Name: Heaven's Gate The group was known by various names over the twenty-two years of its existence. In the early years, at least, the group did not give itself a name. Hence, several of its names were given to it by outsiders. Robert Balch, a sociologist who studied the group during its early life, referred to them as the "Bo and Peep UFO Cult." News reporters often referred to the group as HIM ["human individual metamorphosis"], picking up on a key teaching of the group. They referred to themselves simply as "the group," and their leaders as "TheTwo." In a newspaper advertisement taken out by the groupin 1994, they referred to themselves as "Total Overcomers Anonymous." "Heaven's Gate," the name of their Web Site, is apparently the name they settled on near the end of the life of the group.
Founders: Do and Ti (aka Bo and Peep)
Do (1931-1997) was born Marshall Herff Applewhite in Spur, Texas;Ti (1927- 1985) was born Bonnie Lu Nettles, birthplace unknown.
Applewhite earned a B.A. at Austin College in 1952 and studied briefly at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia beforedropping out to pursue a career in music. He served as music director at the First Presbyterian Church in Gastonia, N.C. before moving to Houston. In Houston he pursued a career in the performing arts and became a professor of music at St. Thomas University. Nettles was a nurse when they met in Houston. Little is know abouther background other than knowledge of her interest in metaphysical studies. She was a member of the local Theosophical Society and participated in channeling. She apparently introduced Applewhite to the world of metaphysical studies.
Year Founded: 1975
Sacred or Revered Text:
How and When Heaven's Gate May Be Entered, plus numerous written testimonials. It may even be argued that a screenplay the group wrote to spread its message could be classified as a"sacred text."
Cult or Sect:
Negative sentiments are typically implied when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will find additional links to related issues.
Size of Group: Thirty-nine (39)
Heaven's Gate came to public attention when they committed mass suicide on March 27, 1997. As of this writing, all members are believed to have perished. Group membership probably never exceeded two hundred (200). Turnover was high in the early life of the group; perhaps as many as one thousand (1,000) persons were affiliated. After the early period of active recruitment of new members, the defining feature of membership was gradual attrition. In 1994 two members visited sociologist Robert Balch and reported that there were twenty-four (24) members.
Applewhite and Nettles met in Houston in 1972 after he had been dismissed from St. Thomas University as the result of a scandal involving a male student. The dismissal plunged Applewhite into depression and bitterness. Balch reports that Applewhite had long"vacillated between homosexual and heterosexual identities, never feeling comfortable with either" (Balch, 1995:141).In Nettles, Applewhite found a "platonic helper" who did not threaten his sexual identity.
The two gradually isolated themselves in the company of one another,cutting off contact with others. During this period, reports Balch, they became "absorbed in a private world of vision, dreams, and paranormal experiences that included contacts with space beings who urged them to abandon their worldly pursuits" (Balch,1995:142).
They left Houston in 1973 and traveled for some months, endingup in a campground near the coast in southern Oregon. Here, Applewhite claimed to have a revelation that brought together the pieces of their metaphysical quest. He and Nettles were the two prophets of the eleventh chapter of the Book of Revelations. After 1,260 days of bearing witness to the truth, their enemies would kill them. This event would be followed by their ascension to heavenin a cloud. The cloud, he believed, was a spacecraft.
With a belief system that combined elements of Christian scripture,Theosophy and other assorted metaphysical teachings, along witha healthy dose of contemporary folk wisdom about UFOs, the two space-age shepherds set out to preach their gospel. Briefly they called themselves Guinea and Pig, a seemingly humorous commentary on the implausibility of their message. Later they settled on Bo and Peep, identities that continued to cause critics to questionthe sincerity of their mission.
Their first success came in Los Angeles where an invitation to speak to a group of metaphysical students produced two dozen converts. Followed by their newly acquired disciples, Bo and Peep headed back up to the coast of Oregon. There the UFO cult began to take shape. In a series of haphazardly organized meetings along the way, they soon claimed one hundred and fifty (150) followers.
The group that would one day be known as Heaven's Gate first gainednational visibility as the result of the mysterious disappearanceof approximately thirty (30) people following a public lecture about flying saucers in the small beach community of Walport, Oregon in the fall of 1975. For several weeks, the group was the focus of national media attention. Although little was known about the group, it was during this time period that the metaphor of"brainwashing" entered popular culture to explain the involvement of youth in cults and sectarian movements.
