Heaven's Gate mass suicide in California:
some early remarks

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 In March 1997, once again people found dead bodies in a house in Canada. The house belonged to a ‘New Age' religious cult, the Order of the Solar Temple. Like this group had done before, it was both suicide by cult members, and murder of people unwilling to join them in death.

However, on 26 March, news about a bigger collective suicide replaced this item in the media. In a luxurious mansion at Rancho Santa Fe near San Diego in California in the United States, police found 39 bodies of members of the Heaven's Gate religious organization. Their age varied from teenager to elderly. They included an ex-Miss Rodeo, a former cowboy movie actor, and the brother of an actress in the TV series Star Trek. Some of them were castrated. This was an extreme case of negative ideas about sex, which one may find also elsewhere in occultism, like in the novel The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield. They wore uniform clothes. After their deaths, purple shrouds covered them.

The American ‘paranormal' spoon-bender Uri Geller, known from TV entertainment shows in The Netherlands and elsewhere, told on CNN television that he might have been among the Heaven's Gate dead. The cult had asked him to join. However, Geller said, though he believed in flying saucers like them, he did not join. He said he did not like the idea of giving up all his earthly possessions to Heaven's Gate leader Marshall Herff Applewhite upon joining.

The Heaven's Gate members had paid for their obedience to Applewhite, Jesus reincarnate according to them, with death. Applewhite himself compared the obedience of a ‘good' religious disciple to that of a ‘good' dog. Applewhite had told them that he would soon die of cancer (according to the coroner's post-mortem, he did not have cancer at all). If his devotees would follow him into death, a UFO, supposed to accompany the Hale-Bopp comet, would come and take them.

Alan Hale, discoverer of the Hale-Bopp comet, told that Heaven's Gate members had bought an expensive telescope. However, they returned it to the shop, saying it was defective. "Why is it defective?" the shopkeeper asked. "One cannot see the UFO with it!"

The UFO would bring them, just before the festival of Easter, Jesus' resurrection from death according to Christianity, to reincarnation on another planet. There, they would see Bonnie Nettles again, the movement's co-founder, who really had died of cancer. Those who doubted were referred to the Christian Bible, book Revelation, chapter 11. In his farewell message on video, Applewhite expressed his solidarity with the cults of David Koresh and the Order of the Solar Temple. They also had been willing to follow their ‘Shepherds', their leaders, into the hereafter.

Heaven's Gate: its history

Heaven's Gate had started in the 1970's. Applewhite, a music teacher then, landed in a psychiatric asylum. Bonnie Nettles was his nurse there. Nettles was a prominent member of the Theosophical Society in Houston, Texas and wrote the astrology column for the local newspaper. Together, Applewhite and Nettles read The Secret Doctrine by Madame Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy. When Heaven's Gate started, Nettles called herself Shakti Devi. Later, Nettles and Applewhite called themselves Ti and Do. Though they were able to impress small numbers of people with their ideas, they were not good at managing large numbers. So, Heaven's Gate stayed small. They also stayed small because the leaders kept announcing that a UFO would come to take them to heaven very soon. Some followers started to wonder why this was postponed many times.

Applewhite and Nettles went to the state of California. This had been a special place in occult theory since Madame Blavatsky wrote that a ‘new race' would arise there. In 1898, Katherine Tingley, leader of the American Theosophists, moved her headquarters to Point Loma, a suburb of San Diego. Tingley's rival for Theosophical leadership, Annie Besant, later founded a headquarters in California for Krishnamurti, ‘the vehicle of the World Teacher'. Unfortunately for Besant, Krishnamurti resigned his position in 1929; he did not really believe that California was the cradle for a new race.

However, others carried on this type of ideas. Why was California such a fertile recruiting ground for relatively big movements like Scientology, as well as small groups like Heaven's Gate? Part of the answer may be the film industry, which is very big around Hollywood. It is an industry with many, also emotional, ups and downs. The Hollywood actor John Travolta said in an interview that he joined Scientology because of this. To some extent, other industries in California, like the computer industry, also have big fluctuations.

The psychopath patient Marshall Applewhite ‘brainwashed' 38 people into giving up their freedom, their rationality, their possessions, their friends, their relatives, their names (which the cult replaced with cryptic acronyms, like rkkody), and finally their lives. This was an immense tragedy for these individuals and their families.

Religious cults: wider implications

Heaven's Gate was a small cult. However, it has potential implications for the study of big cults like the Scientology Church and the Church Universal and Triumphant. Both are somewhat similar to Heaven's Gate in mixing elements of both Christian fundamentalism and occultism (especially for Scientology, I do not mean that they have especially a Christian Christology, of course). Both also believe in, for instance, supernatural space travel.

Elizabeth Clare Prophet leads the Church Universal and Triumphant. It has tens of thousands of devotees. Ms Prophet claims she is the Living Messenger of the Great White Brotherhood, familiar from Madame Blavatsky's works, in Darjeeling in India (does the Indian Skeptic have subscribers who are familiar with Darjeeling? I would like to hear their views on this!) Her headquarters in the United States are full of firearms. She predicted nuclear world disaster in the early 1990's. It did not happen, as we know. She claims to lead her devotees to heaven, to the superhuman level of the Masters. In his Internet documents, Applewhite hinted that the Church Universal and Triumphant had offered him a leadership position. He wrote that he declined, preferring his own organization.

Let us suppose that Ms Prophet gets a fatal disease, or thinks that she gets one, like Applewhite. Applewhite convinced 38 people that joining him in death was a privilege. The Order of the Solar Temple involved more people. How many devotees might want to join Elizabeth Clare Prophet in death?

This article certainly does not claim to be the definite study on Heaven's Gate. It is too small, and too early for that. Uri Geller said that the commotion on the suicide of Heaven's Gate was ‘a big blow' to the community of believers in UFOs. Let us hope Geller is right on this. Then, out of the evil of mass death, there will at least come the good that many people will start thinking a little more critically. Sometimes, this may save lives.

by Herman de Tollenaere

Sources: Rob Nanninga (1997), Jezus in een UFO; De Groene Amsterdammer, 16 April, p. 8-9 (longer version in Skepter)
Various documents on the Internet, by Heaven's Gate and others

Originally published, in slightly different form, in the Indian Skeptic, 15 August 1997

A different version of this article appeared as 'Gate Suicide' in Stars & Stripes Quarterly, [American studies review at Leiden University History Department], Fall 1997, p. 4-5