In March 1997 in a house in California police found 39 bodies lying neatly in their bunk beds, their heads and torsos covered by purple cloths. All were wearing black shirts and trousers; in their pockets they each had a $5 note and three quarter coins; each had an armband patch reading ‘Heaven’s Gate Away Team’. They had all drunk a cocktail of vodka and phenobarbital and wrapped their heads in polythene bags.
Heaven’s Gate was one of many millennial and UFO-based cults in the USA. It was originally set up in the early 1970s by Marshall Applewhite together with Bonnie Nettles, who died in 1985. They were known as ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’ and believed themselves to be ‘The Two’ (two ‘witnesses’ mentioned in the Book of Revelation). The cult combined various beliefs – Christian salvation and apocalypse, evolutionary advancement and travel to other worlds. Members renounced family and worldly goods to live a communal life of asceticism and celibacy in a rented mansion they described as a monastery. They called each other brothers and sisters and knew that the next level of existence would be free from gender and sexual activity – some, including Applewhite, underwent castration.
Central to their faith was the idea that the earth, controlled by evil powers, was about to be ‘recycled’ and that they must leave it immediately, to be ready for ‘replanting’ in another container (body) at a higher level. A video shot just before the suicides shows cult members thrilled by the prospect of joining a UFO hidden behind the Halle-Bopp comet, which they regarded as a celestial marker. They had timed their departure to coincide with the comet’s closest approach to earth.
When: March 26 1997
Where: Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego, California, USA
Death toll: 39 (plus two cult members who killed themselves later)
You should know: When contacted early in March about taking part in Louis Theroux’s weird Weekends series, Heaven’s Gate refused the invitation, saying it ‘would be an interference with what we must focus on’.