Breaking Down Heaven’s Gate

Cults are notorious for coercing their members into radical decisions such as mass suicide. In March of 1997 Newsweek reported, thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide in attempt to reach the “next level.” [1] Led by Marshall Herff Applewhite, the group believed in a common enemy, a corrupt world whose ruling institutions and religions had been seized and are controlled by Lucifer, or “Lucy,” also known as Satan. Another vital belief that the members of Heaven’s Gate shared was in UFO’s. It is important to understand that while the members of the cult acted upon their own volition; fundamentally, they were coerced into suicide by years of Applewhite’s persuasion. First, I will explain a bit about how the cult was formed and look specifically at its two founding members. Second, I will examine ways that the cult recruited new members. Third, I will highlight tactics used to maintain the cults compliance. Finally, I will outline ways to question and identify the persuasive tactics a cult might use in controlling its members.

Since the beginning of written history, humans have looked to the sky for what is to come. The Heavens Gate cult combined more ancient beliefs with modern technology. The upsurge of UFO sightings starting in 1947 and continued well on into the 70’s sparked an alternative subculture scholars refer to as ufology. Emerging in the 1970’s, Heaven’s Gate reacted to, and stitched together various strands of American religious thought and practice. The group’s theology combined elements of Christian apocalypticism, ufology, science fiction, and conspiracy theories. Benjamin E. Zellar, a researcher and professor of religion who studied the cult post-mortem, found that Heaven’s gate was by all means a biblical movement that filtered protestant texts, traditions, and perspectives through a particular set of assumptions and approaches. [2] Zellar believes Heaven’s Gate employed what he called “extraterrestrial biblical hermeneutics”. Hermeneutics is the science of studying typically sacred texts. Additionally, cultists of this sect attempted to explain religious concepts purely using material and sometimes technological means. They conceptualized ones physical body as a “container” or “vehicles” that would be shed after death and be transported by alien spacecraft to the “next level.” When the group committed suicide in ‘97, it was in anticipation of sublimating to the spacecraft supposedly trailing the Hale-Bopp comet. It is important to realize no matter how outlandish this set of beliefs may sound, thirty-nine people committed their lives and eventually their deaths to Heaven’s Gate.

While Heaven’s Gate was based upon the bible and other already established ideologies, the majority of the fundamental beliefs were forged Applewhite. [3] A Native Texan and son of a minister, he held degrees in Philosophy, Theology, and Music. Applewhite held two University positions, one at the University of Alabama and the other at St. Thomas University, before he was dismissed in 1970. Applewhite struggled with his sexual orientation, had many affairs, and left his wife in ‘65. His father’s death in ‘71 amplified his emotional problems; he was depressed and confused when he met Bonnie Nettles, who would help him craft his ideology.

Before Nettles met Applewhite in 1972, she worked as nurse, raising four children through a struggling marriage. Nettles held an interest in mysticism and occultist philosophies, and was a part of the Houston Theosophical Society. When the two met, they bonded over recent traumas and thought their coming together was divinely ordained. They attributed their traumas to their bodies being possessed by “next level” minds. Their relationship was purely platonic but they believed their union was a special one that fulfilled biblical prophecy. In months, “The Two” began travelling the States and Canada, changing their names along the way, in an attempt to leave their human identities behind. The Two went by Bo and Peep, Do and Ti, and at one point even Nincom and Poop. When the two were Do and Ti they were assuming the identity of a trans-dimensional being currently inhabiting the body of a Human. Their following grew throughout their travels and in their prime had two hundred followers who accepted the message. A shared belief in the cult was rejection of the human body, identity, and attachments. This shared belief is key to understanding why thirty-nine people would later conform to the mass suicide of ’97.

Modernizing and Maintaining the Cult

Applewhite found the best way to spread the word and pay the bills was to develop members’ computer skills. The cult started a business called Higher Source and began building web pages for businesses and other organizations. Their sales pitch door-to-door was that they could make “your transition into ‘the world of cyberspace’ a very easy and fascinating experience.” The business did very well due to low prices and eventually earned the cult $50,000 which would be later used to rent the mansion for the mass suicide. [4] One of the cult’s web clients was the Kushner-Locke Company, an independent motion picture/television producer known mostly for creating The Brave Little Toaster.

