15 Otherworldly Facts About Heaven's Gate

Every cult family is weird in its own way.
15 Otherworldly Facts About Heaven's Gate

On March 26, 1997, authorities found the bodies -- sorry, “vehicles” -- of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult in their California mansion/compound. They weren’t the only cult to perform ritualistic mass suicide or otherwise fatally self-destruct, but you know what they say: Normal families are all alike, but every cult family is weird in its own way.

Its Leaders (Maybe) Met on a Psych Ward

Nurse in uniform


It’s not clear how Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite, the leaders of Heaven’s Gate, found each other. Applewhite, a former music and drama teacher, wrote that he met Nettles, a New Agey nurse, when he visited a friend in the hospital, but the media reported that Nettles was Applewhite’s nurse at a psychiatric facility. In any case, it’s hard to say that she helped him.

Applewhite Was a Creep

Marshall Applewhite


Before he became a cult leader, Applewhite was fired from the University of St. Thomas for having a relationship with a student, although it’s not clear whether they frowned on the power dynamics involved or the fact that the student was a man. It was the ‘70s, after all.

Jesus Was From Texas?

Cowboy boots

(Phinehas Adams/Unsplash)

Applewhite and Nettles believed human bodies were merely “vehicles” for spirits to slip into and they were the earthly forms or reincarnations, respectively, of Jesus and God. In some of their earliest writings, in fact, they “asked readers what they would do if Jesus chose to reincarnate as a man in Texas,” where Applewhite lived, the answer to which presumably being “I don’t know, give him some brisket?” They weirdly chose not to ask about Jesus reincarnating as a sexual predator.

The Cancer Conundrum

The group initially believed that they would be resurrected after natural death and brought with their “vehicles” to heaven on a spaceship, so things got awkward when Nettles died of cancer in 1985 and stubbornly stayed dead. That’s when Applewhite decided it was necessary, actually, to “exit” one’s “vehicle” to ascend to alien heaven.

Abstinence and Castration

Dog with cone

(Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash)

Members of Heaven’s Gate were forbidden from sexual activity or even thought because it was considered animalistic and not becoming of evolved beings (or more likely because Applewhite had some serious hangups about his sexuality). Eight members, including Applewhite, even underwent castration in an effort to avoid sexy feelings. They had a hard time finding a doctor who wouldn’t just tell them to see a shrink, though, and the one they convinced did -- to spare you the gory details -- not a great job.

They Were Obsessed With Star Trek

Star Trek sculpture


Nettles and Applewhite were, perhaps unsurprisingly, devoted Trekkies. They incorporated its lore into their teachings, held Star Trek watch parties, and even wore “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” patches, in reference to the fictional crew that gets sent to alien planets, when they died.

Sectarian Fad Dieting

Lemon juice and spices


A lot of religious practices involve fasting, but Heaven’s Gate members got into the “Master Cleanse,” i.e. living on that concoction of lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper endorsed by Beyonce and the Goop crowd. They once survived on it for three whole months.

Unusual House-Hunting Tactics

Woman dressed as angel

(Christophe Van der waals/Unsplash)

When he procured the lease for the mansion outside San Diego where the group met its doom, Applewhite explained his unique living situation to the owner by claiming they were a group of Christian angels. It was apparently a lot easier to rent a house in Southern California back then.

They Bought Alien Abduction Insurance

Before their deaths, Heaven’s Gate bought alien abduction insurance from Lloyd’s of London worth $1 million per person in the event of “abduction, impregnation, or death caused by aliens,” to be paid to the Society of Heaven’s Gate. Lloyd’s doesn’t seem to have paid up -- “They would have to prove they were abducted,” an employee said -- and stopped offering the policies shortly after.

They Went on Field Trips

(Kalle Schmitz/Unsplash)

Heaven’s Gate had a sort of culty Rumspringa once they’d settled on their final solution. They went to a Nevada UFO conference, a Las Vegas amusement park (where they also saw Cirque du Soleil and played the tables), a movie theater to see Star Wars, various beaches, Tijuana, the San Diego Wild Animal Park, and SeaWorld. After they filmed their goodbye messages, they spent over $400 on pizza.

They Had a Last Supper

Blueberry cheesecake

(Monika Grabkowska/Unsplash)

Just before their deaths, the group went out to what is surely the eating establishment of choice for the doomed: Marie Callender’s. They all had iced tea, salad with tomato vinaigrette, turkey pot pie, and blueberry cheesecake.

Blaze of Glory

Before they decided on phenobarbital and vodka, the group prepared to go out guns blazing, certain that the FBI was coming for them. It turned out most of them had no shooting skills or desire to learn, so Applewhite “received a message” from his dearly departed partner that they should take a different direction.

Nike By Chance

Much was made of the group’s choice to wear identical outfits, including brand-new Nike Decades, when they died, but there wasn’t much meaning to the outfits themselves. Applewhite was a big Nike fan, but mostly, said a surviving member, “We just got a good deal on the shoes.”

They Dragged Alan Hale Into This

Because Heaven’s Gate believed their spaceship was coming on the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet, poor Alan Hale’s phone "never stopped ringing the entire day" after the scene was discovered, seeking his comment on something he didn’t really have anything to do with. He later clarified, in case anyone still had doubts, that "Comets are lovely objects, but they don't have apocalyptic significance."

They Still Have a Website

Heaven's Gate website homepage

(Heaven's Gate)

To pay for a huge mansion in California and those trips to Vegas and whatnot, the group provided web development services under the business name Higher Source, so of course they had their own website. It’s still up to this day, believed to be maintained by an elderly couple in Arizona.

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