internet reports that a UFO had been sighted behind it led the Heaven’s Gate members to conclude that Ti was coming to take them home.

Because they believed that it was necessary to leave their “earthly containers” behind, Do and thirty-eight followers (twenty-one women and seventeen men) committed suicide in a meticulous fashion over a three-day period beginning on March 23. Initially the dead were identified as men, since the police found them dressed alike in black clothing and black athletic shoes with close-cropped hair, making it difficult to determine their gender at first glance. Their faces and chests were covered with purple shrouds, and those who wore glasses had them carefully placed at their sides. The dead had five-dollar bills and quarters in their pockets. Their bags had been packed neatly in the dormitory-style rooms. They had taken phenobarbital mixed in pudding and drank vodka before lying down in bed. The last two cleaned up the house and sent farewell videos and a letter to a former member before committing suicide themselves. That former member went to the mansion on March 26 and then alerted police.

Charles Humphrey, who had joined the group in 1975 and whose group name was “Rkkody,” was not present at the mass suicide. He served as a spokesman for the “Away Team” in the months following the incident. Following a botched suicide attempt in May, 1997, that left another member dead, he killed himself in Arizona in February, 1998, dressed identically to the thirty-nine members who had died the previous year.


News of the mass suicide and the castrations of six of the cult members astounded the nation. Two sociologists, Robert Balch and David Taylor, studied the cult in the 1970’s and the 1980’s; their research provided important insights into the process of creating the sort of group coherence that could lead to mass suicide. The pathos of those expecting the imminent end of the world and their ressurrection from it is revealed in a comment of one cult member, reported by the sociologists, who said that she always bought a small tube of toothpaste, expecting that she would not need more, but she always wound up buying another.

The belief system promulgated by Heaven’s Gate has baffled civil authorities and ordinary people, seeming poignant to some and ridiculous to many. Such beliefs, however, hold a strong appeal for those who have difficulty in finding meaning in their lives. One message of the suicides at Rancho Santa Fe, therefore, is the degree to which such personalities may be willing to subject themselves to the visions and wills of others. Religious cults
Cults, religious
Heaven’s Gate cult[Heavens Gate cult]

Further Reading

  • Balch, Robert. “Bo and Peep: A Case Study of the Origins of Messianic Leadership.” In Millennialism and Charisma, edited by Roy Wallis. Belfast, Northern Ireland: Queen’s University, 1982. Balch and David Taylor joined Bo and Peep’s group as observer-participants for two months in 1975. This article provides information on the cult’s background and early beliefs, drawing on letters and interviews before the events of 1997 distorted perceptions.
  • _______. “The Evolution of a New Age Cult: From Total Overcomers Anonymous to Death at Heaven’s Gate.” In Sects, Cults, and Spiritual Communities, edited by William Zellner. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998. Follows the story of Heaven’s Gate from 1975 to the suicides of 1997. Emphasizes the type of small-group cohesion that in this case led to group suicide.
  • Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2000. Contains a lengthy section on Heaven’s Gate with details about Applewhite’s and Nettles’s lives and the founding of Heaven’s Gate. Offers valuable insights into how a group can be motivated into committing mass suicide.

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