A screen capture of the Kushner-Locke Company’s 1997 archived web page designed and engineered by Higher Source. Notice their logo at the bottom and the similarities to their own web page, such as the space background.

The development of the Internet brought about a whole new medium to propagate the cults message. Computer skills were put toward propaganda meant to proselytize, or to try to convert people. Unlike cults that came before, this one could be looked up online. The Heaven’s Gate web site, to this day hosts a multitude of content created by the cult and offers contact information for hard copies of materials. [5] It is unclear who runs the site, because as far as the public is concerned, every member of the cult died in 1997. However, every month the bills get paid, orders get filled, and someone answer’s the contact email provided on the site. When I emailed the representative email on the site, their response was pretty straightforward:

The Group ended in 1997. There is nothing to join. The information is still important and should be studied.

The site is mostly composed of transcripts of videos that at the time could be requested by mail but can now be found on Youtube. There are a few unnerving web pages such as “Our Position Against Suicide” and their final message, which includes a cryptic disclaimer:

By the time you read this, we suspect that the human bodies we were wearing have been found and that a flurry of fragmented reports have begun to hit the wire services.

The thirty-nine human bodies were found in their beds in the Heaven’s Gate mansion wearing all black with triangular patches that read “Away Team” and “Heaven’s Gate” stitched on their shirtsleeves. Each member also wore a fresh pair of black-and-white Nikes. Their cause of death was a combination of drugs, alcohol, and suffocation. The cult members were of various ages. The youngest member was twenty-four and the oldest member was seventy-two. Most had families they hadn’t spoken to in years. So why were people swayed to take their own lives for a sci-fi religion? Below I have provided the notable devices used in cultivating the Heaven’s Gate mindset.

Screen Shot 2016-12-17 at 2.11.44 PM.png
An example of Higher Source’s graphics capabilities pulled from the ‘graphics’ page on archived The image seems to be a nonsense ad for an intergalactic U-haul moving company. The use of word art and gradients makes for an interesting piece of 1990’s cult propaganda. Notice the 2002 copyright date even thought this was pulled from a 1997 web site.

Coercive Persuasion aka Brainwashing

Dr. Alexandria Stein, once a genuine victim of a different cult’s coercive persuasion, now cult expert and scholar, defines the process of brainwashing as “used to isolate followers and control them through a combined dynamic of ‘love’ and fear.” [6] Stein, who found herself part of the Marxist-Leninist political group known as “the O,” short for “the Organization,” elaborates that methods of brainwashing can be displayed through various tactics many of them “isolating” such as “control of relationships.” Stein recalls being highly encouraged to cut ties to family members, leaving her reliant upon the organization. Applewhite similarly isolated his members by discouraging familial interactions. Applewhite inducted his members through “the Process,” where members were assigned a partner to help overcome human attachments. With these partners, members were suspected to do everything, such as eating, sleeping, and working. If pairings became too attached, that too had to be overcome. To ensure partners never got too friendly, and to ensure feelings of isolation, the leaders rotated the life partners regularly and often assigned partner’s with the least attraction between them. Eventually most connections to the outside world, especially outside family, were prohibited. In order to leave the compound for any reason, members were eventually required to sign out in order to receive their driver’s license and car keys. When they drove members always drove with a partner to have a second set of eyes looking out for each other. Essentially, always being with an assigned partner never allowed time for personal reflection.

Another brainwashing tactic noted by Stein is the control of information, by limiting interactions to the outside world Applewhite controls what the members of his organization know. Additionally, Applewhite provided carefully chosen entertainment for the decades of waiting for the UFO, to be watched in assigned seats, of course. Most of the television shows and movies that Applewhite allowed contained mystical and/or science fiction themes. Among them: Star Trek, Cocoon, The X-Files, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Star Wars. [7] According to cultivation theory, the more time a person spends in the fictitious world of television the more likely they are to believe the reality portrayed by television. Therefore, by limiting what movies and shows members of the cult watched, Applewhite reinforced the believability of his ideology. Through the years, Applewhite’s ideology was tailored to fit the ever-evolving Sci-Fi genre.

This image was pulled from the Heaven’s Gate web site. The page it was pulled from only has this image and the title: How a Member of the Kingdom of Heaven might appear.

