Opening Heaven’s Gate: How Thirty-Nine Believers “Ascended to Heaven” In UFOs

When found, the bodies were covered with purple shrouds and were wearing black uniforms paired with Nike Decades | Courtesy of Bing Images

“By the time you read this, we suspect that the human bodies we were wearing have been found and that a flurry of fragmented reports have begun to hit the wire services” 1


The revelation that followed a mysterious Fed-Ex package sent to Rio DiAngelo definitely left the world in shock. On March 26, 1997, Rio DiAngelo, an ex-member of the Heaven’s Gate cult, after receiving a package that contained a letter that read “by the time you read this, we will have exited our vehicles,”a few video tapes, and some floppy disks, led the police to discover thirty-nine deceased bodies in a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California.2 The twenty-one women and eighteen men were uniformly dressed in black, wearing Nike Decades, and covered with purple shrouds. The thirty-nine, with this opening of their Heaven’s Gate and what seemed to be their official graduation ceremony, introduced the world to the largest mass suicide to occur on American soil.3

The bodies were found neatly arranged and covered | Courtesy of findadeath.com

Found among the dead, was one of the leaders and founders of Heaven’s Gate, Marshall Herff Applewhite. Even though Applewhite, son of a Presbyterian minister, seemed like a happy man with a wife and two children, he was constantly haunted by confusion over his sexual identity and homosexual desires.4 While suffering from depression and feelings of being alienated, he met Bonnie Lu Nettles, an unhappy nurse, who would end up becoming his partner in creating and leading Heaven’s Gate. They quickly entered into a platonic relationship that psychiatrists call the “insanity of two,” which develops when two delusional people live together and reinforce each other’s ideas.5 As a student of metaphysics with interests in occultism, astrology, and reincarnation, Nettles convinced Applewhite that God had brought them together because they were aliens who had been sent to Earth to warn people of the end as foretold in the Bible. They believed that they were the “two witnesses” described in chapter 11 of the book of Revelations, who were resurrected and taken “up to heaven in a cloud,” or what they believed to be an unidentified flying object (UFO).6 They believed that following their resurrection, the UFO would collect them and anyone else that accepted them, and take them up to the “Next Level,” or a heavenly utopia where they would live as extraterrestrial beings. The pair, leaving their families and taking up names like “The Two,” “Bo and Peep,” and eventually “Do and Ti,” traveled the world to proclaim their message and recruit people to join them and their mission.7

By 1975, Applewhite and Nettles had a following of almost 200 people, but as years passed, only a few of the original converts continued on with them. “The Two” were extremely persuasive and influential on those who were also as lost, confused, and seeking as they were. The members ranged from people who had fascinations with UFOs to people who truly felt like they did not belong to this world. Heaven’s Gate offered answers to people who were continually questioning their spirituality and meaning of life. A member who took on the name Tddody credits his reason for joining the movement to the hellish world outside the cult. He had had a negative experience in the world, as he was “beat up, lied to, cheated, threatened, robbed, and abused in almost every way thinkable.”8 But Heaven’s Gate offered him an escape from this. Another member, who went under the name Yrsody, mentions that she had sought out and rejected many other religious practices before joining Heaven’s Gate; she had experimented with many New Age religious practices before finally accepting Heaven’s Gate and its mission.9

The Heaven’s Gate Logo | Courtesy of Wikipedia

Like Tddody and Yrsody, in order to become members, recruits would have to give up all human attachments, including names, families, and even their sexualities. Contact with the outside world was discouraged and the “students,” as they were called, were expected to follow strict schedules and routines to erase all humanness and begin their transformations into immortal, androgynous aliens.10 In the beginning, Ti (Nettles) and Do (Applewhite) taught the students that they would be going to the “Next Level” through a process similar to metamorphosis. Their human bodies would gradually turn into alien bodies, reaching completion at the “Next Level.” There was no indication that the members would have to give up their lives in order to reach this “Next Level,” but rather would require their physical bodies to gain access to the Kingdom of God.11 However, when Nettles died of cancer in 1985, Applewhite began teaching followers that since Ti had completed her mission, she had simply exited her “vehicle,” or body on Earth, and had ascended to the “Next Level,” where she would receive her new body.10 The students eventually passionately believed in this separation of body and soul. Their strong belief in this teaching is exemplified through their website, where the members stated that they exited the “bodies that [they] borrowed” after they spread “information about [the] Evolutionary Kingdom Level Above Human” and opened the doorway to this heaven.13  Applewhite and seven of his followers even went as far as surgically castrating themselves in order to fully extinguish all sexual, and therefore human and physical, desires.