The group next headed to Denver where more joined. Then, abruptly, Bo and Peep split their followers into small groups with only vague instructions and announced that they were "withdrawing into the wilderness" in preparation for "the demonstration" (the resurrection and ascension to heaven that would follow their assassination).
Over the next six months the small groups wandered across the country waiting for word from their leaders. The teachings of Bo and Peep were not extensive and in their absence most groups became confused and divided. Some groups continued to try to recruit new followers, but typically they lost more members than they gained. More than half of the two hundred or so members drifted away from their small group during the absence of Bo and Peep.
Finally came word that The Two could be reached at a post office box number in Gulfport, Mississippi. In the months ahead, writes Balch, somewhere on the order of ninety to one hundred of the members reassembled to follow a much better organized and demanding leadership.
Apparently in their exile, Bo and Peer concluded that among the four billion or so souls on this Earth, only the tiny number of loyal recruits that returned to follow them were eligible to move on to the next evolutionary level. After a few recruiting efforts in the midwest, they took their followers to a remote site in Wyoming where they began a period of intense indoctrination.
They announced that the Heavens had canceled the prophesied "demonstration" because the followers were not ready. Those who wanted to be aboard the heavenly space ship would need to devote more time to disciplined training. Learning to serve was the path to ridding oneself of the ways of this world and one's earthly body (which came to be known as a "container."
Withdrawn from the broader culture, Bo and Peep proceeded to introduce sweeping teachings that encompassed both worldly behavior and preparation for the next kingdom. Life became very regimented. Emphasis on group activity was designed to de-emphasize the individual. A vocabulary that played on space-age metaphors came into currency within the increasingly isolated group.
From Wyoming, the group moved to a campsite near Salt Lake City where some members took jobs to meet the financial needs of the group. An apparent inheritance solved the financial crisis ofthe group and they moved first to Denver and later to the Dallas- Fort Worth area, renting houses in both locations. This nomadic existence, coupled with a rejection of materialism and other things worldly, became major elements of the group's lifestyle. Details of their migratory path are still being pieced together at this writing.
Prior to moving to the mansion of a financially-troubled businessman in the upscale suburb of Rancho Sante Fe near San Diego, California in 1996, the group spent some time on a forty acre compound inthe mountains near Albuquerque, New Mexico. While they worked on the construction of this sprawling but spartan compound, which they called The Earthship (and it was modeled on the group's beliefs about the interior layout of a UFO), they rented office space in a nearby community for their computer business.
When they became interested in computers is uncertain, but apparently dated back some years, probably stimulated by their interest inthe relationship between emerging communication technologies and space travel. Their computer business in Southern California, Higher Source , specialized in the construction of Web sites. The business has been characterized as state of the art, but it was not a cutting-edge company. Their Web development work was technically up-to-date, but not stunningly dynamic. Media accounts indicate that the success of the group's Web efforts provided them with the income needed to rent their large group home in Rancho Santa Fe.
Herff Applewhite was raised in a traditional Christian family. Applewhite's father was a Presbyterian minister, and he briefly studied for the ministry before electing a career in music. Bonnie Lu Nettles had been into metaphysical studies before the two met. She was a member of the Theosophical Society and participated in channeling. The belief system they invented effectively used traditional Christian teaching as a metaphor or template upon which ideas taken from metaphysical and UFO subcultures were superimposed.
According to the teachings of The Two, some two thousand years ago extraterrestrials from the Kingdom of Heaven passed this way to survey their garden Earth and concluded that perhaps it had evolved to a point where it would be useful to send down one being from the "level above." Earthlings, it turned out, were not ready to enter the "Kingdom Level Above Human."The one they sent was killed and Luciferian influences continued to dominate the Earth.
Bo and Peep were, they came to believe, extraterrestrials who came offering yet another chance for humans to move to a higher evolutionary level. The Christian message of sin and salvation is here intermingled with elements of Eastern religious tradition in which seekers attempt to break out of a cycle of death and reincarnation.
