Heaven's Gate cult HBO documentary examines 'largest mass suicide in human history'
HBO has released its four-part documentary examining the Heaven’s Gate cult which infamously committed one of the largest mass suicide in human history.
The new hit series includes new footage and first-person accounts from those who survived the devastation wrought by the UFO cult.
The saga of the Star Trek-inspired Heaven’s Gate religious group started when Marshall Applewhite, a former music professor, befriended a nurse named Bonnie Nettles in 1972 while he was institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital.
Applewhite, the son of a nomadic Presbyterian minister, was born in a rural Texas town outside of Lubbock in 1931.
He later attended the Presbyterian-affiliated liberal arts university Austin College in Sherman, Texas – where he was active in student groups and considered moderately religious, according to his college roommate.
''He was religious, but he was not fanatically religious at all. He was an extrovert. He was popular. He was very smart. He was not pushy,'' John Alexander told The New York Times.
Applewhite graduated from the school with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1952 and married Ann Pearce.
The bourgeoning cult leader enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary of Virginia in Richmond in the hopes of becoming a Presbyterian minister.
However, Applewhite dropped out of seminary to take a position as a director of music at First Presbyterian Church in Gastonia, North Carolina which ended when he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army in 1954.
Applewhite left the military in 1956 and enrolled at the University of Colorado to study musical theater, earning a master’s degree in music.
Frustrated with trying to start his music career in Colorado, Applewhite moved to New York City – but ultimately failed in getting his career to take off.
The cult leader then taught at the University of Alabama but was fired when it was revealed that Applewhite, a closeted gay man, was pursuing a sexual relationship with a male student, according to research by sociologists Robert Balch and David Taylor.
Sociologist Susan Raine later revealed that Applewhite and his wife, with whom he had two children, separated when she learned of his affair with the student in 1965, divorcing him three years later.
After separating from his wife, Applewhite returned to Texas to teach at the University of St. Thomas in Houston where he served as char of the music department.
Applewhite briefly lived as an openly gay man during his tenure in Houston but pursued a relationship with a young woman whose family pressured her to leave him, according to research published by Oxford Scholarship.
Emotionally distressed, Applewhite resigned from his post with the university in 1970 and fled to New Mexico before returning to Texas the same year.
Applewhite had a mental breakdown and was institutionalized, where he is said to have met Nettles, Rolling Stone reported. However, exactly how the two met remains contested, with Applewhite himself writing that they met when he visited the hospital.
Nettles, who was born to a Baptist family in Houston in 1927, had moved away from religion as an adult and married a businessman in 1949.
Nettles, and her husband Joseph Segal Nettles, had four children together but their marriage started to fail because she believed a 19th-century monk named Brother Francis frequently spoke to her, The New York Times reported.
Nettles, who had a growing interest in aliens and biblical prophecy, convinced Applewhite that they were both descended from extraterrestrials.
Applewhite later had vivid dreams of men dressed in white proclaiming he was a messianic leader which Nettles analyzed as prophetic, according to research from Ohio State University.
Nettles abandoned her family and lost custody of her children to travel with Applewhite across the country, philosophizing and reading the Bible and science fiction while outlining their new theology.
Applewhite and Nettles, who referred to themselves as The Two, wrote a pamphlet that described Jesus' reincarnation as a Texan and suggested that they were the two witnesses described in the Book of Revelation to convince new recruits.
The pair finalized their theology with a blend of Star Trek nomenclature and doomsday prophecy, Daily Mail reported.
Bo and Peep, which the duo was often called affectionately, avoided branding the cult as a religion deeming theology inferior to science.
“That is like saying NASA is a religion,” one ex-member told the outlet
By 1975, the Heaven’s Gate cult started to gain traction when 20 people completely disappeared from a small town in Oregon, joining the group as new disciples.
Heaven’s Gate members took a vow of celibacy and left behind their earthly possessions. Some of the new recruits were said to have invested about $40,000 to $60,000 in becoming acolytes for the group through a journey called the “Process.”
"A score of persons from a small Oregon town have disappeared. It's a mystery whether they've been taken on a so-called trip to eternity…or simply been taken,” Walter Cronkite reported at the time.
The New York Times found and interviewed The Two a year later, noting that “they have none of the hallmarks of fanatics.”
“They talked about their earthly mission for several hours, while a bespectacled follower tape-recorded their words in the interest of accuracy. No one has left the planet yet,” The New York Times reported.
The duo’s doctrine stipulated that through their teachings a recruit’s body transform into that of a space alien allowing them to board a UFO and physically sail into heaven, which they would call the “Next Level,” upon the recycling of the world.
But by 1976, the cult – now 200 strong — announced it would not accept any new recruits and started paring down its members, cutting those it deemed impure.
Nettles continued to serve as the mystic of the group, which had become reclusive, through a bout with cancer in 1983, when she had an eye removed, The New York Times reported.
Doctors told her that the cancer was spreading through her body but she slammed the medics as ignorant, believing she could not die.
Nettles ultimately died in June 1985 at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where she was admitted under the pseudonym Shelly West.
However, Nettles’ daughter Terrie has now revealed in the HBO documentary that her mother may have wanted out of the cult.
The cult founder had sent letters to Terrie urging her daughter to conform to a normal life.
“We spent a lot of time talking about spiritualism, mediums and astrology,” Terrie said in the HBO series.
“We used to dream about a UFO picking us up and taking us away from this world. We didn't feel like we belonged here.”
The Heaven’s Gate cult began to believe in 1996 that an alien spaceship trailing the Hale–Bop comet would rendezvous with them to transport them to the Next Level.
In 1997, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department received an anonymous about a mass suicide.
Officials found 39 dead bodies in identical black clothing carefully staged in bunk beds in a large California home which they called "The Monastery.”
The cult had taken out a massive “alien abduction” insurance policy that would pay $1 million per person for up to 50 members if their death was to be caused by aliens, the Associated Press reported.
The bodies had been found with shaved heads and clothed in black tunics. Each wore brand new Nike sneakers and had $5.75 cash in their pocket and a travel bag next them on the floor.
It was revealed that the deaths occurred over three days, with Applewhite as one of the last to die – making it the largest mass suicide with American citizens since the Jonestown massacre in 1978.
One cult member, identified under the pseudonym Sawyer, has also revealed new details about the inner workings of the cult and said he still believes in the teachings of Nettle and Applewhite.
“People say to me frequently, you were duped, you know? Why don't you go on with your life? Instead of continuing to think about this,” Sawyer told HBO.
“But I still believe in all the teachings of Ti and Do and that if I continue to grow then I will potentially pass through the Heaven's Gate, the birth canal.”
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