The jokes started right away, even though 39 people had died. Heaven’s Gate felt ripe for ridicule.
It happened 20 years ago on March 26, 1997. In a Rancho Santa Fe mansion, Marshall Applewhite, a preacher’s son and former seminarian who had fashioned a religion that merged evangelical Christianity with New Age science fiction, led his followers in a ritualistic “exit” of their human shells. They were convinced they would literally ascend to a better world via a spaceship riding behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
They donned matching black track suits with customized patches identifying themselves as the “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” They slipped on brand new black Nike shoes. They packed duffel bags.
Then they ingested barbiturates swirled into applesauce or pudding, chased it down with vodka, tied plastic bags around their heads, climbed into bunk beds and died. They went in three waves over several days, so that those still earthbound could tidy up after those who had just left, draping purple shrouds atop the bodies.
Before their departures, group members filmed themselves making statements that explained why they believed what they believed and why they were happy about the opportunity to escape the impending Armageddon and move to what they called the “Level Above Human.”
They didn’t refer to it as suicide. They called it graduation. To them, those who stayed behind were the ones killing themselves.
Copies of the goodbye tapes were sent to former members, including one who drove down from Los Angeles, went into the 9,000-square-foot, two-story mansion and saw all the corpses. He called 911. And soon enough the whole world began hearing about Heaven’s Gate.
That’s when the jokes started. One website riffed on Nike’s slogan: “Just Did It.” Another spoofed the cult members who ran a software company: “We kill ourselves working for you!” Late-night TV host David Letterman delivered one of his Top Ten lists, “Signs you are in a bad cult.” (One of the signs: “Cult website is called www.nutcase.com.”) “Saturday Night Live” did a skit.
When all the laughter faded, people moved on to other stories, got on with their lives. The mansion was razed, the name of the street where it sat changed to discourage looky-loos, and Heaven’s Gate settled into its place as a bizarre footnote in San Diego County history.
For sociologists and religious studies scholars, though, Heaven’s Gate remains in orbit. They continue to evaluate and write about the group’s foundations, arguing whether it was fundamentally Christian or New Age, trying to put it in context with America’s long history of spiritual yearning. They debate whether members were brainwashed into joining and staying. They discuss the timing of the suicides.
And they ponder a provocative question: Are the forces that helped shape Heaven’s Gate still in play in American society?
Or, to put it another way, could it happen again?
Gallows humor has long been a way for people to deal with tragedies, to give themselves some distance and relief from the horror. But with Heaven’s Gate, there may have been something else at work, according to Benjamin Zeller, an associate professor of religion at Lake Forest College near Chicago and the author of a 2014 book about the cult.
“In some ways, I think it was too close for comfort,” he said.
Too close because many of the beliefs that group members held are similar to those found in more mainstream religions. Belief in a heavenly father. Belief in the importance of the soul over the body. Belief that they were engaged in the eternal fight of good vs. evil. Belief in salvation, in an afterlife somewhere up there. Belief in end times.
“It’s too easy to just dismiss them as nuts,” Zeller said.
Of course, they differed in significant ways from established theology — primarily the belief that heaven is a literal place, and that you get there on a spaceship — but that fits, too, into the broader American counterculture movement that emerged from the 1960s and spawned all kinds of new religious thinking.
“We saw the mainstreaming of angels, crystals, shamans, ascended beings — all that otherworldly stuff,” said Janja Lalich, a Chico State University sociologist who also has written a book about Heaven’s Gate. “You saw it with TV shows like ‘Touched by an Angel.’ Cults that built themselves around this kind of a belief system had an easier time because it didn’t seem so strange.”
Applewhite started the group in the 1970s in Texas with a Baptist-raised registered nurse and astrologer named Bonnie Lu Nettles. They called themselves Guinea and Pig, Bo and Peep, and finally Ti and Do, “The Two,” messengers from God sent here to shepherd the flock to the next level. People who wanted in to their nomadic monastery had to cut themselves off from their families and their previous lives. There were rules that controlled what people wore and ate, not to mention what they believed.
And those beliefs shifted over the years, especially after Nettles died in 1985, a development that created a crisis of faith. They had believed they were going to ascend with their bodies, not just their souls.
Several hundred people joined the group over the years, although the vast majority left for a variety of reasons. Some who left came back. Those who remained to the end were largely longtime devotees. Twenty-one were women, 18 men. They ranged in age from 26 to 72 with more than half in their 40s.
Almost all of them were veteran seekers of spiritual truths, people who had tried other religions, tried tarot cards, tried hallucinogenic drugs.
“Members joined not because of some sort of magical psychological or spiritual truth that the leaders conjured,” Zeller writes in his book, “but because they were looking for something and believed that they found it in Heaven’s Gate.”
Once they were in, though, Lalich — herself a former member of a political cult — thinks free will pretty much disappeared. “Nobody held a gun to their heads, but by that point they were in a place where they could not imagine existence outside the cult,” she said.
As the number of Americans who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated rises — 23 percent now, according to the Pew Research Center — a significant part of the population traffics in the supernatural.
Polling by Gallup shows 24 percent believe extraterrestrials have visited Earth in the past; 25 percent believe that astrology (the position of stars and planets) can affect our lives; 37 percent believe that houses can be haunted; and 21 percent believe that people can hear from or communicate mentally with someone who has died.
“The same demographic forces (that helped spawn Heaven’s Gate) are still at work,” Zeller said. “People are looking for truth, meaning, community and not finding it in existing religions. So they look for new ones or form their own.”
He’s no fan of what the group believed and ultimately did, Zeller said, but that’s not the point. “You can’t just dismiss them as different,” he said. “Even the largest religions of today were once small and new. Who’s to say what will one day be world religions with hundreds of thousands of followers?”