Believing they were about to board a spacecraft bound for the “Kingdom of Heaven,” 39 members of the reclusive “Heaven’s Gate” cult killed themselves in March 1997. With powerful doses of sedatives and plastic bags shrouding their heads, the cult’s leader and almost all active members perished in a shocking mass suicide.
Oddly enough, their unconventional faith did not die with them.
How did an eccentric, extraterrestrial-centered belief lead 39 people to die willingly? Why do its surviving members keep the faith after watching their brethren die by their own hands? This season, “Deadly Cults” on Oxygen, will take viewers inside Heaven’s Gate to find answers to these questions.
The founders of Heaven’s Gate, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, based their teachings partially on the Bible. Claiming to be space aliens occupying human bodies, they thought of themselves as successors to Jesus — the first of these aliens to descend to Earth, according to the organization’s website. By studying in Nettles and Applewhite’s “classroom,” cult members hoped to “graduate” — by UFO flight — to the “Kingdom of Heaven,” according to Applewhite’s final video.
To transcend their earthly bodies, cult members were expected to give up almost all physical pleasures: “family, sensuality, selfish desires, your human mind, and even your human body if it be required of you – all mammalian ways, thinking, and behavior,” its website reads.
The cult’s members were assigned new names. They all wore the same haircuts, the same clothes. Sex was forbidden, and eight male members, including Applewhite himself, were voluntarily castrated, according to Rolling Stone.
Finally, in 1997, Applewhite became convinced there was only one way to board his promised heaven-bound spacecraft: suicide. Heaven’s Gate believed that a UFO was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet, and that by taking their lives, they would teleport aboard, according to the New York Times.
Over three days in March 1997, almost all the cult’s members tried to make it to the other side. They went out in three batches: two groups of 15 and one group of nine, Detective Rick Scully told “Deadly Cults.” Each member took a heavy dose of phenobarbital mixed in applesauce or pudding. Then, once they passed out, other members helped finish them off by placing plastic bags over their heads so they would suffocate.
The suicides dominated headlines for weeks. But Heaven’s Gate didn’t die in March 1997.
That May, over a month after the main wave of suicides, two other members attempted to kill themselves, according to the New York Times. One of them died, sending an “exit statement” to his daughter.
“It seems likely,” he wrote, “that I will be rescheduled for a future incarnation into a future classroom to complete my overcoming of mammalian behavior and to strengthen my connection with the Next Level Above Human.”
The other man who attempted suicide was revived, but died by his own hand the following February, according to the Associated Press.
The cult’s website — laden with eye-popping, now primitive late ‘90s web design — is still active. The organization’s email address is live and typically responds to sincere inquiries, according to posters on Reddit.
The site’s webmasters identify themselves as “Telah,” short for “The Evolutionary Level Above Human,” according to a 2015 e-interview by the Reddit blog.
“We were asked to fill the position of maintaining the website, emails and the physical, and intellectual properties,” Telah informed the blog. “It was very clear and we were honored to do it.”
Eight members were left behind to carry out this task, four of whom remain, Telah wrote. They are convinced that maintaining the website is vital to the cult’s mission.
“The information must be available to mankind, in preparation for their return,” Telah told the blog. “We don’t know when that will be but those who are interested will find the information.”
Other cultists appear to hope for the same thing. One man, who identifies only by his Heaven’s Gate-assigned name, “Sawyer,” left the cult a few years before the suicide. He has since authored a book about the faith and continues to run a blog called Sawyer Stands for Ti & Do’s Heaven’s Gate.
"Deadly Cults” season two premieres Sunday, April 26, at 7/6c on Oxygen.
From April 22 to 26, Oxygen takes viewers inside some of the most terrifying cults in history.