Cults have long captured the public's imagination, just as they've captured many actual people. Yet while many are murderous, brainwashing people into committing horrific acts, and others are just a big con for financial gain, there are some that are more like religions, indoctrinating followers into a peaceful belief system — and in some ways, those are the cults that are even more insidious. Such is the case of Heaven's Gate.
20 years ago this March, the 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed mass suicide. They believed this would allow them to "graduate" to the next level of consciousness aboard a spaceship hidden in the wake of the Halle-Bopp comet. Unlike other cult mass deaths — such as the horrific events of the Jonestown massacre — the members of Heaven's Gate departed this Earth peacefully, consenting to the suicide and totally believing this was the right thing to do.
This was something of a comfort to Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actress and sister to one of the Heaven's Gate members. Aside from portraying the original Lt Uhura, Nichols has also spent many years working with NASA to encourage women and ethnic minorities to take up careers in science. After years of estrangement from her brother Thomas, in 1997 the news that he died in a ritual suicide shocked Nichelle, but as she told Larry King she wasn't unduly surprised.
After 20 years of no communication, Thomas reached out to his sister several years before he died. He wanted Nichelle's help in disseminating information about the cult, specifically focusing on "the great comet that would come some day." When asked her opinion of her brother's suicide, Nichelle responded diplomatically.
"He was highly intelligent and a beautifully gentle man. He made his choices and we respect those choices."
Indeed, Thomas expressed his sense of tranquility and happiness in the cult's final messages, recorded the day before their suicides.
Watching the members' laughing and content "exit statements", the fact that they killed themselves just a day later is chilling — and baffling. So how did this happen?
The Strange Beliefs Of Do & Ti
Heaven's Gate was founded in the 1970s by Marshall Applewhite, who later named himself Do, and Bonnie Nettles, named Ti. The duo sought like-minded followers, proclaiming that Do was actually possessed by the same alien who possessed Jesus' body, while Ti was possessed by God — who was also an alien.
Do and Ti nicknamed their disciples "the crew", in one of the group's many eerie references to Star Trek. Considering Nichelle Nichols lost contact with her brother 20 years before his death, it seems that Thomas was one of the first members of Heaven's Gate. Reportedly, the cult would often watch episodes of Star Trek together, finding an affinity with many of the ideals expressed in the show.
By 1975 Heaven's Gate had sunk out of public view, giving up all personal possessions, rejecting their Earthly names, and even abstaining from sex. At this point, over one hundred people were part of "the crew" and they lived as vagrants, sleeping in tents and begging on the streets. Their practices varied from the somewhat odd (like strictly regimented diets) to the more extreme (castration to repressing sexual urges).
In the 1990s, after Ti's death and revisions of the doctrine caused members to desert the cult, Heaven's Gate experienced a resurgence thanks to the advent of the internet. Working as freelance programmers under the company name Higher Source, the cult recruited many new members using their website — which is still live today, explaining their ritual suicide.
On March 19th, Do taped a final message that he later sent — via surviving member/messenger Rio DiAngelo — to various news publications. In the hour-long video, Do explained why his cult had to kill themselves to avoid the "recycling" of the Earth, and ascend to the "Next Level".
Just a few days later, the remaining 39 members of Heaven's Gate were found dead in their rented San Diego mansion. Coinciding with the Hale-Bopp comet's visit to Earth, the group ingested a deadly cocktail of phenobarbital and vodka, asphyxiating themselves with plastic bags to ensure they left this Earthly plane. The plan: To transport their souls to the spaceship hiding in the wake of the comet, finally achieving the destiny that Do and Ti planned for them over 20 years previously. In another unnerving reference to Star Trek, the members wore arm bands declaring them part of "the away team".
How Did This Happen?
It's terrifying to think that people really can become so indoctrinated into a belief system that they are happy to take their own lives. By all accounts, Heaven's Gate was altruistic and kind, with no reports of the kind of fear-mongering and psychological abuse rampant in many cults. As very little is known about the group, it may be that the peaceful act was all a facade. Yet it is possible for people to become absorbed into a cult mindset even without violent brainwashing taking place.
As part of MP Super News' current series Cults & Conspiracies — in conjunction with Hulu's #ThePath — we invited clinical therapist and cult deprogrammer Rachel Bernstein to explain just how people fall prey to this kind of brainwashing.
Berstein's explanation helps us understand the eerie sense of tranquility that is evident in Thomas Nichols' final message. According to Bernstein, a sense of idealism and open mindedness is crucial for a person to be indoctrinated into a cult.
"[People who join cults are] bright, they're wanting to learn about a new way of looking at the world. They're sometimes religious — they're opening their heart and their mind to something more spiritual. [They] want to do things in a non-mainstream way."
Berstein's last comment especially rings true for Heaven's Gate. Sole survivor Rio DiAngelo told LA Weekly that he was "looking for answers" when he encountered the cult. Another member, who left before the suicides, explained that Heaven's Gate represented a rejection of society's rules: To him, it was a "utopia" they had created for themselves.
Do and Ti's fervent dedication to their beliefs — along with the '70s cultural climate of new-age spiritualism — persuaded people to join their cause. The people of Heaven's Gate truly believed that Do was the Second Coming and that "transporting" their souls to the Halle-Bopp comet/spaceship was the only chance they had of returning to their true home — a planet orbiting Sirius.
Unfortunately, we can't just write this off as an alternative religion, one which we find odd but that gave its followers hope. Like Thomas Nichols, many members of Heaven's Gate left family behind. In particular, Yvonne McCurdy-Hill abandoned her five children — aged between four months and 19 years — to join the cult. Although both Yvonne and her husband attended an initial Heaven's Gate spiritual retreat in 1996, only she decided to stay on as a member of "the crew". Her family was distraught at her suicide a year later.
"We all feel very emotional about the gift that we've been given. I'm the happiest person in the world." — Thomas Nichols
As Bernstein urges, the only thing we can do is to stay aware of the dangerous people that seek to indoctrinate us into cults like Heaven's Gate. A healthy dose of cynicism is advised. But sometimes, these things just happen, and we can only hope that those involved at least go out peacefully.
For a gripping take on life during and after cult brainwashing, check out Hulu's The Path Season 2, airing every Wednesday.
Super News' ongoing series Cults & Conspiracies also airs live every Wednesday, and you can watch it on our Facebook page.