Anatomy of a mass suicide: The dark, twisted story behind a UFO death cult
On March 22 and March 23, 1997, all thirty-nine active members of Heaven’s Gate committed suicide, exiting the Earth, as they referred to the act. In three waves, members ingested a poisonous mixture of barbiturates and alcohol, and as their breath slowed and bodies shut down, they asphyxiated under plastic bags that they had tied over their heads. Members followed guidelines they had researched several years earlier, and laid down their earthly lives in what can only be called ritual precision and attention to detail. In keeping with the group’s customs, each member wore an identical uniform, but in their final months the group’s members had added a customized “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” patch that positioned them as merely visitors to this planet rather than inhabitants, invoking the concept from the Star Trek universe of visitors from a traveling spaceship.
They also covered themselves in purple shrouds, the shroud an echoing of nearly universal ancient burial customs, and the purple a reminder not only of the Easter season but, as Robert W. Balch and David Taylor have pointed out, Nettles’s favorite color. Each member carried a five-dollar bill and three quarters, a standard practice that members of the group had followed to avoid being stranded without money for transportation. Members of each wave had cleaned and tidied after their compatriots had died, removing the plastic bags and draping the shrouds over their deceased companions. Applewhite ended his life on the second day of the suicide, along with his closest helpers. When ex-member Neoody, informed of the exits by a mailing he had received from the group, found the bodies on March 26, there was nothing left of Heaven’s Gate. Neoody called the 911 telephone emergency hotline to report the deaths, then left.
The most radical thing one can say about the Heaven’s Gate suicides is also the simplest: the suicides were religious acts. Members understood them not as deaths but graduations, cutting aside the decaying matter of Earth so as to free their true selves to journey to the Next Level in the heavens. Were they suicides? Yes, certainly to outsiders such as myself and (presumably) most readers of this book. But for the adherents of Heaven’s Gate, no they clearly were not. Members of the group defined suicide as “to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered,” a definition they crafted at least several months before the actual suicides. By that logic those who remained on Earth had committed the true suicides, rejecting the promise of eternal life as perfected beings in the Next Level. Members of Heaven’s Gate merely exited a world they had long rejected.
Why, journalists, scholars, and the general public have asked, did the adherents of Heaven’s Gate ultimately choose to commit suicide in March 1997? Unlike the members of the Peoples Temple living in Jonestown, Guyana, who committed mass suicide and murder in 1978, no network of hostile outsiders sought to take down the group. Nor did government forces raid the home of Heaven’s Gate, nor did its leaders face any sort of criminal or civil charges, as happened in the cases of the Branch Davidians and Christian survivalists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. In each of those examples, outside forces combined with inside ones to lead to violence and death among members of a new religious movement. This leads to a curious point: in most cases of millennial violence, something or someone instigated the final violent end of the group. This is precisely what appeared not to have happened in the case of Heaven’s Gate, which makes it all the more surprising that thirty-nine people— plus more later—chose to end their lives.
This chapter argues that members of Heaven’s Gate chose to commit suicide in March 1997 because their dualistic theology had long led them to view this act as a possible necessity; their model of graduation from the human world required that they take some step to depart; and the combination of a lack of government persecution and the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet and its related publicity served to force the issue. Members had expected government forces or other Luciferian agents to kill them, and paradoxically the absence of any overt oppression led adherents to decide they had to end their own lives rather than rely on the government to kill them. This being said, ultimately I do not think we can accept any specific argument of why members chose to commit suicide at that particular time. Certainly they might have waited for another cosmic sign, or waited longer for government action against them. Theoretically Applewhite might have crafted a theological rationale for staying on Earth indefinitely. None of these things happened. Scholars can point to influences and historical developments, but reducing the individual choices of so many people to one or even a handful of causal forces is difficult. The best evidence died with the members of Heaven’s Gate.
Yet some evidence remains, namely the group members’ writings and videos. Several scholars have tackled the question of why the events in Heaven’s Gate ended as they did. The opinions of Robert W. Balch and David Taylor most closely match my own, and since they are the two sociologists with the longest-standing research background in the study of the group, their interpretation relies on the most support. “[T]he suicides resulted from a deliberate decision that was neither prompted by an external threat nor implemented through coercion. Members went to their deaths willingly, even enthusiastically, because suicide made sense to them in the context of a belief system that, with few modifications, dated back to Ti and Do’s initial revelations,” the two sociologists wrote in their 2002 analysis of the Heaven’s Gate suicides. They note several factors predisposing the group to suicide, including not only their belief system and its dualistic cosmology, but also the attrition of less committed members, the organization of their leadership system, and their perception of an external conspiracy against them. They also identified a series of precipitating factors, notably the aging of Applewhite, the end of active proselytizing, the arrival of Hale-Bopp comet, and Easter.