Applewhite knew that the time to shed their human containers was near when he heard about the “comet of the century,” the Hale-Bopp Comet. This brilliant comet was large and drew massive attention, but what attracted Heaven’s Gate to this comet was the mysterious “companion” following it. The media was bombarded with rumors that the tail following this comet was actually an alien spacecraft, and Heaven’s Gate certainly took the story to be true. The entire spectacle and nature of Hale-Bopp interested Applewhite, and the UFO following it only reassured his beliefs that it was time to make their exit. Applewhite convinced the members that their co-founder Ti was coming back for them in the spacecraft trailing Hale-Bopp; their shepherd was finally here to lead her flock to the Kingdom of Heaven. As the members were completely devoted to their leader and were currently in a bond with him that was inexplicable, they believed him, and started getting ready for their exits.14 Preparing for their deaths, a week before their exits, they recorded Exit Videos depicting why they were going to such lengths and what Heaven’s Gate meant to them. They were ecstatic in these videos as they were finally going to their promised utopia. Through these videos they stressed the fact that they made these decisions out of their own free will and even begged people to understand their actions. Through various internet articles and messages, they emphasized the fact that they were not committing suicide, as their bodies were never truly theirs in the first place. Applewhite also frequently posted messages and videos that urged people to quickly join his mission and prepare for the end. They packaged these videos along with a note and sent them out to former members of the cult so that they could be distributed and seen.15

On March 23, 1997, a day after the Hale-Bopp comet had its closest approach to Earth, Heaven’s Gate was officially opened, and the first wave of suicides took place. About fifteen people ingested applesauce or pudding laced with phenobarbital and downed it with Vodka. They covered their heads with plastic bags and eventually suffocated to death. The remaining members cleaned up the scene and neatly arranged and covered the bodies with purple shrouds. On March 24, 1997, fifteen more killed themselves in a similar fashion and were covered with purple shrouds. The remaining members went on to take their lives on March 25, 1997, with the final two in charge of disposing the plastic bags and covering the dead members with shrouds before also taking their own lives.

On Tuesday, March 25, 1997, the packaged videos and notes finally made their way to Rio DiAngelo, a former member of the cult that went under the name “Neody.” He immediately knew what had transpired, and the next day led his boss Nick Matzorkis and the police to the mansion in Rancho Santa Fe where the bodies lay completely still and without a trace of compulsion. Members like Thomas Nichols, brother of “Star Trek” actress Nichelle Nichols, and Yvonne McCurdy-Hill, who left behind her husband and two twin girls to pursue the “Next Level,” were found with their belongings, clothes, lip balm, money, and other essentials, neatly packed beside them and ready for their trip.16

Members Thomas Nichols and Yvonne McCurdy-Hill | Courtesy of Flickr and ABC News

As expected, the media and American people were struck with complete surprise and shock and thrown into a chaotic frenzy after this event. Suicide itself is a topic of great regret and sadness, so to encounter a group of willing and able people who would take their own lives was flabbergasting. Through greater analysis and exploration we can also see the influences that outside forces played on their final decision. Applewhite and Nettles, through their social skills and persuasive techniques, gave their flock answers about their confusing lives and eventually made them so sure of this extraterrestrial afterlife that they were fully cognizant of and willing to make this physical sacrifice. Even DiAngelo, after leaving the cult, asserts that followers did not want to live in a world without Applewhite and that what they had done could not be classified as suicide as their souls still reside in the “Next Level.”17 Applewhite, Nettles, and Heaven’s Gate gave these confused followers purpose and meaning. This event gives us insight about much more than simply another mass suicide that occurred in the world. This specific event shows us that there are many subtle, or even prominent, messages around the world, which can be articulated through media that can lead people to very self-destructive thoughts and actions. We are left with this realization: the thirty-nine have officially departed from the world, forever closing Heaven’s Gate after them.

