Heaven’s Gate

A UFO religious cult known for its mass suicide in 1997, believing it would lead them to an extraterrestrial salvation.

Religion: New Age
Founders: Marshall Applewhite (“Do”) and Bonnie Nettles (“Ti”)
Founded: 1974
Ended: 1997
Location: San Diego, California, United States
Size: 41
Other Names: Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM), Total Overcomers Anonymous, Higher Source, The Group
Website: heavensgate.com

Heaven’s Gate was an American new religious movement, infamously known for the mass suicide of 39 of its members in 1997. Founded in the early 1970s by Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles, the group evolved from esoteric interpretations of Christian doctrines to include beliefs in extraterrestrial life and unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Applewhite and Nettles, also known by their respective nicknames “Do” and “Ti,” positioned themselves as divine messengers, heralding a path to salvation that involved leaving earthly existence behind to ascend to a higher level of consciousness, referred to as the “Next Level” or “Heaven.”

The origins of Heaven’s Gate trace back to a chance meeting between Applewhite, a music professor and choir director, and Nettles, a nurse, in Houston, Texas, in 1972. Their partnership was both spiritual and platonic, with both adopting several monikers over the years, such as Bo and Peep, Him and Her, and notably, Do and Ti. Their shared belief system synthesized aspects of Christian millenarianism, asceticism, and the conviction that they were the two witnesses described in the Book of Revelation, destined to prepare humanity for the end times.

The group initially attracted followers through meetings and public presentations across the United States, promising ascension to a higher existence aboard a spacecraft. This narrative appealed to those disenchanted with conventional life, drawing in upwards of 200 members at its peak. Adherents were required to renounce familial ties, personal possessions, and all forms of indulgence, including sexual activity, to purify themselves for their journey to the Next Level. The group’s practices included strict regimentation, communal living, and, for some male members, voluntary castration, reflecting their commitment to asceticism.

Heaven’s Gate’s belief system incorporated elements of popular culture, notably science fiction, into its theological framework. This amalgamation offered a novel cosmology that posited human bodies as mere “containers” that could be abandoned in pursuit of a higher, extraterrestrial form of existence. The group sustained itself financially through web design and other computer-related work.

The mass suicide in March 1997, coinciding with the closest approach of the Hale-Bopp comet, was precipitated by Applewhite’s conviction that a spacecraft hidden in the comet’s tail was arriving to transport the group to the Next Level. The members ingested a lethal mixture of phenobarbital and alcohol, believing this act was not a conventional suicide but rather a departure from their physical “vehicles” to achieve a higher state of existence. The event drew worldwide attention to the group and sparked discussions on the nature of cults, belief systems, and the search for meaning in modern society.

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