The Heaven’s Gate Cult Was As American as Apple Pie

A closer look at the doomsday group at the center of the new docuseries Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults—and why organizations like it (hello, QAnon) have long found a welcoming home in the United States.

COURTESY OF HBO MAX.

A little more than two weeks after 39 bodies were discovered in a Rancho Santa Fe, California, mansion in 1997, the dead were being mocked on Saturday Night Live. Will Ferrell played Marshall Applewhite, the leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult, transmitting from outer space as if he and his followers had successfully boarded the alien spacecraft they believed trailed the Hale-Bopp comet—and had tried to reach by ingesting phenobarbital, then wrapping plastic bags around their heads.

A clip from the sketch appears in the fourth and final episode of Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults, a new documentary series on HBO Max. While researching the cult and its grisly conclusion, director Clay Tweel was surprised by the glut of punch lines. “This is suicide. This is dark. Within days, they were the butt of so many jokes,” he said in an interview.

For years, the members of Heaven’s Gate were discounted as kooks. The HBO Max series, and the 2018 podcast by Glynn Washington on which it’s based, push back against that assessment with an in-depth, empathetic investigation into the group’s 22-year journey from innocuous New Age movement to isolated doomsday cult.

Through interviews with scholars, former cult members, and children of the deceased, viewers gain an understanding of how these 39 people came to believe a UFO was swinging by to take them to heaven, and why they needed to shed their earthly vehicles in order to hitch the ride. The series also contextualizes Heaven’s Gate as an offshoot of a far more familia phenomenon: Christian apocalypticism.

Applewhite, the son of a Presbyterian minister, founded the group with Bonnie Nettles. They believed they were the two witnesses mentioned in the Book of Revelation, and that their bodies would literally transform into ascended beings when they were picked up by the UFO. Later, Applewhite determined he was the second coming of Jesus—and that the turn of the millennium was the time to take his group to the “next level,” as they called it.

Heaven’s Gate developed in the mid 1970s, around the time of the end of the Vietnam War and Nixon impeachment. Times of turmoil, transition, and uncertainty are often accompanied by increases in apocalyptic movements, said Lorne Dawson, professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Waterloo. “People lose their sense of bearing in the world, and then the apocalyptic scenario provides a clean, simple answer.” For example: God has a plan; there’s a clear demarcation between who’s good and evil; following a specific set of behaviors will ensure that good triumphs; and since it’s God’s plan, extreme actions are justified.

The public clings to its own beliefs that doomsday cult members are outliers—that getting suckered into one would never happen to me. In truth, though, most of us are much closer to embracing those beliefs than we think. The Pilgrims and Puritans, for instance, were apocalyptic thinkers themselves. Overt doomsday groups have proliferated in America since at least as far back as Johannes Kelpius’s Society of the Woman in the Wilderness—which believed the world would end in 1694. “Part of the vision was to go to the new promised land,” Dawson said. “It’s all in the early discourse: the destiny of America to be a special nation that will save the world.”

Tweel started making Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults in 2018, smack in the middle of another time of turmoil, transition, and uncertainty. While watching the news, he heard echoes of the scholars he was interviewing for the film: the scenario of one leader claiming to have sole access to truth, that everything else is fake news and only he knows what’s really going on, and that he’s the only person who can fix anything. “As the cult of personality around Donald Trump has grown, the parallels become stronger,” he said.

Although the series does not address current events, the present social and political division were part of what motivated Tweel to clarify the group’s extreme beliefs. “Seeing other people’s ideas broken down to something [viewers] can relate to is important,” he said. Recent phenomena like QAnon share disturbing similarities with the doomsday groups that have preceded them, including Heaven’s Gate. “The same language is there,” Dawson said. “‘Trust the plan. Enjoy the show.’ The idea that it’s all about to wrap up and the bad guys will be punished. Trump is a Messiah figure here to drain the swamp.”

In 1985 Nettles succumbed to cancer. How can a body turn into an alien if the body no longer exists? “When Nettles dies, it undermines the entire point of the bodily transformation,” Aslan says in the series. “And now it’s a spiritual transformation. We are going to leave our bodies behind.” He speculates that the group would not have ended in mass suicide if she’d lived. Just as the members of Heaven’s Gate looked to Applewhite for direction, so Applewhite looked to Nettles. Once he stopped receiving her guidance, the group changed in fundamental, extreme ways.

