The historic discovery of a comet in 1995 by two astronomers became the unlikely catalyst for one of America’s most infamous instances of mass suicide. But how did the sighting bring about the tragic end of Heaven’s Gate, one of America’s most notorious cults?
The Hale-Bopp comet was one of the most widely observed comets in history when it was visible to the naked eye from May 1996 through December 1997. It was separately discovered during the summer of 1995 by Alan Hale, a professional astronomer, and amateur astronomer Thomas Bopp.
The Hale-Bopp comet was one of the “brightest comets to reach the inner solar system in history,” according to NASA. Its closest approach to Earth took place on March 22, 1997 — which was the same week that 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves inside a rented mansion near San Diego, which they called "The Monastery.” Members of the group, which had been active since the 1970s, apparently believed that the comet represented the “closure to Heaven's Gate” and was the sign that they were ready to graduate into space.
Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, the cult’s leaders, originally recruited members by telling them that they were beings from another planet, which they called the Next Level. They developed the cult by telling recruits that they were aliens inside bodies, or vessels, which would literally transform into their higher alien beings when they were picked up by an incoming extraterrestrial spaceship.
However, when Nettles died in 1985, Applewhite had to alter that theory to explain how she had entered the Next Level ahead of the others. He said that bodies would now instead undergo a spiritual transformation when shed, as is explained in the new HBO Max docuseries, “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults.” To prepare for their metamorphosis, Heaven’s Gate members became celibate and rid themselves of possessions and vanity.
As the group had spent decades looking for evidence that it was time to graduate, the news of the Hale-Bopp comet seemed like a clear sign.
After its discovery, rumors swirled that a very large object was following the Hale-Bopp comet, as the New York Times reported in 1997. An amateur astronomer named Chuck Shramek claimed on a national talk show that he had photographed an object several times larger than Earth behind Hale-Bopp. But soon that unknown object was proven to be a star.
Still, the Heaven’s Gate members clung to rumors that the object trailing the comet was an extraterrestrial spaceship. They apparently believed this was the means to get to their final destination and that by killing themselves their spirits would beam up to the spaceship.
A total of 39 Heaven’s Gate members died over a three-day period between approximately March 22 and March 26, 1997. Blood tests indicated they had ingested a lethal mix of the anti-seizure drug phenobarbital and alcohol, and they had placed plastic bags around their heads.
Just before the mass suicide, the group's website was updated with the headline, "Hale–Bopp brings closure to Heaven's Gate.”
“Hale-Bopp's approach is the ‘marker’ we've been waiting for — the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to ‘Their World’— in the literal Heavens,” the site states. “Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion — 'graduation' from the Human Evolutionary Level.”
The message is still live on the site, which is run by surviving members of Heaven’s Gate.
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