Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Heaven's Gate Cult

The End - Almost

In that same eventful year, Applewhite and Nettles gave a date for their departure into outer space. The eager disciples were in a campground at the time and they learned that a spaceship was arriving to pick them all up. They congregated on the specified night to await its approach.

It didn't come at the expected time, so they sat up through the night and continued to wait. Hours went by and nothing happened.

Marshall Applewhite (AP)
Marshall Applewhite (AP)

Finally, Applewhite apologized for his mistake and invited anyone who desired it to go ahead and leave. A few returned to their families, but others remained, opting to await the next opportunity. This was home now. There was nowhere else to go. They had sacrificed too much to just walk away and they wanted their higher destiny. Even when The Two reinterpreted their approaching resurrection to be metaphorical rather than actual (the media had "assassinated" them so they didn't really need to lie dead in the street for three days), many people still stayed and waited for the next set of instructions.

Applewhite and Nettles instructed those who remained to cut their hair, wear androgynous clothing—a uniform that would set them apart and also remove temptations of the flesh—and adhere to a strict regimen of training and preparation. The idea was that their physical bodies had to be trained toward eventual perfection as genderless, eternal beings. They needed these bodies to get into heaven.

The demands for members were daunting, which curtailed the cult's early success, but The Two believed that purging earthly ways was the only means for rediscovering the alien beings they truly were—all of them. There was to be no more sexual contact and no personal privacy. The members soon formed into an insulated community, sharing the same thoughts and repeatedly affirming the dogma and prophecies. They developed "crew-mindedness," as Applewhite called it, working together in one mind the way they might have to function on a spaceship.

During all this activity, two sociologists who heard about the group on the news infiltrated it and pretended to be potential recruits. After a few months, they left, having learned very little. They did not see the kind of indoctrination and coherence among members that would ensure endurance. Little did they know. The program was evolving.

Applewhite and Nettles taught their disciples that they were all related. Applewhite was their father and Nettles, who was an older alien that had inhabited an older human form, was their grandfather. The Two renamed themselves variously as "Guinea" and "Pig," "Bo" and "Peep," and finally "Do and "Ti." After they perceived that the media was distorting their message, they went underground. They had a plan to fulfill. Yet by the end of 1976, the group had diminished from around 200 adherents to only eighty.

A legacy of $300,000 bequeathed to them allowed them to keep going. To attract more people, they promised spaceship rides for $433 and they had dozens of takers.

Cult expert Steven Hassan says that the people involved in cults like these are typically intelligent and educated, but that a loving charismatic leader who presents beliefs for which there can be no reality testing manipulates them. A new identity takes over that is dependent on how the leader defines it. "The mind can learn," he adds, "and it can learn things that are abusive to the self."

Then in 1985, Ti died of cancer and was not physically resurrected as promised. Such a mundane death seemed out of keeping with the sacred doctrines of the two witnesses, and it was clear that she was not going to get into heaven with a perfected body. Applewhite had to repair the damage, so he continued to emphasize the discomfort that true believers have with mainstream American society and he said that Ti had gone on before them to get things ready.

It wasn't difficult to use social alienation to create what Messinger calls "a context in which it seemed reasonable for believers to exit Planet Earth." While devaluing life around them, Applewhite revised his philosophy to interpret their physical bodies as mere vehicles for the soul that had to be shed before they could board the spaceship. In fact, Applewhite now claimed that Ti herself would be piloting the "mothership" that would carry them to a better place. That made the idea even more familiar and inviting.

The Secret World of Cults by Sarah Moran
The Secret World of
Cults by Sarah

In 1993, Applewhite launched another campaign for advancing into something "more than human." Calling the group Total Overcomers Anonymous, he placed a large ad in USA Today to alert the American populace to the fact that the earth would soon be "spaded under" and they would have one last chance to escape. He went so far as to say that he was the alien that had been inside the body of Jesus Christ, but two thousand years earlier, the souls had not been ready. He had returned in the form of Applewhite to take those who were prepared, but he was still the very same alien with the very same mission.

He got a few more people aboard and then had to decide what to do next. In The Secret World of Cults, Sarah Moran says that after the travesty at Waco, Texas, in the spring of 1994, Applewhite spoke about Koresh, began to collect guns, and hinted at a similar form of persecution. To achieve peace and avoid the Earth's destruction, says religion scholar William Henry in The Keepers of Heaven's Gate, it was mandatory that they leave the planet...soon.