Hale-Bopp, Heaven’s Gate, and the Largest Mass Suicide on U.S. Soil

25 years ago, 39 bodies were discovered in their California home, and America’s eyes turned from the stars to the largest mass suicide ever committed on U.S. soil. Welcome to Heaven’s Gate.

Hale-Bopp comet

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When two amateur astronomers, Alan Hale of New Mexico and Thomas Bopp of Arizona, independently trained their telescopes on the globular cluster M70 on June 23, 1995, they made a breathtaking observation: a large, bright object that had not been observed within the cluster only a few weeks earlier had suddenly appeared. The object, later named Comet Hale-Bopp, was extraordinary in its size and brightness; at the same distance from Earth, Hale-Bopp appeared 1,000 times brighter than Halley’s Comet and could be observed from heavily light-polluted areas like New York and Chicago.

Less than a year after that discovery, in May 1996, Hale-Bopp became visible to the naked eye and remained visible for the next 18 months. From its mysterious appearance to its dramatic exit, astronomers and common citizens alike found their necks craned up and their eyes fixed to the stars; everyone was truly captivated by Hale-Bopp’s beauty and mystery. But no one was more captivated by Hale-Bopp than cult leader Marshall “Do” Herff Applewhite Jr. and the loyal followers of Heaven’s Gate.

The Doomsday Cult

Heaven’s Gate was founded in 1974 by Bonnie “Ti” Nettles and Marshall “Do” Applewhite. The pair met in 1972 after Do suffered a serious mental breakdown that required intense psychiatric care at an in-patient facility. Ti was Do’s attending nurse. She determined that Do was her spiritual partner, her soulmate, and that they were Next Level beings stuck in shoddy human forms.

The pair’s doctrine was a unique combination of Christian dogma and science fiction.

According to their literature, Jesus Christ and the Holy Father are other-worldly creatures, evolutionarily advanced beings, sent to Earth to instruct their followers in obtaining the Next Level of existence.

 

“Upon instruction, a member of the Kingdom of Heaven then left behind His body in the Next Level (similar to putting it in a closet, like a suit of clothes that doesn’t need to be worn for awhile [sic]), came to Earth, and moved into (or incarnated into) an adult human body (or ‘vehicle’) that had been ‘prepped’ for this particular task,” Applewhite wrote in “Do’s Intro: Purpose-Belief” in the book How and When Heaven’s Gate May Be Entered. “The body that was chosen was called Jesus. The member of the Kingdom of Heaven who was instructed to incarnate into that body did so at His ‘Father’s’ (or Older Member’s) instruction.”

Ti and Do believed themselves to be a part of this Next Level as well, and it was their mission to help their followers raise their evolutionary status and gain entrance into Heaven’s Gate. To do this, they instructed their followers to relinquish human vices —wealth and property, friends and family, addictions and desires. Unlike the Rajneesh, which promoted free love, and the Branch Davidians, which issued strict sexual sanctions on its members, Ti and Do promoted abstinence from all sexual encounters, including self-gratification. This ban resulted in the castration of several male members, including Applewhite himself. However, this radical idea was not a part of Heaven’s Gate dogma … in the beginning.

When Nettles and Applewhite went public with their message, they attracted thousands of people. Whether curious about their message or firm believers in humanity’s Next Level, people all over the country flocked to their meetings. As Ti and Do traveled throughout the continental United States and spread their message, they picked up several members along the way, dubbing their new followers as chosen people worthy of being trained for the Next Level.

Their message, intentionally or unintentionally, targeted vulnerable people — people who had just lost jobs or cherished family members or friends. And by stripping their followers of their identities — renaming them, changing their physical appearance (shaving/cutting their hair, dictating their dress), and forcing their departure from friends and family, Ti and Do held ultimate power over their isolated and transformed followers. With this power, they used their followers’ skills and talents to build a successful empire of conversion, attracting more and more converts.

Cult indoctrination is a vast psychological field — too large to be covered here. But it is important to note that cult members are not “stupid” people. Most people who find themselves indoctrinated into a cult are typically well off and highly educated. Their fatal flaw is not idiocy but a need for something more. Most followers suffer from extreme loss or trauma before their indoctrination, and they find themselves asking: What am I supposed to do with my life? What is my purpose? Dissatisfied with mainstream religious teachings, these desperate people seek alternative, usually radical, forms of religions to answer their intense spiritual questions. Ti and Do’s message of otherworldly spirits stuck in human form was the perfect message to cling to.

In 1975, Ti and Do set out to Oregon for the first of many tours. Hoping to spread their message, the pair posted and handed out fliers that intrigued thousands, but they were only able to persuade 20 people to follow them to Colorado, where they would learn to accept themselves as Next Level beings. Heaven’s Gate attracted many people, but their membership was never consistent and many people left the group when sanctions became too strict. That is another interesting thing about Heaven’s Gate: They never forced anyone to stay. In fact, when Ti died in 1985, Heaven’s Gate saw a rapid decrease in their already small membership after Applewhite persuaded his followers to go home and mourn Ti’s death with their unindoctrinated friends and family. However, that loss in membership led to a destructive increase of radical ideas.

