Two People Survived Heaven’s Gate: We Talked To Them
On March 26, 1997, 39 people were found dead in a California mansion, having methodically killed themselves over the course of three days in the belief that they would ascend to a higher plane of existence. Depending on how old you are, this is either news or a reminder of an event that dominated the media for a while, before we all went back to being enthralled by the fresh sound of the Spice Girls.
In the middle of a lot of baseless speculation, everyone agreed on one thing: the dead had belonged to a group called Heaven's Gate. That's because the media found a website advertising the group, which just added to the mystique (keep in mind, in 1997 having a website made you a mysterious future wizard).
That site still exists today, because Heaven's Gate left behind two members to maintain it, answer emails, and sell books and VHS tapes of their beliefs. And they agreed to talk to us.
It All Began With A Bond Between Two True Believers
The group was founded by Marshall Applewhite, a minister's son who had stints as a soldier, teacher, singer, and deli owner, and Bonnie Nettles, a nurse who had a habit of conducting seances and who believed that the spirit of a 19th century monk spoke to her. The two met in 1972 and immediately became close friends -- Applewhite thought they had met in a previous life, while Nettles claimed their meeting had been foretold to her by extra-terrestrials.
Applewhite had recently been devastated by the death of his father, Nettles' marriage was failing, and generally it wasn't as healthy of a basis for a friendship as, say, a shared interest in Mario Kart.
Entire books have been written about what happened next, but the short version is that, after a period of intense religious studies, Applewhite and Nettles concluded that they were the "two witnesses" referred to in the Book Of Revelations (a popular claim for fringe religious groups), and that they had been given "higher-level minds" to fulfill Biblical prophecies. So they hit the road and started preaching, covering 8000 miles in a single month and going broke in the process. These weren't scam artists demanding payment for salvation -- they were true believers.
Their precise beliefs kept shifting like a philosophy undergrad's, but the gist of what they finally landed on is that the Biblical God is actually an incredibly advanced alien, that the Earth is due to be "recycled" and that, under the right guidance, humans can ascend to "The Evolutionary Level Above Human," essentially a snazzy sci-fi version of heaven.
And we're not joking when we say "sci-fi version" -- the group were science fiction fans, and Star Trek terminology kept popping up in their beliefs to the point where the people who killed themselves semi-seriously, semi-jokingly wore armbands that read "Heaven's Gate Away Team." According to our source, beings from that "higher level" sometimes pop down to check on our development like cosmic landlords. That happened most recently during Applegate's life. The time before that was just over 2000 years ago. We'll let you figure out who that's referring to.
The Group Starts Looking A Lot Like A Cult
It took Applewhite and Nettles almost 17 months to get their first recruit, then she quit after a few weeks and Applewhite went to jail for six months for stealing a rented car. But they kept at it, and eventually hundreds of people joined and started listening to them, including our sources. Hard work pays off, kids!
"We were in the Group for 12 years. Ti and Do held a meeting in Waldport, Oregon in September of 1975. We saw a poster about it in Eugene, Oregon and made our way to the coast to be a part of that gathering. Ti and Do spoke for a while about the understandings of the real, physical Next Level and we found what they were saying to be true. We joined the Group immediately."
When asked if they had previously held different religious beliefs, their response was, "Everything was simply a stepping stone preparation for the Next Level understanding."
In the late '70s they had about 70 dedicated members who spent years living in campgrounds, listening to their teachings and living off of one member's trust fund. Eventually they acquired a couple of houses, where they lived lives that were so regimented they were given precise instructions on what the circumference of their pancakes should be (they also got to play Yahtzee, so it wasn't all bad). But attrition set in -- by the early '90s they were down to roughly 26 members, and Nettles had died of cancer despite her insistence that she would survive, shaking Applewhite and the group. They were living communally in San Diego by then, and our sources were actively working for them.
"In 1996 they trained us in being a satellite communication center for them. We took care of fulfilling email requests. We sent out books and tapes and answered emails while communicating with members of the Group each day. After they departed, we received all their physical property and intellectual property holdings and followed their instructions to secure, protect, and maintain the website, emails, and all the issues that come up regarding their book, tapes, and other various writings and materials."
Their "departure" was, as you probably guessed, their mass suicide.
It Ended In A Mansion Full Of Corpses (Some Of Them Castrated)
Applewhite had argued that the Hale-Bopp comet, which was approaching Earth at the time, was accompanied by a spaceship guided by Nettles, and that it was time for him and his followers to evacuate the planet. By discarding their physical bodies, their souls could join the ship and ascend to the "Next Level." So Applewhite and his followers rented a mansion in California, mixed phenobarbital with applesauce, and washed it down with vodka, in one of history's largest mass suicides. Applewhite recorded a lengthy message explaining their actions, and his followers also left "exit statements." Applewhite looks tired.