Such cognitive dissonance is happening now in the QAnon community. Its leader, the anonymous Q, had predicted a red wave—but then Trump lost the election. And QAnon went silent for 11 days. “People were freaking out,” Dawson said, “like, ‘We need our prophetic leader to explain this disconcerting stuff.’” Now it’s been 26 days and counting since a Q drop. Will followers accept the prophecy as false—or dig in their heels? Q, though silent, appears not to have backed down yet. Two of its last three posts include this ominous prediction: “Nothing can stop what is coming.”

7 creepy things we learned about cult leader and former UA teacher Marshall Applewhite

Marshall Applewhite, leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult, is shown in an undated image. Applewhite and 38 followers died in a mass suicide in 1997. They believed they would abandon their “human containers” and their souls would be transported via comet Hale-Bopp, soaring through space to a better and more enlightened place.(AP Photo/APTV)

The story of the Heaven’s Gate cult is bizarre, fascinating and ultimately, extremely sad.

Thirty-nine people, including cult leader Marshall Herff Applewhite, participated in a mass suicide in 1997, convinced that their souls would leave their “human containers” and be transformed into enlightened alien beings. Hitching a ride on comet Hale-Bopp, they would soar through space to a better place, known as “the Next Level.”

For folks back on Earth, though, their demise was baffling as well as tragic. How could anyone believe such a thing? How could anyone go through with it?

News reports of the time attempted to unravel the thinking of the cult, and explain the philosophies espoused by its leader. Applewhite, who died at age 65, evidently was a charismatic figure — an apocalyptic Pied Piper, of sorts — who could convince his followers to leave their homes, abandon their families and adopt a mindset that fused principles of Christian religion with “Star Trek”-style science fiction.

Now, a new documentary series on HBO Max takes another look at the origins, development and shocking culmination of Heaven’s Gate. The four-part series, “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,” made its streaming debut on Dec. 3.

The project, directed by Clay Tweel, relies on the testimony of former cult members — some of whom still believe in the concepts Heaven’s Gate espoused — as well as family members and friends of those who died, sociologists, researchers who specialize in alternative religious movements and more.

Viewers in Alabama may have a special interest in the series, courtesy of a link to our state. Applewhite, the cult’s guru, was a former music teacher at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. His tenure at the school was brief — about two years in the early 1960s — and took place about 12 years before Heaven’s Gate was formed.

The new docuseries indicates, however, that Applewhite’s music background played a role in the Heaven’s Gate cult. Also, the traits he exhibited at UA — his talent as a performer, his ability to engage students — were early touchstones on his path to cult leader.

There’s plenty more to unpack in “Heaven’s Gate,” which explores and illuminates about two decades in the cult’s history, roughly 1975-1997. Applewhite looms large, of course, and although viewers aren’t likely to sympathize with him, they’ll certainly know more about his ideas and motivations when the final credits roll.

Here are seven things we learned about Applewhite by watching the series — all of them specific, all important to the cult and all rather creepy in retrospect.

Marshall Applewhite founded the Heaven’s Gate cult in the 1970s with Bonnie Lu Nettles, a nurse with a penchant for mysticism, astrology and New Age philosophies.(Courtesy of HBO Max)

1. Applewhite was a follower before he was a leader.

Applewhite was not the original mastermind of the Heaven’s Gate cult. According to the docuseries, he was recruited by Bonnie Lu Nettles, a nurse he encountered in a Texas hospital in the early 1970s. Nettles had a mystical bent; she was interested in astrology, UFOs and various New Age philosophies.

“I think most people don’t think of (Nettles) as the real leader of the group, but she met (Applewhite) when he was obviously at a vulnerable point,” says sociologist Janja Lalich. “She convinced him that he was her soulmate. (Nettles) really recruited (Applewhite), and (Applewhite) was her follower. … She was very much the force behind the founding of the group, and the way the group functioned.”

Benjamin Zeller, a religious scholar and the author of “Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion,” agrees.

“She deduces that they are fated to work together on some grand project,” Zeller says in the series. “They are destined to be spiritual partners.”

Nettles and Applewhite grew close, although they were never romantically involved, the docuseries says. After an “awakening” in the mid-70s, they decided they were “the Two,” alien beings in human “vehicles” who would teach others about the Next Level and lead followers into outer space.

