I visited the Museum of Death last week when I passing through Los Angeles, not really knowing what to expect. I walked the mini-mart clad road until I got to the ivy covered building with a huge 2-D skull marking the entrance. The staff looked like punk kids grown up, and they chatted with me about what I was about to see. I told them I wrote about true crime, and they assured me that I was in the right place.
When I reached the room where they had displayed everything related to the Heaven’s Gate cult, my mouth fell open—I’m not kidding. This cult has always interested me beyond all others, due to their strange philosophies that mimicked the new age mania that I was accustomed to hearing about from my father. And this display was something else. In the 1997 crime scene photographs that would come to represent this cult, the bodies were all covered in purple shrouds, and everyone was wearing the same black track suits with the same patches that said “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” Most memorably, the group all wore the same Nike Decade shoes, shown peeking out from under the shrouds. This type of Nike has since become a collectors’ item, due to the discontinuation of the shoe after the iconic photos were plastered all over every new station for days. The museum had an original bunk bed, from that very night, as well as a dummy in an original track-suit and Nikes, covered in an original purple shroud.
Last month marked the 20th anniversary of the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, in which members of the cult poisoned themselves with apple sauce laced with barbiturates and large quantities of vodka. In March of 1997, the news broke that 39 people were found dead.
Beside the museum’s bunk bed display with the dummy covered in its purple shroud, its black Nike Decades perfectly clean, the museum had a TV set playing an endless reel of Marshall Applewhite’s recruitment videos. On the small table holding the TV were the original VHS tapes that he created in the 90s, hours upon hours of alien-like Applewhite, bald and shiny, in a shirt I imagine a sci-fi Priest might wear, in front of a magician-purple curtain. He’s talking right to you, staring deeply into your eyes while he explains that his beliefs may seem outlandish, but that he alone is telling you the truth. He is calm, smiling, confident, slow and thoughtful. You get pulled into his tone, it’s a little mesmerizing.
Marshall Applewhite. As a young man, he held a masters’ degree in music and also attempted to become a professional singer. He taught at several universities and was a strong Christian. He was closeted for many years before a brief stint as an openly gay man in Houston, following the discovery of his affair with a male student in which he was fired from his position at the University of Alabama. Applewhite struggled to reconcile his sexuality and Christian beliefs and went back into the closet and moved to New Mexico to open a delicatessen. Soon after, he became one of the most famous cult leaders of all time.
In attempting to get a grip on the philosophy of Heaven's Gate, I can understand why people might have been initially attracted to Applewhite's ideas. Like almost all belief structures, they start out with thoughts that I can get behind: a rejection of the rigidity of organized religion, the idea that the soul will live on after death, even the extremely attractive idea that I myself might be someone special, a highly evolved being that is headed for more evolution. What's not to like? But then slowly, in classic cult fashion, everything morphs into something so contrary to reality that it becomes laughable. That's when they start losing me, when they start losing almost everyone. But there are a few people who stay, and that's when it becomes dangerous.
Heaven's Gate started with the meeting of two eccentric minds, as is often the case. In a classic example of Folie à deux, the French term that means literally The madness of two, Applewhite and a woman named Bonnie Nettles sat for hours in a psychiatric hospital in 1972, discussing at length their spiritual interests. Nettles was a nurse at the clinic where Applewhite had been hospitalized after the death of his father. This platonic love affair would go on to spawn an entire ramshackle, and yet intensely measured, new age religion. They talked about bible passages and about the life of Saint Francis, and read works by, of course, Helena Blavatsky, the mysterious root to many occult disasters.
It was this simple moment of connection, sitting on a bed for hours at the hospital, just talking about ideas. Then came a simple but powerful statement made by Nettles to Applewhite, as apparently foretold to her by alien beings: You have a divine assignment, which would later transform, as it often does, into You are God.
A divine assignment. It can be a meaningful concept of personal growth vital to the contributions you want to make in the world, the good things you want to do. Or it can be something else, something that grows inside the ego and turns politicians into dictators, spiritualists into dangerous cult leaders.
And so Applewhite and Nettles, who had renamed themselves Bo and Peep, embarked on a 6-month road trip around the United States. Interestingly enough, I have also been on a six-month long road trip around the United States. I say that because its like, hey, I’m following, I get it, I can still understand what’s going on here. You have to get out on the road, see the country, understand people from all over, find what is meaningful to you by cutting down on your possessions (like Saint Francis). You want to understand the spiritual value of being free. It’s part of the divine assignment. I hope to have a more developed sense of self at the end of my road trip; Applewhite and Nettles hoped to show the world that they were of a higher mind and power, that they were the new saviors.