Recruitment and Initiation Propaganda

Door-to-door proselytizing is a way for cult leaders to bring in new recruits. Psychology scholar Pratkanis points out that more important than bringing in new members, door-to-door proselytizing ensures members are constantly engaged in self-sell, or self generated persuasion.” [8] When members would relay their messages door to door, which they did for thirty years, they would be unknowingly reinforcing the message within themselves. The act of witnessing requires members to recall and retell to many people the advantages of their cult. While arguing for and defending their beliefs members strengthen themselves against counterarguments and therefore reinforce their faith in the cult.

Propaganda was not only used for recruiting door-to-door and online but also to supplement member’s initiation into the group. Applewhite taught the logistics of his ideology, through a series of induction videos police originally found in the mansion. In the video, you can see the theatrics Applewhite put behind portraying his otherworldly image. He dons attire somewhere between a Star Trek uniform and a clergyman’s robe. His seemingly orange eyes never, divert from the camera. His baldhead and large ears, which seem to glow the same shade of orange, gives off an unnerving glow. In the first of a ten part series Applewhite claims, “the mind that was in Jesus… that mind is in me.” [9] Applewhite in this video alludes to anxieties people might have concerning preexisting biblical beliefs.

Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 9.02.06 PM.png
A screen-capture showing Applewhite’s carefully constructed portrayal of self. Applewhite’s appearance is reminiscent of how the media might portray an alien species in a hollywood film. The obscure purple curtains behind him add to the mystery of where this man might be broadcasting.

Cognitive Dissonance

Coined by American social psychologist Leon Festinger, cognitive dissonance refers to the anxiety experienced by an individual holding two or more contradictory beliefs. With this anxiety comes psychological discomfort, sparking the want to strive for an internal consistency and avoid or ignore all information that clashes with existing beliefs. [10] Applewhite exploited his member’s cognitive dissonance to recruit and maintain obedience. Considering many of the members grew up with Christian backgrounds and had professional careers leading up to joining the cult, they were not an easy group to manipulate. [11] Applewhite’s religion explained what both Christianity and scholarship failed to explain: the growing amount of UFO citing’s and encounters. Many people at this time were at a loss for how to explain the peculiar sightings that were common and also had already opened their minds up to the intergalactic possibilities that came with modern sciences and technologies. Pair a new belief in aliens with a religious background and you have a recipe for cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is one of the many biases that work in our daily lives. Humans do not like to believe that they are wrong, so they limit their intake of new information that might disrupt pre-existing beliefs. When individuals came across a religion that united two opposing ideologies they were quick to fall in line and block out information that contradicted their shared beliefs. Members complied with Applewhite restricting the flow of information as a conscious choice to find internal consistency and balance within their own beliefs.

In January of 1997 leading up to the mass suicide, members of the cult bought a computerized telescope in attempt to physically observe the spacecraft thought to be trailing the Comet Hale-Bopp. The members were seeking confirmation of what they already thought to be true. When the group saw the comet clearly but not the spaceship, they returned the telescope to the store and asked for their money back. The group would rather believe the telescope broken, than to accept there was no spaceship. [12]

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a cognitive error that is employed not only by Heaven’s gate members but non-cult groups such as political parties. According to renown Psychology scholar Michael Shermer, confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out evidence the supports pre-existing beliefs and ignore evidence that does not. [13] For example, when conservatives watch Fox News and liberals listen to only NPR. Heaven’s Gate members were all too ready to accept a religion that confirmed their belief in UFOs. Applewhite was flexible in adapting some elements of his doctrine to reflect natural disasters that were occurring. He attributed various earthquakes as well as the eruption of Mt. St. Helens to foretelling the moment he and his crew would ascend to the Higher Level. The arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet confirmed the most important belief that a spaceship was coming to take them away to heaven. The comet was visible for months to the naked eye. Despite the group’s failed attempt to see the supposed trailing spaceship with a telescope, thirty-nine members still took their own lives.

Identifying Cult Mind Control

It remains important to always be on the look out for cult persuasion tactics. Groups similar to Heaven’s Gate currently exist, and will not hesitate to utilize persuasion tactics on its members and the public. Steven Hassan, former member of the Unification Church now psychology scholar, developed a model to help people evaluate whether or not a group is using destructive mind control. [14] Below I have compiled just a few questions using his model as my guide:

Is this group attempting to control my behavior?