Balch and Taylor’s analysis is correct, and I am in basic agreement with it. I am less convinced that the precipitating factors represented a truly convincing case for suicide, but since the only individuals who can conclusively indicate if this is so are now deceased—or in the Next Level, if one accepts their own belief system, and regardless beyond our ability to interview—this question will remain permanently unanswered and unanswerable. I also think that the lack of government persecution against the movement was far more influential than any other factor in pushing the group members toward deciding to commit suicide, as their past statements indicated that they expected this to happen imminently. The lack of any government siege against them would not only have represented a failure of expectations but a basic logistical problem in how to get their souls to the Next Level. (That is, members faced the same problem they had for nearly two decades: how to get themselves to the Next Level if the government was not going to kill them and free their souls to journey onward.) Further, the metaphysical dualism of the movement’s thought is equally important as their worldly and cosmological dualism.
Historian of religion Catherine Wessinger offers another paradigm for the end of Heaven’s Gate based on her model of catastrophic millennialism. Wessinger calls Heaven’s Gate a “fragile millennial group,” meaning that the movement existed in an unstable state because of its millennial theology, its hierarchal model of leadership, and the aging of its leader Applewhite. Yet importantly, the group had existed in basically the same theological and social form for years, and while fragile, it nevertheless had endured. No particular sense of fragility characterized the movement in 1997, as Wessinger herself notes: “Applewhite . . . had feelings of persecution dating back twenty-five to thirty years, but at the time of the suicide, the group was not really persecuted.” In Wessinger’s view, the suicides resulted from a group that slowly closed itself off from the outside world based on decades of rejection by outsiders, combined with a theology that created an unstable worldview. “The decision to ‘exit’ planet Earth was made in response to internal weaknesses that were caused by Do and the other leader, Bonnie Lu Nettles (called ‘Ti’), who died in 1985. But the group’s uncomfortable relationship with mainstream American society contributed to the Heaven’s Gate believers’ group suicide,” Wessinger explains.
The internal weaknesses to which Wessinger refers emerge from the group’s theology of grafting and hierarchy, wherein the Next Level communicated and related to Earth only through a chain of mind linking the Next Level to Ti, Ti to Do, and Do to the members of the Class, i.e., the adherents of Heaven’s Gate. Ti had already exited her human vehicle, but Do remained as a conduit to the Next Level. “What would happen to the students after his death,” Wessinger envisions the members asking. In her analysis, the theology of grafting had resulted in an unstable situation wherein members relied entirely on Applewhite-asDo to enable their connection to the Next Level. As Applewhite aged, his followers presumably reasoned, would they not stand to lose any chance of salvation? James R. Lewis makes a similar argument in his analysis of the Heaven’s Gate suicides, explaining that “there seemed to be no other viable solution to the problem of what followers would do after he passed away.”
I do not disagree with Wessinger and Lewis that this particular theological position played a role in the members’ decisions to accept suicide, but I do not see it as an underlying cause, rather at most a supporting factor. Adherents did express a single-minded dedication to their leader, and they clearly did not want to lose their connection to the Next Level through him. But the example of Nettles’s death and the continued Next Level activity of Ti offers a powerful counterexample of the resilience and stability of Heaven’s Gate’s belief system. Despite the death of her vehicle, Ti continued to live, and while the death of Applewhite surely would have rocked the movement’s members, there is no reason to assume that one or more adherents would not simply have accepted the mantle of “senior student” and become a sort of surrogate to Do. As a parallel, one can look to the continued activity of a small network of former members of the group, who even fifteen years after the death of Applewhite and their co-religionists, persist in their beliefs and connection to the movement. Do literally transcended Applewhite as a human being, and therefore the death of Applewhite would not have meant the death of Do, as members very clearly indicated through the actual suicides. Nor was Applewhite’s death particularly imminent in March 1997, though he had expressed concerns that he might be suffering from cancer. The aging of Applewhite might have predisposed himself and members to look for signs of the end, but it did not in itself cause the end, or serve as a sign.
I would therefore disagree with Wessinger that the movement was fragile in the sense of social instability. Of course there is no way to know how the adherents would have responded to Applewhite’s death, since in fact the vast majority accepted his decision to force the issue of their departure by choosing to exit their vehicles, that is, to commit suicide, on their own terms. Yet Wessinger is correct to highlight the role of the group’s negative relationship with broader culture, their “sense of alienation from society,” as she calls it. This form of dualistic thinking serves as one of the theological forces enabling the suicides.
While Balch and Taylor and Wessinger offer helpful models for the suicides, several other scholars have proffered overly reductionist approaches that either rely on circular logic or fail to account for empirical realities. Robert Jay Lifton has described the exits as the result of Applewhite’s “own decision to force the end—of his own journey, of his megalomanic self, and of the small cult of ‘grafted’ followers that had come to constitute his entire world. In destroying that world, he was destroying everything.” It is difficult to argue against Lifton’s position since he provides no specific evidence of Applewhite’s alleged psychological state nor why Applewhite chose March 1997 as the time to destroy the world. Rather, Lifton envisions the group member as sliding toward a “shared delusion” that he characterizes as possessing elements both “poignant and absurd,” such as the Away Team patches.
Lifton’s inability to take seriously the Heaven’s Gate suicides and lack of evidence as to why one should root the deaths in pathological psychology rather than theology makes his model rather unhelpful. That being said, Lifton is correct to note that the decision to end the group’s terrestrial existence rested with Applewhite alone.