Neely Bruce, a composer, performer and former music professor at Wesleyan University, was a student of Marshall Applewhite’s at the University of Alabama. Bruce talks about Applewhite’s time at UA in “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults.”(Courtesy of HBO Max)

2. Applewhite’s music background was a factor in the cult, where he and Nettles were known as “Do” and “Ti.”

At various points in cult history, Applewhite and Nettles were known as “the Two,” “Bo” and “Peep,” and “Do” and “Ti.” The names “Do” and “Ti” were linked to their fondness for musical theater and in particular, Nettles’ admiration for “The Sound of Music.” The show includes the song “Do-Re-Mi,” performed as the main character, the free-spirited governess Maria, teaches her young charges about the musical scale.

To please Applewhite, Heaven’s Gate members sang their own version of “Do-Re-Mi,” altering the lyrics to suit cult lore. A performance of the tune, “When You Know Ti and Do,” was filmed about three months before the group committed suicide.

“Do’s first love was music,” author Zeller says in the docuseries. “Before he got into religion and spirituality, it was music.”

In the first episode of the series, titled “The Awakening,” composer Neely Bruce, a former student of Applewhite’s, offers his recollections of Applewhite at the University of Alabama.

“It’s very disorienting when you call him Marshall,” Bruce says. “Nobody called him Marshall; everybody called him Herff. So when Herff Applewhite came to the University of Alabama, he didn’t look at all like a professor. He was very casual, very laid-back. There was no hint that all this catastrophe was looming in his future. He had a fantastic voice. He had a lot of charisma. He was such a natural performer. He would have the audience in the palm of his hand.

“But it was widely rumored that he was having an affair with one of the male graduate students, and his father was a very, very hard-nosed Presbyterian minister who did not like the fact that he had a gay son. His wife divorced him. I remember her very well, very nice family,” Bruce says. “Then that seems to put him in a bit of a tailspin, and so on. He left Alabama for Houston. I got a call, telling me that this notorious couple in the news was actually, you know, Herff Applewhite and his former nurse.

“This is the story that I heard: He was going to attempt a career on the opera stage in Houston Grand Opera. He was going to do his biggest role there, which was the role of Olin Blitch. He’s a traveling preacher who seduces Susannah in the opera ‘Susannah.’ He was in rehearsal, and he has some sort of a psychotic episode, and was actually hospitalized,” Bruce says.

At this point, the docuseries indicates, Applewhite had his fateful encounter with Nettles. They forged a strong connection, and a cult was born.

A longtime member of the Heaven’s Gate cult, known as Sawyer, talks about his experiences in the cult in “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,” a docuseries on HBO Max.(Courtesy of HBO Max)

3. Applewhite and Nettles gave cult members new names, all of which ended in “ODY.”

New names were part of the cult’s indoctrination, which aimed to separate followers from their previous lives.

“What cults need to do is to turn you into a conformist, to get you to hopefully become a true believer,” sociologist Lalich says in the docuseries. “They need to break down ‘you,’ and create a new you.”

Names chosen for Heaven’s Gate members had six letters: three letters plus “ODY,” all of which were capitalized. Examples included MLLODY, SRRODY, TLLODY, RTHODY, CHKODY and ALXODY.

“Ti and Do said that the Next Level was adopting us into their family,” explains Sawyer, a longtime cult member known as SWYODY(pronounced “soy-oh-dee”). “So the family name was O-D-Y.”

Applewhite and Nettles said the “ODY” names identified their followers as children of the Next Level.

“When we became adults, they would drop the Y so we would be the family of OD,” Sawyer says, “which was like a little Next Level humor, because we were kind of odd.”

Members of the Heaven’s Gate cult wore patches that said “Away Team.” This was a reference to “Star Trek,” indicating their real home was a spaceship, and they would eventually return to it.(Courtesy of HBO Max)

4. Applewhite, in crisis, reformulated the cult’s philosophy after Nettles died in 1985.

Initially, Applewhite and Nettles preached that followers would undergo a biological transformation and become perfect alien beings. (The docuseries compares this to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.) When the time was right, Applewhite and Nettles said, everyone in the group would physically travel on a UFO to an outer-space version of heaven.

The two said they’d already reached a state of alien perfection, and were now existing in human “vehicles” to help others achieve the miraculous change. Reality intruded, however, when Nettles became ill with cancer. Her death in 1985 — which did not resemble a glorious alien rebirth — was in direct conflict with Heaven’s Gate teachings.

“We were all devastated, most of all Do,” recalls Frank Lyford, a former member known as ANDODY. “How could this happen? This wasn’t supposed to happen. We were all supposed to graduate together.”

To make sense of this, Applewhite altered the cult’s philosophy. He announced that death was actually necessary for the alien transformation. Their souls, not their bodies, would evolve into alien beings and be whisked away to outer-space nirvana. Nettles had left her body behind and was waiting for them.

