While the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide was an absolute tragedy, a particular element of it became a cultural touchstone of the 1990s: those Nike shoes.
During a three-day period of late March 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult took their own lives inside a Southern California mansion they had been renting.
It remains the largest mass suicide ever committed within the U.S.. As images of the incident reached newspapers and television sets across the country, one object stuck out, literally. The media ran photos of the dead, covered in dark purple blankets which only made the white Nike swoosh of the black shoes on their feet more obvious.
The macabre look quickly became part of the national conversation and fodder for comedy. Within weeks, "Saturday Night Live" aired a satirical commercial that incorporated some of that news footage of the dead members, from their legs down, wearing Nike shoes.
The tagline was: “Keds. Worn by level-headed Christians.”
All 39 members had been dressed identically during the mass suicide: in black shirts and sweatpants and with armband patches which read "Heaven's Gate Away Team.” Most infamously, though, they were all wearing those black-and-white Nike shoes, which was a model called Decades.
“We’ve heard all the jokes,” a company representative told Adweek in 1997, which remains the last time the sneaker giant commented on the incident. “The Heaven’s Gate incident was a tragedy. It had nothing to do with Nike.”
Oxygen.com reached out to Nike for this story, but didn't receive a response.
The group believed that they would undergo a spiritual transformation as they died, as they were beamed up into a spaceship, the new HBO docuseries “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults” explains. The group’s leader Marshall Applewhite (who referred to himself as Do, pronounced "Doe") told his followers that they were beings from another planet called the Next Level and that they needed to ascend to their full form to go home. It was supposedly a planet where androgyny and unity were important values, so the uniform clothing the group adopted reflected that.
The group had been active since the 1970s, and many of the members had been preparing for their future alien life for decades. They were just looking for a sign that it was time to transform to their final form. When it was rumored that an unidentified object was trailing Comet Hale-Bopp, they took it as a sign: that it was a spaceship. Their mass suicide coincided with the comet's closest approach to Earth in late March 1997.
The prominence of the Nike shoes is down to Applewhite's personal taste, according to one expert.
He explained that Heaven's Gate "had a saying within the group 'Just Do it,' which used Nike's slogan to affirm the idea that everything everyone did in Heaven's Gate was according to Do/Marshall Applewhite."
He added that when the group used the saying, they pronounced 'Do' as 'Doe,' just like Applewhite's alternate name.
"It's not uncommon for cult leaders to appropriate whatever they can from popular culture to cultivate and control their followers," Ross said.
Former Heaven's Gate members told Sole Collector in 2015 that the particular Nike model was purchased because the group was "able to get a good deal" by buying them in bulk.
“It was a combination of factors that made the sale happen, not because of a particular model or brand,” they claimed.
As for the Nike-specific jokes that arose from the tragedy, Ross told Oxygen.com: "Rather than Nike being a joke, it is a disturbing confirmation of the cult leader's complete control over his followers. Chilling rather than funny that Applewhite was able to strip his disciples of their individual identities so completely that nothing, including their shoes, reflected their own choices."
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