Sociologist Janja Lalich’s model of the Heaven’s Gate suicides is in some ways far more helpful, for she recognizes that for members “[t]he mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult was not a delusional or insane act . . . Rather, it was the ultimate and inevitable next step within the self-sealing system of their community.” While “self-sealing” seems too strong a position—several members left after the group decided to consider suicide, and one member departed just weeks before the suicides—she is correct that the acts made sense for adherents of this worldview. Yet Lalich places too much stock in her model of “bounded choice” which she argues creates a “complete dependency of the members on the leaders, built around an intricate system to oversee that degree of control which led to their bounded choice of their own demise.” While members did depend in a soteriological sense on their leaders, this sense of dependency was neither absolute nor entirely bound, as the examples of defections and continued activities of former members after the suicides indicate. Yet even if Lalich is correct that such a dependency exists, the materials produced by adherents of Heaven’s Gate in their final years did not credit this sort of hierarchal dependency as the reasons they chose to commit suicide. Rather, a close examination of the documents they produced indicates that members chose to commit suicides because they had come to reject the world just as they had long believed that they had to reject their bodies. They sought transcendence, not bounded choice. However, Lalich is correct to root the suicides in a concept of binding, but rather than see their choices as bound, it is best to see the members themselves as binding themselves to Applewhite.
By contrast to Lalich and Lifton, and in keeping with Balch and Taylor, Wessinger, Lewis, and others, I understand the Heaven’s Gate suicides as ultimately driven by theology and worldview, and members making what sociologist Rodney Stark and his collaborators would call rational choices to remain within the group, accept Applewhite’s decisions, and end their lives. By the end of 1996, the members of Heaven’s Gate had reconfigured their worldview in a starkly dualistic manner. They upheld two forms of dualism: one a metaphysical dualism that distinguished the body from the true self, found in the mind or soul; the other a second form of dualism that I call “worldly dualism,” which distinguished the members of Heaven’s Gate and their movement as good, saved, and wholesome, and separated from a bad, damned, and corrupt outside world. These two forms of dualistic thinking had long been developing, and both clearly emerged from the thought and teachings of Nettles and Applewhite as far back as 1974, when they taught that human beings had to overcome and transcend the world to achieve eternal heavenly salvation, and to abandon human and terrestrial existence.
Yet the early 1990s clearly had reshaped both forms of dualism into more strident form that envisioned the Earth as not merely something to graduate from, but something to hate, human bodies not merely things to evolve out of, but vehicles to willfully destroy through suicide. As this chapter will demonstrate, the best explanation for this more strident dualism is that members of Heaven’s Gate had given up on the world and had decided after years of widespread rejection that the broader society, especially mainstream Christians, was beyond any attempt to reach and save. They had also given up on their bodies, witnessed the death of Nettles and the aging of Applewhite, and fought the demons of sensuality and humanness for decades.
Both types of dualism had to combine and ferment before adherents would seriously entertain the possibility of suicide. These two forms of dualism informed how the group’s members thought about the world and the self, and enabled the idea of suicide. Yet other factors contributed as well. Most importantly, the hoopla surrounding the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet and claims that a UFO trailed the comet signaled to them that their time had come to an end, and that the whole world would at last see their commitment to the Next Level. In the end members chose to commit suicides because they had rejected the intrinsic value of the world and the human body, and because their leader, Applewhite, had indicated that the time was right to discard their attachments to both of them. The vast majority of members accepted this logic and chose to exit their human bodies.
In other words, there was a very clear reason that members chose suicide: because they did not perceive the actions they chose as suicides. They looked to them merely as a form of graduation from an unwanted terrestrial existence on an undesirable planet in disagreeable bodies, to a cosmic existence in the Next Level in perfected new bodies. For members, suicide was the only logical choice within their worldview. Members had expected and even hoped that a government raid would end their earthly lives, but when that did not transpire they chose to end their lives themselves. In order for the adherents of this religious movement to have made this choice, several historical developments had to occur, culminating in how members of the group responded to the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet and a rumored extraterrestrial companion.
Excerpted from “Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion” by Benjamin E. Zeller. Copyright © 2014 by Benjamin E. Zeller.
Watch: Back Story: Recalling The Heaven’s Gate Mass Suicide
Watch: Heaven’s Gate
Quite possibly the craziest cult ever, Heaven’s Gate was founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. Heaven’s Gate members believed that the planet Earth was about to be recycled (wiped clean, renewed, refurbished and rejuvenated), and that the only chance to survive was to leave it immediately. While the group was formally against suicide, they defined “suicide” in their own context to mean “to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered,” and believed that their “human” bodies were only vessels meant to help them on their journey. In conversation, when referring to a person or a person’s body, they routinely used the word “vehicle”.
This documentary investigates an incident in 1997, where thirty-nine members of the San Diego-based cult “Heaven’s Gate” committed mass suicide. They intended to reach an alien spacecraft which they believed to be following Comet Hale-Bopp, which was at that time brightly visible in the nighttime sky.