This crucial shift in thinking, the docuseries says, led to the mass suicide in 1997.

Members of the Heaven’s Gate cult considered themselves to be students in a class led by Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite, and later by Applewhite alone.(Courtesy of HBO Max)

5. Applewhite, as sole leader of the cult, asked members to marry him in a group ceremony.

Applewhite had always deferred to Nettles and called her the “older member.” She leaned to metaphysical philosophies, and Applewhite followed her lead. But in her absence, Applewhite’s ideas about religion and spirituality came to the fore, and the cult became more biblical in its outlook.

“It’s no more than a decade after her death that Do publicly declares himself Jesus returned to Earth and declares that Ti was the one known as God the Father,” author Zeller says in the docuseries.

Applewhite also designed a loyalty test, asking his followers: If each of you had $100 to spend on yourself, what would you buy? The correct answer, it turned out, was a wedding ring — a simple gold band that symbolized commitment and devotion.

“Do became even more obsessed with control after (Nettles) passed on,” Lyford, a former cult member, says in the docuseries.

“And so he had a little ceremony, to where we were marrying him,” Sawyer says. “He was birthing students into the next level.”

Marshall Applewhite, the leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult, was a former music instructor at the University of Alabama. He’s the key figure in a new docuseries, “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,” streaming on HBO Max.(Courtesy of HBO Max)

6. Applewhite and several other members of the cult were castrated.

Heaven’s Gate required its members to adopt a uniform — unisex shirt-and pants ensembles — and a blunt pixie haircut. Sensuality and sexual contact were outlawed, because Next Level aliens were said to be asexual.

“Since we are moving into a world that is genderless, we are doing everything that we can do to not identify with gender,” Applewhite said in a training video.

The concept was heightened after Applewhite took control of the cult — so much so that he said the men of Heaven’s Gate should consider castration. Sex was a powerful drug, Applewhite said, and cult members had to go through a withdrawal process to overcome it.

“Marshall Applewhite didn’t like his homosexuality, so he created a myth around that piece that he didn’t like,” a former cult member says in the docuseries. “He came to a conclusion about his body, that it was abhorrent.”

“Do held a meeting and he said that he had a nocturnal emission, and he was investigating having himself castrated,” Sawyer says in the docuseries. “Would any of you have reservations of having the same procedure done?”

The cult attempted its own castrations, but the first try resulted in a hospital visit for Steven McCarter, known as SRRODY. (Sawyer says he threw SRRODY’s testicles off a pier, to get rid of the evidence.) After that, Sawyer says, the cult found doctors to perform the surgery, and Applewhite was among those who were castrated.

“Eventually, there were, depending on which source you look to, between seven and nine men within the group that had been castrated,” author Zeller says in the docuseries. “But most of the men were not interested in having the surgery done.”

This message on the Heaven’s Gate website announces that members of the cult will soon be leaving for another dimension, as triggered by the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet.(AL.com file photo)

7. Applewhite committed suicide with his followers, and was not the last to die.

By the mid-1990s, cult membership had dwindled and efforts to recruit others — via a website, radio interviews and other methods — were finding little success. Applewhite decided it was time to leave the planet. The group needed a sign from above, however, and found it in comet Hale-Bopp, which appeared in the sky in 1996 and burned brightly overhead in early 1997.

Rumor had it that a giant spaceship was hiding behind the comet, but the members of Heaven’s Gate said that was irrelevant.

“The joy is that our Older Member in the Evolutionary Level Above Human (the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’) has made it clear to us that 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 Heaven’s Gate website said. “Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion — ‘graduation’ from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave ‘this world’ and go with Ti’s crew.”

At this point, members of Heaven’s Gate were living in a large house in Rancho Santa Fe, California. To prompt their exit, Applewhite and 38 followers ingested a lethal concoction of phenobarbital and vodka, mixed into applesauce or pudding.

Their bodies were found by police on March 26, 1997. All cult members were wearing black uniforms and black Nike sneakers with a white swoosh, and most were covered with purple shrouds. Applewhite’s body was separate from the others, lying on a king-size bed in the master bedroom.

According to the docuseries, members of the group “laid down their vehicles” in three shifts on March 23, with each shift cleaning up after the preceding one. Applewhite joined the second group, instead of waiting for all of his followers to die.

“One last thing we’d like to say is, ‘39 to beam up,’ cult member Denise Thurman says in a farewell video.

Reference

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