The Heavenly Kingdom that Bo and Peep came to tell of was not simply spiritual, but literal. The method of transportation to this Kingdom was a spacecraft. The price one paid for a "boarding pass" to this higher level was a disciplined life which would bring about a bodily metamorphosis they likened to the transformation from a caterpillar to a beautiful butterfly. This process which they called "Human Individual Metamorphosis" (HIM) would literally transform human physiology. They developed a detailed folk wisdom that confirmed to them that the process was occurring. For example, headaches were interpreted as evidence of "consciousness explosion," and menstrual pains as a sign that the process of androgyny was at work.
The list of behavioral rules appear to have changed during the life of the group, but from the onset celibacy, abstinence from drugs and alcohol, limited and controlled contact with the outside world, and reduction of "human-level" interpersonal attachments within the group were key behavioral requirements. The changing of one's name, cutting of one's hair, and disposal of one's human possessions were acts symbolic of the abandonment of worldly connections.
Initially, Bo and Peep taught that they would be assassinated. After three-and-a-half days their bodies would "ascend up to heaven in a cloud." This prophecy was in fulfillment ofthe New Testament Book of Revelations (Rev. 11:12); the instrument of their ascension would be a flying saucer. This event would be known as "the demonstration."
Early in the life of the group, this teaching was abandoned as an imminent event and the group went "into the wilderness" to better prepare themselves. This preparation evolved into highly disciplined behavioral regimentation. Balch characterizes this as a "totalistic" and "encapsulated environment,"but also notes that those who did not believe were encouraged to leave the group. How the group's beliefs evolved from this point forward is not presently well known, but the abundant writtenrecord left behind will surely illumine our understanding.
The group apparently developed into a highly cohesive unit. For the larger part of its existence there were few dropouts and few new recruits. Their behavior seems more appropriately characterized as one of internalized self-discipline rather than external regimentation.
It is clear that the group's beliefs changed over the years, but precisely when and how is still being pieced together from the materials they left behind. It is clear that popular-cultural science fiction, especially visions of extraterrestrial life rendered by movies and television, profoundly influenced the group's worldview. Members were tremendous fans of the "Star Trek" TV series,as well as of a current network television program, "The X-Files," in which alien beings figure prominently.
The methodic manner in which the group prepared for death is not consistent with the theory that they were leaving this life in desperation, as in the case of the followers of Jim Jones (who committed mass suicide at his command in 1978). Rather, they were students who believed in a higher human evolutionary level. Their departure was triggered by the belief that the coming of Comet Hale-Bopp signaled their student days were over. Also, Bo's contention that he would soon die of cancer (a claim which autopsy results proved was spurious) may have primed the group to concerted action lest their teacher and guide leave without them. A Heavenly space craft was positioned behind the comet waiting to take them to the next level. In a very real sense, they did not even believe themselves to be committing suicide; they merely saw themselves as abandoning the physical "vehicles" which were no longer necessary. In the end, the deaths of the Heaven's Gate group were an act of faith; they were graduating to the higher level from which Bo and Peep had descended in search of a harvest of Earthlings. They were the harvest.
The Heaven's Gate suicides triggered a renewal of warnings of the dangers of cults. The anti-cultists and their messages were abundantly present as the mass media struggled to make sense of this seemingly bizarre happening.
There is a great deal to be learned by studying the life and death of this group. The anti-cultists are correct when they note that some cults can be dangerous. That the members of this group were lured into the group by some mysterious methods of mind control seems highly questionable. So also is it difficult to conclude that they were helpless to leave the influence of the group. The stories told by those who had been members do not fit the classic notion of atrocity tales. And while there are families distraught over the loss of loved ones, their stories do not seem to fit well into the victimization model.
The extensive records left by the group, plus the good fortune of an able sociological scholar pursuing research on this groupfrom near the beginning of its life, combine to provide an extraordinary research archive. There is no other group from which we have somuch information that spans the full life from founding, through growth, and finally extinction. Join us and see what lessons these archives have to teach us.
This web site has already pulled together a significant amount of research material including a mirror of the Heaven's Gate website, extensive links to press coverage and commentary following the discovery of the mass suicide, and a comprehensive bibliography of Robert Balch's writings. We will continue to monitor media follow-up of this event and where possible, create links that will provide a gateway to other resources available on the Internet.