One of these ideas was castration. Another was suicide.

A Cosmic Catastrophe

On November 14, 1996, six months after Hale-Bopp became visible to the naked eye, Chuck Shramek took a picture of the comet. The CCD image distorted a star, which would later be identified as SAO 141894, that was set directly behind the Comet Hale-Bopp. Invited onto Art Bell’s radio show, Shramek used the platform to share his false “discovery” of a Saturn-Like Object (SLO) trailing behind Hale-Bopp. While this was untrue, it sparked many rumors that a space craft supposedly three times the size of the Earth followed the comet.

For the next couple of months, people around the world were “discovering” other SLOs traveling behind the comet and capturing them on camera. On January 15, 1997, the rumor peaked when a new picture of the UFO was released on Art Bell’s and Whitley Strieber’s websites. While the world was trying to figure out what exactly this mysterious SLO was, Heaven’s Gate already had an answer.

According to Applewhite, the object racing after Comet Hale-Bopp was, in fact, a spaceship. On this ship sat Ti, who had been patiently waiting in the Next Level for her crew, to finally to take them away. Hale-Bopp was just a sign to join their fallen leader.

When the SLO “following” Hale-Bopp was “discovered,” Heaven’s Gate began formulating their exit plans. How do we rid ourselves of our human forms in a peaceful, nonviolent way? When is the right time to do it?

Comet Hale-Bopp reached its closest distance from Earth, 120 million miles away, on March 22, 1997. This was the perfect exit point. With Hale-Bopp so close to Earth, the “alien spaceship” following the comet was in perfect range to seize the spiritual forms of the Heaven’s Gate members, reuniting them with their leader and transporting them back home. In order to be taken, the crew members must shed themselves of their human forms.

Leaving Their Bodies Behind

Unlike the mass suicide at Jonestown in 1978, the deaths of 39 members of Heaven’s Gate were not simultaneous. It is believed that the suicides began on Sunday, March 23, 1997, and lasted a total of three days. In the first wave, 15 chosen members took a deadly combination of phenobarbital, alcohol, and hydrocodone. Eight assistants then tied plastic bags around their fellow crew members’ heads and shrouded their dying friends. The second wave resembled the first. Only this time Applewhite himself, their beloved Do, was among the chosen 15. In the final wave, nine members took their own lives with no one left to assist them.

“By the time you receive this, we’ll be gone — several dozen of us,” begins their suicide note, “HEAVEN’S GATE ‘Away Team’ Returns to Level Above Human in Distant Space.” “We came from the Level Above Human in distant space and we have now exited the bodies that we were wearing for our earthly task, to return to the world from whence we came — task completed. The distant space we refer to is what your religious literature would call the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God.”

On March 26, 1997, 25 years ago today, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate were found dead in their suburban home in California. Laid in bunkbeds and across tables, the members wore identical uniforms labeled “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” and the now infamous black-and-white Nike running shoes.

And the Cult Continues

Thirty-nine people died, but that was not the end of Heaven’s Gate. In fact, for the past 25 years, someone has paid to keep the Heaven’s Gate website up and running. Although it has not been confirmed, it is suspected that Mark and Sarah King, former members of Heaven’s Gate, were entrusted to keep the website alive and continue spreading the Heaven’s Gate message. It is also believed that the couple started a company on behalf of the cult called the TELAH (The Evolutionary Level Above Human) Foundation.

Other former members — like “Sawyer” who was extensively interviewed for HBO Max’s 2020 docuseries Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults — have been working with Do’s teachings, even after the mass suicide, to reach the Next Level. Sawyer hadn’t felt worthy enough to be a part of Heaven’s Gate or to be a part of the worthy Away Team because he was constantly succumbing to his sexual desires. Yet he continues to work on breaking through the vices of his human body until he feels worthy to join his leaders and friends at Heaven’s Gate.

Other former members have completely withdrawn from Ti and Do’s teachings. Some mourn the loss of their friends and wish they could have helped them. Some hold grudges toward Do and his controlling tactics.

Regardless of how Nettles and Applewhite’s teachings should (or should not) be handled, 39 people lost their lives in the biggest mass suicide ever to take place on U.S. soil. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were affected by this tragic loss, and 25 years later, the blow has not softened.

Featured image: Comet Hale-Bopp (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

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Comments

  1. I’d forgotten a lot of the details in this very weird story. It shows (and is a reminder) that otherwise smart people can get caught up in cult brainwashing with dire consequences. The fact the mass suicide took place in California is sadly appropriate. If I were just hearing of this story for the first time, and had to guess where it happened, that would be it. The state where the nonsensical makes sense.

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