Are there strict rules and regulations?

(eg. living situations, physical appearance, sexual relations, diet, sleep, finances, leisure time, individuality)

Do they impose a buddy system? Communal living?

Is permission required for major decisions?

Are my behaviors reported to superiors?

Does this group instill dependence or obedience? 

Is this group controlling the flow of information?

Do they minimize or discourage other information sources?

(Internet, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and articles)

Does this group compartmentalize information into insiders vs. outsider doctrines?

Does this group make use of propaganda?

Is there a central leader? Does she/he employ hierarchal chain of command?

Is this group attempting to control my thoughts?

Do they encourage only good thoughts?

Have they changed my name and identity?

Do they reject critical thinking?

Does this group avoid rational analysis or constructive


Does this group attempt to alter memories?

Is this group attempting to control my emotions?

Does this group teach emotion control? Emotional stopping?

Does this group use fear tactics? Guilt tactics?

Does this group affirm beliefs I already feel strongly about?

Screen Shot 2016-12-17 at 2.10.00 PM.png
Another example from Higher Source’s graphics page. Eerily vague, this one propagates “Management Information Systems” or “Information Management Systems.” Actually making meaning out of this graphic is a bit more difficult.

Work Cited

[1] Thomas, E., & Murr, A. (1997). `The next level.’ (coverstory).  Newsweek129(14), 28.

[2] Zeller, B. (2010). Extraterrestrial Biblical Hermeneutics and the Making of Heaven’s Gate. Nova Religion: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 14(2), 34-60. doi:1.

[3] Lewis, J. R., & Petersen, J. A. (2005). Controversial new religions. Oxford University Press, USA.

[4] Hedges, S. J., & Streisand, B. (1997). (cover story). U.S. News & World Report122(13), 26.

[5] Ed. Marshall H. Applewhite. Heaven’s Representatives, n.d. Web.

[6] Stein, A. (2015). CULTS AND BRAINWASHING. Ethical Record120(7), 3-8.

[7] Davis, E. (2015). TechGnosis: Myth, magic, and mysticism in the age of information. North Atlantic Books.

[8] Pratkanis, A., & Aronson, E. ( 1992). “How to become a cult leader.” Age of Propaganda. 240-49.

[9] Applewhite, Marshall H. “Heaven’s Gate Cult Initiation Tape Part 1.” YouTube. N.p., 13 June 2008. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

[10] Festinger, L. (1957). Cognitive dissonance theory.  Primary Prevention of HIV/AIDS: Psychological Approaches. Newbury Park, California, Sage Publications.

[11] Hewitt, Bill, Thomas Fields-Meyer, Bruce Frankel, Dan Jewel, Pam Lambert, Anne-marie Neill, and William Plummer. (1997) Cover Story: Who They Were. People Magazine, Vol. 47 No. 13.14 Apr. 1997.

[12] Gorman, M. E. (1998). Understanding Discovery. In Transforming Nature (pp. 51-111). Springer US.

[13] Shermer, M. (2013). Why smart people believe weird things. Pseudoscience and Deception: The Smoke and Mirrors of Paranormal Claims, 3.

[14] Hassan, Steven. (1990). Combatting Cult Mind Control. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press.


Figure 1: Sample Graphics. (1997). Ed. Marshall H. Applewhite. Heaven’s Representatives, n.d. Web.

Figure 2: Kushner Locke Online Portfolio. (1997).  Ed. Marshall H. Applewhite. Higher Source Contract Enterprises, n.d. Web.

Figure 3: “How a Member of the Kingdom of Heaven Might Appear.” Ed. Marshall H. Applewhite. Heaven’s Representatives, n.d. Web.

Figure 4: Applewhite, Marshall H. “Heaven’s Gate Cult Initiation Tape Part 1.” YouTube. N.p., 13 June 2008. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

Figure 5: Sample Graphics. (1997). Ed. Marshall H. Applewhite. Heaven’s Representatives, n.d. Web.

For More Information

Hassan, S. (2014). Steven Hassan’s BITE Model of Cult Mind Control. Newton, MA: FREEDOM OF MIND RESOURCE CENTER INC. <;

Lalich, J. (2004). Bounded Choice : True Believers and Charismatic Cults. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goatly, A. (2007). Washing the Brain: Metaphor and Hidden Ideology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co.


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