  1. Heaven’s Gate, “Heaven’s Gate “Away Team” Returns to Level Above Human in Distant Space,” heavensgate, March 22, 1997, http://www.heavensgate.com/misc/pressrel.htm.
  2. Mark Miller, “Secrets of the cult,” Newsweek, April 1997, 28.
  3. Benjamin Zeller, Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion (New York: NYU Press, 2014), 1.
  4. Evan Thomas, “‘The next level’: how Herff Applewhite, a sexually confused, would-be apostle, led a flock of lost New Age dreamers to their deaths,” Newsweek, April 1997, 28.
  5. Martin Gardner, “Heaven’s Gate: The UFO cult of Bo and Peep,” Skeptical Inquirer 21, no. 4 (July 1997): 15.
  6. Robert Balch, The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds (New York: State University of New York Press, 1995), 142.
  7. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, November 2003, s.v. “Heaven’s Gate,” by Dennis D. Stewart and Cheryl B. Stewart.
  8. Benjamin Zeller, Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion (New York: NYU Press, 2014), 50-54.
  9. Benjamin Zeller, Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion (New York: NYU Press, 2014), 50-54.
  10. Encyclopedia of Religion, December 2004, s.v. “Heaven’s Gate,” by Robert W. Balch.
  11. Benjamin Zeller, Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion (New York: NYU Press, 2014), 18.
  12. Encyclopedia of Religion, December 2004, s.v. “Heaven’s Gate,” by Robert W. Balch.
  13. Heaven’s Gate, “Heaven’s Gate “Away Team” Returns to Level Above Human in Distant Space,” heavensgate, March 22, 1997, http://www.heavensgate.com/misc/pressrel.htm.
  14. Richard Ocejo, “Review: Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults by Janja Lalich,” Contemporary Sociology 34, no. 4 (July 2005): 384-385.
  15. Benjamin Zeller, Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion (New York: NYU Press, 2014), 208-217.
  16. Jerry Adler, “Far From Home,” Newsweek, April 1997, 36.
  17. Mark Miller, “Secrets of the cult,” Newsweek, April 1997, 28.

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This Post Has 78 Comments

  1. I feel like these type of cults take advantage of hurt people by feeding them absurd lies. These people are vulnerable and despite everything about life and these cults take advantage of that vulnerability by providing “answers”. It is a horror to witness the congregation of delusional individuals. Then again, the cult’s creators were also depressed individuals and it seems like they created this cult as a sort of escapism.

  2. Sad that it’s a common thing for cult leaders to convince their followers to take their lives. Many leaders are known to be very persuasive and manipulative and even though the Heavens Gates leader said in the video he was not doing this for money or to be a cult it seems like that’s what happened anyway. They were able to convince people who had endured abuse and isolation, people who felt lonely and like they didn’t belong and used that against them. It’s heartbreaking.

  3. I’m quite shocked that some people would go very far to commit suicide to go to the “Next Level”. Also, while reading this article, I wonder what the family members of these cult members were thinking and feeling while they heard the news that their loved ones committed suicide, because a UFO was going to send them to the kingdom of heaven. In my opinion, today’s cults are quite scary to me.

  4. It makes me sad to hear that there were so many people who were in a situation that would make them feel like joining this cult was the answer. It also saddens me that people could be so insane and broken that they felt like leading people to suicide was the answer. I will always be mystified about the formation of cults and the change in views and ideas that they go through.

  5. I had never heard the details of the deaths at Heavens Gate before this. I knew that the house where the bodies was found was in one of the wealthiest communities in the nation (the homes there started at a million dollars in 1989 money). Which means the group had financial resources somewhere.
    The mass suicide and the description of it sound like a flip-side to the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana. A group of people influenced to take their own lives because they did not fit in society.
    I agree with a previous comment, it took strong persuasion for 39 people to take their own lives.

  6. I can’t believe that Marshall Herff Applewhite believed Bonnie Lu Nettles considered that Nettles’ ideas that they were brought together by God because they were aliens that had been sent to Earth to warn everybody of the end that’s told in the Bible. Also, I wonder how these two came to believed that they were the “two witnesses” described in chapter 11 of the book of Revelations. This is beyond my comprehension. I wonder if psychologists, had they done tests on these two, would have found anything regarding their mental faculties.

  7. It always fascinates me how persuasive leaders of cults must be in order to compel their followers to end their lives. I try to be accepting of all religious beliefs as I want this respect granted for me, but this one is hard to swallow. Any event that calls for such behavior in taking one’s life rubs me the wrong way. What an interesting mystery to be solved in that there was no evidence that showed they struggled.

  8. Jabnel Ibarra

    The story of Heaven’s Gate is one that I had already been eerily familiar with before reading this article, however reading in detail the motivations of the founders of the cult and how exactly its members committed suicide makes the story that much more disturbing. I will never understand how people as deranged and very clearly disturbed as “Do and Ti” could garner such a large following, and it is incredibly tragic to know that they were able to talk so many people into suicide, people that with just a little bit of help could have gone on to live normal lives.

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