For the docuseries, HBO conducted several interviews with former Heaven’s Gate members as well as sociologists and psychologists. The series raises the same question begged by most cult histories: why the heck did people actually join?
The Heaven’s Gate question, however, seems to be especially head scratching; perhaps what makes Heaven’s Gate the “cult of cults” was how so many could overlook its seemingly-obvious absurdity. What we’re left with, instead, is the baffling persuasiveness of a transcendental UFO-based religion which somehow attracted some of America’s brightest minds and convinced them to destroy themselves en masse.
While it’s tempting to chalk the whole fiasco up to a ’70s drug haze (or ’90s internet rabbit holes), the cult lasted almost three mostly lucid decades; it was not simply a remnant of hippie hysteria nor a reaction to online conspiracies.
For many of its members, the reasons for joining and remaining in the cult were simply one: Do/Bo/Marshall Applewhite.
But what was so convincing about this founder? And why did so many follow him to the grave?
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Who was Marshall Applewhite (“Do”)?
Applewhite was born in Spur, Texas to a local minister. (Many of the teachings Applewhite would later injected into the Heaven’s Gate theology—including his own messianic role—originate in this presbyterian upbringing.) Applewhite attended the University of Colorado to study music, and he participated in musicals, even moving to New York to become a professional singer. He was described as “happy-go-lucky” and “popular with students.”
Applewhite was reportedly married with two children at the time, though the relationship ended and he began teaching music at a private college in Houston in 1966. In Houston, Applewhite apparently had a near death experience, according to his sister. He met a nurse named Bonnie Nettles while being treated. Nettles allegedly told Applewhite that he had been spared, because of a divine plan. Applewhite and Nettles then opened up a store in Houston selling literature on astrology and religion.
In 1973, the two began traveling across America, camping in parks and recruiting followers. The two began preaching, claiming they were aliens who had taken human form. They professed knowledge of a spaceship that would take believers to higher level of existence.
In 1975, Robert Balch, an early chronicler of the movement, wrote of Applewhite (in the early days, called “Bo”):
“Bo was a tall, greying, slightly overweight figure with remarkable stage presence and steel-blue eyes which he could use effectively to captivate an audience. By all accounts Bo was extremely persuasive. A few ex-members claimed their minds went blank in his presence, and one man insisted that he saw a vivid image of a UFO the moment Bo touched him on the shoulder. The experience was so real that even long after defecting, the man continued to believe he had actually put his hand on the spaceship’s landing gear.”
Sociologist Janja Lalich, interviewed for the HBO series, explained the basic mechanism behind Applewhite and Nettles’s effectiveness: “What cults need to do is turn you into a conformist. . . . They need to break down ‘you’ and create a new ‘you.’”
Applewhite and Nettles settled in the American Southwest, convincing scores of members to leave their families and join them. Over the next two decades, the group would move around the western United States, camping, recruiting, and at times pursuing extraterrestrial encounters. The “new you” was not to be on this earth, but rather beyond one’s body and in space. Getting there, however, would prove less metaphysical than deadly.
What happened to Marshall Applewhite?
In 1985, Nettles died of liver cancer, forcing Applewhite to take charge of the theological direction of the movement (only later renamed “Heaven’s Gate.”) Applewhite now began claiming he was a new Christ and that Nettles was helping direct him from beyond the grave, like God the Father.
The ultimate goal of the group was to leave behind one’s physical body, after which one could attain a higher evolutionary level. This belief turned the act of suicide into a positive means toward spiritual ascension.
By the 1990s, Applewhite began speaking of suicide as a potential route. At this time, the group had fewer than 50 members, many of whom told Applewhite they would consider suicide.
In July 1995, astronomers spotted the Hale-Bopp Comet, and a photograph was taken, appearing to show a trail of light in the comet’s wake. According to a New York Times article the following year, the comet was likely regarded as a sign, and the trailing light seen by Heaven’s Gate believers to be an extraterrestrial—a ship that the followers could escape to by leaving their bodies.
Two years later, the group, under Applewhite’s direction, did just that. Twenty-one men, including Applewhite, and 18 women drank a mixture of vodka phenobarbital and died in a Sante Fe mansion. Applewhite was 65.
Josh St. Clair
Joshua St Clair is an editorial assistant at Men’s Health Magazine.
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