For the next 20 years, Applewhite, who was also a huge fan of science fiction works by writers like Robert Heinlein, would develop a complicated, Christian-based, UFO-centered religion, with Nettles at his side until her death in 1985. Nettles and Applewhite had presented a pamphlet that spoke about Jesus’ reincarnation into a Texan, setting up Applewhite as that very Texan. Both believed that they were the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, the two witnesses spoke about in the Book of Revelations, come back to prophesize. The religion centered around a philosophy that each person needed to reach the "The Evolutionary Level Above Human," which I attempted to reason as a concept similar to enlightenment, to heaven. Applewhite and his followers believed that the body was an impermanent shell that needed to be discarded.
This isn’t too different from most major religions: the soul resides within the body and will continue on after death. Applewhite and Nettles attempted to share their views and recruit followers, and it usually went well until this little addendum: once their earthly bodies were shed, the UFO Two, as they were sometimes called, believed that they would be resurrected and transported, in plain view of witnesses, to an alien spaceship. Needless to say, this is where they lost people. This is where they lost me too.
Just like every cult, things start to get darker and weirder the longer folks are willing to entertain the ideas coming down from the top. The slowly-growing group believed, like many other religions, that the earth had a limited run and would soon be “recycled,” which also meant a total loss of all human life. The only way to survive this apocalyptic event was to leave the “vehicle” of the body behind. To prepare for this, the group abstained from all pleasures. There was a three-month period where they stopped eating, doing a master cleanse in which they drank only a mixture of lemonade, cayenne pepper and maple syrup. In the “Evolutionary Level Above Human,” beings would live in a state of constant bliss, genderless and without sex drive, hunger, death or fear. There would be nothing left to want. The beings would feed on pure sunlight.
To them, God was an alien, the most highly-evolved being. Two-thousand years ago other evolved beings came to earth and one took over the mind of Jesus, the same alien that now resided in the mind of Applewhite. In addition, there were also a race of evil aliens, known as “Luciferians,” which attempted to convince the people of earth that they were the true gods. Their goal was to keep humans from evolving into the The Evolutionary Level Above Human, like the Luciferians themselves had chosen to do.
Membership was made up of typical truth-seeking Christian hippies, but also included at one time a republican running for office in Colorado. What bound them all together was a dislike of the institution of religion, and a desire to seek spirituality in a freer way. When they joined, it was determined that members were no longer human; they were extraterrestrials preparing to leave the planet. Their slate was wiped clean: all possessions sold, relationships severed. They were no longer the humans they were, they were aliens that needed to evolve and vacate the earth to avoid certain death. Everyone wore the same clothing, had their hair cut short, ate the exact same meals. Everything had to be the same.
Applewhite’s repression of his sexuality would influence his cult’s views of sexuality in extreme ways. A big part of the cult’s philosophy was that they needed to be purged of impurity, and that they needed to avoid all earthly attachments. This meant that sex was forbidden. Applewhite, seeking freedom from homosexual urges, was voluntarily castrated with eight other male members in Mexico. It was reported that they were smiling and excited for the procedure.
When Applewhite saw the images captured by amateur astronomer Chuck Shramek of what he called a “Saturn-like object” that was following behind the comet. Many conspiracy theorists and eccentric spiritualist believed the object to be a UFO, even though Alan Hale himself said that it was a star following the comet. Ignoring the scientific community, Applewhite ran with the UFO claim and made the bold announcement that the spaceship was indeed coming to pick them up. No time to waste, Applewhite (known as "Do" by this time) made a farewell video in which every member was introduced and the suffix –Ody was added to each person’s name to signify that they were “Children of the Next Level.” Over a period of three days, all but three of the members would be dead. Wayne Cook and Charlie Humphreys survived that night, but committed suicide a short time later to be reunited with the group. Rio DiAngelo was chosen by the group to live on so that he could continue to spread their divine wisdoms with the earth. In 2007, DiAngelo published an article in LA Weekly, defending his continued belief in Heaven’s Gate as the second coming of Christ. He maintains the Heaven’s Gate website to this day, in it’s original 90s web design, with Applewhite’s writings, which, though outrageous, are also pretty good. Applewhite was as brilliant as he was delusional. Most cult leaders are.
To Applewhite, heaven was not a place on earth. Heaven was not a place in the sky—or at least, not the sky that is within earth’s atmosphere. Heaven was a place where all the trouble we experience as humans, the desires, the needs, the pain of longing, are finally alleviated. No doubt that Applewhite’s fear of his own sexuality contributed to his idea of heaven: genderless, without sex, without even the desire for human connection. Just warm sunlight, all he will ever need.
You can still request materials from the Heaven’s Gate website.
Thanks to The Museum of Death in LA for inspiring this article. Check them out sometime! It’s not for the faint of heart.