The Story Behind One of the 90s Most Notorious Cults
TW: Suicide, Cult, Manipulation, Mutilation
Heaven's Gate, a religious movement often described as a cult, caused a major impact on the 90s and led to 39 suicidal acts being committed in one single day. Previously named "Human Individual Metamorphosis" and "Total Overcomers Anonymous", held their beliefs on Unidentified Flying Objects and extreme self-renunciation. The group, led by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, or as they called themselves "Do" and "Ti" or "The Two", lasted from 1975 to March of 1997, where the remaining 39 members all participated in an act of mass suicide. Originally, the cult followed the idea of chemically and biologically transforming yourself into an alien, where the members would be taken into the "Other Kingdom '', or Heaven.
How could anyone believe in any of this, let alone 200 people? It all started after music professor Marshall Applewhite had a psychotic episode, following those events he met a nurse; Bonnie Lu Nettles, who convinced him that they were platonic soulmates, destined to meet and do something great together. Nettles had a daughter and a husband at the time, who she later on divorced once she met Marshall, the family shared a strong interest for UFO's and space when they were together. Once they met, both were convinced that they were meant for greatness, leading them to travel and spread their message around the country. The goal was to spread the message that the earth was soon coming to an end and that Nettles and Marshall were aliens who would soon move to the Kingdom of Heaven and would take everyone who was willing to shed their "Humanness" with them.
They claimed that the human body was a vehicle and by changing their diet, unifying themselves, following the religion and letting go of those things that kept them human and tied to earth, they would gain their true alien form. This meant that all members were required to go off grid and abandon their families since, according to the two, their real families were those who would go to Heaven with them. Cult memebers were also required to look androgynous since they claimed that everyone was genderless, cutting their hair wearing the same clothes and maintainging clean shaved. As well as that, everyone had to let go of their sexual and romantic desires and relationships, and lastly they were required to change their names, which would have to end with "ODY" a diminutive for God; member names would change from Sawyer to SWYODY and Erika to CHKODY. These strict rules were all present in the Heaven's Gate bible, which once introduced caused multiple members to leave.
In the following years, the group went on from having 200 members to only 100, however no one seemed too phased with this as they began growing more into a family; constantly on the move in a new house, not much contact with outsiders, living on money from freelance work as well as an inheritance from one of the members. However it all changed when, in 1985, Bonnie Lu began to develop cancer in both her eyes, which she removed together with her organs. Once she died, the group seemed to grow closer although still mourning the death of their leader, Ti, especially her partner Do, who looked to her for guidance. The death of one of their beloved leaders led to quite a few changes, with Marshall missing her more than ever and now having to lead the group alone. This brought on new stricter rules where one would have to log if they ever had any sexual desires in order to feel the shame and repent them, but also brought the memebers the freedom of being able to go back to visit their families for a week as Marshall mourned; only one participant left the cult after going back home. The group's belief also changed as they began wondering how Ti's "vehicle" could just go sick and die like that; due to this, the group began believing that there was no physical change that would happen to their bodies while on earth, instead they would all die at some point before the end of the earth and be taken to Heaven in a spaceship, and to do that the "class" would have to "graduate".
Along with the changes in rules, there was also an apparent change in Do, while still remaining the loving and respected leader he was, he also began to display his narcissistic psychotic side much more. The death of Ti seemed to affect him quite a lot, at some point Marshall decided he would have a sort of marriage ceremony with his class, in which they would kneel and he would place a gold band on their fingers and kiss their heads. This was a way in which Applewhite felt like his control over life was still there, even after such tragedies. Do also went on to suggest castration in the male members in order to limit their relations even more, going as far as to almost killing one of them after a home surgery went wrong, but then still being able to complete more than 6 castration surgeries on other members. The most astounding part was that this was all done in "free will", with meetings being held beforehand where they discussed the possibility and the idea that anyone could join or back away at any point in time. In the time period between this event and the suicide many cultists left and joined, as the class once again toured the country. Some joined because of the message, other ex-members also joined and multiple members left due to uncertainties or due to their relationship with their sexuality, some even being kicked out due to that.
Finally, as news of the world ending in the turn of the millenia reached its peak and soon after the 1995 discovery of the Hale-Bopp comet; the group decided as a whole that it was time to kill their vehicles and join the Kingdom of Heaven. Prior to the death of those 39 members they went on with a quite happy and closed off lfe. Commemorating Christmas, filming home videos, preparing their journey away and travelling more. In March 1997 as the Hale-Bopp comet reached its closest distance to earth they all proceeded to kill themselves together, dressed in all black and Nikes, with only 5.75 dollars in their pockets as the money one "needed to ride a comet to heaven". After an anonymous tip to the police from a former member, this had all come to an end, an event that marked multiple lives and families and left a chill in most.
A story of endless manipulation disguised as freedom, knowledge and free will. One where even leaders can make themselves fools and where lack of intervention and lack of proper mental health care led to a mass loss. Forever marking the heart of most Americans and most people present in the 90s. If you are interested in more, the official Heaven's Gate site is here and I would highly recommend checking out the documentary "Heaven's Gate; The Cult of Cults".