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
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
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
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.