If this is too depressing, you can listen to a catchy song that sampled him instead.
Academics and the media have debated whether Applewhite's followers were true believers or simply so isolated and dependent that they had no idea how to live without him. The term "cult" is a contentious one (what's the difference between a cult and a niche religion?) but there's a reason the headlines used it to describe Heaven's Gate: Members all dressed the same and had identical haircuts, and worldly pleasures like alcohol, drugs, and sex were forbidden to the point where Applewhite and seven of his followers went to Mexico and paid a sketchy doctor to castrate them.
And, you know, they all committed ritualistic suicide.
But unlike, say, Scientology, there was no evidence of intimidation tactics or physical or sexual abuse, no one had to pay to gain knowledge, members had jobs that took them out into the world daily (where their bosses loved them for being punctual, hard-working, and polite), and members could leave at any time -- assuming they could walk away from a family-like group they'd been emotionally invested in for as many as 20 years.
Applewhite only wanted true believers (his followers talked him into the castration idea), and members routinely left because they would rather smoke weed or have sex, or because the group's lifestyle just didn't click with them. We'll never truly know how much free will was involved -- it's a blurry line, to put it mildly -- but here's how our source described their daily life at the time:
"Being in the Group, under the care and lessons of an Older member from the Next Level cannot be duplicated by anyone on this planet. Daily, communal-like chores in the Group were treated as lesson steps to always perform the highest way possible. Items like cooking, cleaning, shopping, and working regular jobs were always handled in focused and conscious effort to do it in the best way possible with the help of a partner who would assist you in being your 'sounding board' to perform better."
Now, Just A Weirdly Outdated Dated Website Remains
One of the day jobs members held? Web design. Applewhite hoped a website would attract more followers, and its continued survival has made the group infamous.
It's not exactly beautiful, but considering most early websites featured 40 spinning GIFs and auto-playing MIDIs, it's not terrible either. Did you notice "Our Position Against Suicide"? It warns people against emulating them, because there won't be a spaceship to pick you up. And if you scroll down to the very bottom and hit Ctrl-A, you'll find a hidden attempt at old-school search engine optimization.
The group was obscure until their mass suicide, so when their website was discovered it became a source of interest and wild guessing to the point where their service provider had to temporarily take it down because it was getting millions of hits. In 1997.
There was talk of them being an "Internet Cult." CNN described the internet as "a place where bizarre ideas are exchanged and gain currency," which managed to be both wildly inaccurate and eerily prophetic, and they also brought in a psychiatrist who made completely wrong assumptions about how they used the internet. Or "surfed the information highway," as everyone said back then.
In reality, Applewhite only wanted the site to provide information to outsiders, and the group actually stopped taking new members three months after it went live. They did try recruiting on early message boards but were mostly just laughed at or insulted, because internet comment sections have been like that from literally the first day they were invented. But one of the ways they paid the bills was with their web design company, called Higher Source.
Other than the spacey background, they did average work -- here's one of the websites they designed.
Our source described their clients as "like any other customers one works for," while the clients, who were bombarded with questions after the suicide, described Higher Source employees as diligent professionals. They noted that they had a strict diet and dress code, but also that they had a good sense of humor and were "exceptionally smart." So either they were just regular people who stumbled into weird beliefs, or half of Facebook's employees are going to kill themselves any day now.
Ironically, The Internet May Have Killed Traditional Cults For Good
Heaven's Gate's attempt to harness the internet may have actually been a death knell for groups like it. A professor of religion who wrote a book on them argues that, while people today are still interested in alternative spirituality, you don't have to trudge out to a compound in California to experience it. If some fringe figure's preaching appeals to you, you can just download his podcast or follow him on sexyfacejesus.tumblr.com. Hell, you probably have friends preaching the merits of Wicca or astrology on Facebook right now. Meanwhile, the number of groups like Heaven's Gate have plummeted.
Heaven's Gate's site hasn't been updated since 1997, which is just how Applewhite wanted it (how can you improve on a perfect design?). Our sources don't even use the internet anymore aside from a little Googling, but when we asked how they felt to be left behind to do maintenance, they said, "We felt and still feel honored." They also said that people still express interest in their beliefs, but that there's no group for them to join now -- Heaven's Gate is done, and while you're welcome to subscribe to their ideas, you'll have to do it on your own time.
As for our sources, other than answering around 15 emails a day from journalists, rubberneckers, and people in search of answers, they live normal lives. They have jobs and friends, and while some of their associates know about their affiliation with Heaven's Gate, no one's ever made a big deal out of it (if you were their friends, would you bring it up?).
And yes, they still believe.
"We miss their presence all the time. Being with Ti and Do and all the Members of the Group was the finest experience of our lives. We are looking forward to being with our teachers again in the Next Level, but have to wait for now."
Mark is on Twitter and has a book. Tiago is also on Twitter.
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