Heaven’s Gate hit just about every bullet point on the cult checklist.
Followers believed that Earth would be “recycled” by the year 2027, and that their salvation was an alien spacecraft travelling closely behind the Hale-Bopp comet, which would transport them to an extraterrestrial “Kingdom of Heaven”. Naturally, they had a self-appointed messiah: the former music teacher Marshall Applewhite, who co-founded Heaven’s Gate in 1975 with a fellow Texan, a nurse named Bonnie Nettles.
In 1997, the year the Hale-Bopp came closest to Earth, 39 Heaven’s Gate members died by suicide in a San Diego mansion that doubled as the cult’s headquarters. The suicides are believed to have taken place over the course of three days, with each member discovered wearing identical black outfits, box-fresh Nike Decades and arm bands reading, “Heaven’s Gate Away Team”. In the months that followed, at least three former members also died by suicide.
Despite this tragic end, there are still people out there interested in joining Heaven’s Gate. Luckily for them, the cult’s original website is still online – and among all the impassioned literature about the group’s beliefs, there’s something else prospective members will be happy to find: an email address.
I wondered who, in 2020, would be maintaining the email address for a cult whose members are all famously dead. So I emailed it to find out, asking how many members – if any – are left.
“None,” came the reply. “The Group came to an end in 1997. There are no members or anything to join.”
So who was I speaking to? “We joined at the beginning, in 1975, and have been with them for 45 years. There are us two here in Arizona and a couple more around the country.’’
It turns out these four Americans were instructed to tend to the website in the mid-1990s and have been doing so ever since, replying to emails and taking care of daily legal and archiving issues in the downtime from their regular jobs.
They also all still believe in the group’s ideology, and seem keen to promote it, sending me a link to a Vimeo page containing the series Beyond Human – hours upon hours of wide-eyed leader Applewhite and other Heaven’s Gate members discussing their beliefs. The last few videos are just Applewhite warning people to save themselves from a soon-to-be-recycled planet.
According to the four remaining followers, people across the globe email asking to join the cult every day. “We have told four today alone that they can’t join, because the group ended in 1997,” they explained in an email. “We average about five or so a day that want to join.’’
The Heaven’s Gate subreddit, composed of over 600 members, has also fielded questions from people looking to join the group. One Redditor I spoke to said that the appeal of Heaven’s Gate, even post-1997, is “that there are many young people out there, myself included, who are looking for their place in the world, a place to fit in.’’
While the group might have been welcoming – so long as you were 18 or over and didn’t mind abandoning your entire family and all your earthly possessions – the belief system would likely have been difficult for most to get on board with.
Aside from the supposed comet-based apocalypse event, Heaven’s Gate members believed that evil aliens called Luciferians had corrupted all existing religions on Earth and were conspiring to stunt human development. The two leaders also preached that their bodies were, in essence, possessed by the spirits of extraterrestrials.
Another Redditor told me they thought the dead members were the “lucky ones” because their belief in these principles was so strong. “When you break down their beliefs, it really is just the Bible plus Star Trek. It doesn’t seem any crazier than every other religion,” they said, adding that most cults seem to exist on a timeline from a seemingly noble starting point to the inevitable end game: the leader getting to have sex with everyone. But, said the redditor, “This one was different.’’
Benjamin E. Zeller, author of Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion, agrees Heaven’s Gate was different – and that it’s enduringly enticing. He believes this is because the followers were unusually gentle people, which makes it difficult to hate or dismiss them.
“When they leave video messages and you get to hear them, it really humanises them – and also this is not a group that was violent toward outsiders,” he says, comparing them to many other new religions which feel violent or threatening. “There is nothing quite like Heaven’s Gate anymore; they were a unique phenomenon in some ways.”
It is, of course, important to remember that this phenomenon ended with the deaths of dozens of people. “I’m sure people didn’t join thinking they were going to commit suicide,” says Professor Alexandra Stein, a lecturer on cults and extremist groups. “I think they didn’t commit suicide – I think they were murdered, in that they were manipulated to do that, and that is murder.”
Sadly, I couldn’t put any of this to the cult’s remaining followers – they weren’t exactly forthcoming with their information to start with, and their responses quickly became more vague and touchy. Predictably, before long, the website keepers stopped replying to my emails altogether.
If I’ve come to understand anything from my brief foray into the Heaven’s Gate universe, it’s that the internet is unparalleled when it comes to keeping deranged belief systems going. Cults like Heaven’s Gate can be preserved for future generations, it seems, just as long as there’s someone willing to maintain the grave.