On March 26, 1997, San Diego police followed up on an anonymous tip and entered a home located in one of the city's wealthy suburban neighborhoods, according to History.com. Officers were greeted by the stench of decomposing bodies. Inside lay the corpses of 39 people – all dressed in identical tracksuits and shoes – who had committed mass suicide, thanks to the teachings of the infamous Heaven's Gate cult.
The group killed themselves as the Hale-Bopp comet approached Earth, in hopes of leaving the confines of their human lives to a ride on an alien spacecraft hiding in the comet's wake. America and the rest of the world were both horrified and confused.
The group had its roots back in the '70s, when a Texas music teacher named Marshall Applewhite lost his job after having an inappropriate relationship with a male student, according to Rolling Stone. Not long afterward, he met a nurse named Bonnie Nettles. Both had an interest in biblical prophecy, and Applewhite was convinced that the two were bonded somehow because they'd met in a previous life.
For her part, Nettles told Applewhite that she knew they'd meet someday ... because extraterrestrials had preordained their encounter.
Together, the two blended multiple religious teachings from the New Testament with various bits of eschatology, mysticism, astrology, asceticism, reincarnation and science fiction, as well as aspects of Applewhite's Presbyterian upbringing. All of this was influenced by Nettles' belief that a monk from the 1800s often had conversations with her, providing life guidance.
The two didn't have a romantic relationship. Instead, they bonded in their efforts to ascend to a higher plane of existence and ultimately reach the kingdom of heaven. Applewhite became calling himself "Do," and Nettles became "Ti." Or else they called themselves "Bo" and "Peep."
In the mid-1970s, they convinced a group of 20 Oregonians to leave behind their families, lives and worldly possessions for Colorado. There, they waited for an alien spaceship to arrive. It never did, so the group began dwindling.
In 1985, Nettles died from cancer, leaving Applewhite depressed. But he was undeterred. By the early 1990s, he'd tweaked his beliefs and started recruiting new members. The group bounced from place to place, sometimes living in campgrounds around the country, occasionally panhandling and always looking to recruit new converts, reported the New York Times.