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The Sad, Strange Story of the Heaven's Gate Cult

Marshall Herff Applewhite
Marshall Herff Applewhite, founder and co-leader of the religious cult Heaven's Gate, speaks to his followers via television. Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images

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.

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A Master Manipulator

Throughout the years, hundreds of people joined and cycled in and out of the group. To improve retention rates, Applewhite gradually began to control many aspects of members daily habits and routines. He was a master manipulator. As his techniques improved, more people stayed on to follow him, and became fanatically devoted.

"Cult leaders come in many shapes and sizes with assorted facades. One mask is in the form of a teacher," emails Rick Alan Ross, author of "Cults Inside Out." "Marshall Applewhite was a teacher and he regarded the members of Heaven's Gate as his 'class' of students. He claimed to have the keys to self-improvement, with tantalizing promises of a panacea, a magic formula for evolution to a level above human."

Members were forced to wear to the same clothes and have the same haircuts. They gave up their jobs, families, possessions and their sexuality. Several male members (including Applewhite) even agreed to be castrated, to help them loosen ties to their earthly lives.

"Cult members can appear 'brainwashed,' because they are so cocooned within their leader's contrived bubble world," says Ross. "Applewhite tightly controlled his devotees who lived communally in a house that he controlled. They were isolated from family and friends and could not travel outside the community without an accompanying escort."

When astronomers in 1995 discovered the comet Hale-Bopp, Applewhite came to believe that the aliens were finally on their way, hiding behind the comet as it raced toward Earth. He also felt sure that Nettles was aboard the ship.

Applewhite rented a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego. To make money, the group designed websites for several customers. (In fact, the Heaven's Gate website is still functioning.) As Hale-Bopp came closer by the week, Applewhite figured the only way to join Nettles was for the group to leave their "container" bodies and elevate to the ship.

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The Final Days

So, in late March 1997, he persuaded 38 other people to drink a blend of phenobarbital and vodka, and then, for good measure, wrap plastic bags around their heads. Their corpses were shrouded in purple cloth, for privacy.

San Diego sheriff photograph Heaven's Gate suicide
A San Diego sheriff shows some photographs taken of the cult members, who committed mass suicide wearing identical tracksuits and sneakers, and covered themselves with purple shrouds.
Axel Koester/Sygma via Getty Images

Days later, the news of their deaths – and the beliefs that led them to mass suicide – shocked the world. How could so many people follow Applewhite into death?

"The truth is people can be tricked more easily then we think and then become trapped within a cult leader's grasp," says Ross via email interview. "Held within this manufactured and seemingly mystical milieu such devotees become virtual prisoners, unable to readily break free, due to carefully contrived and implemented psychological and emotional restraints, which we cannot easily see or understand."

So, in spite of Applewhite's off-kilter and self-invented belief system, he still managed to convince many people that they had to follow his path to a higher plane of existence. Sadly, it cost them their lives. That blend of weirdness and devotion has captivated the public's imagination for decades.

"Destructive cults are stranger and often more fascinating than fiction," says Ross. "Cult tragedies often include crazed lunatic leaders, who feed upon their faithful followers like vampires, extracting money, free labor, sexual favors and at times literally controlling people to death, such as Applewhite did, who dictated the terms and details of a group suicide."

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