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True Grue: Marshall Applewhite and the Tragedy of Heaven’s Gate

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Welcome to “True Grue,” a weekly article that dives into real life, harrowing horrors. For the interest of good taste, this graphic feature aims not to be exploitative, but rather informative, and rest assured, there are many different territories that will be strictly off-limits. But for those with a hungry mind and a strong stomach, read on at your own discretion…

For all of the lip service we pay to individuality and open mindedness, human beings are remarkably susceptible to the pressures of the hive mind mentality. Even the most rebellious, skeptical person has the capacity to be influenced by the demands and judgements of their peers. Regardless of whatever faith we may hold in our ability to think and act for ourselves, we can all be swayed into allocating all of that faith into a vague philosophy, or a charismatic leader.

Some of the most fascinating examples of mankind’s capacity for groupthink can be found in the numerous noteworthy cults of the 20th Century: Jim Jones and the People’s Church, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church, and the subjects of this week’s TRUE GRUE, Heaven’s Gate.

The story of Heaven’s Gate begins with Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. The duo met in 1972, and bonded quickly over a mutual interest in biblical prophecy, as well as a host of other new age ideologies.  Applewhite in particular had an interest in science fiction, and as the years went on he and Nettles began to form the foundation of a new belief system with a combination of UFO-centered conspiracy and Christian ideology.

Marshall and Bonnie had a revelation that they had known each other in a past life, and were two beings with “higher level minds” destined to fulfill biblical prophecies that described the end of days, believing that they were the two witnesses mentioned in the Book of Revelations. They dubbed themselves “The UFO Two,” and traveled around two expound their belief that they were destined to die, be resurrected, and transported onto a spaceship.

As the years went on, Applewhite began to gain a sizeable following (whom he called “the crew”), who stuck with him as he gradually tweaked the tenets of the space age religion. Applewhite believed he was a direct descendent to Jesus Christ, but over time he and Nettles began to claim that they were alien beings, then insisted that they were “extraterrestrial walk-ins”, meaning that they were beings possessed by alien souls. They believed that material world that we all know is a low level of consciousness, and that the human body is little more than a vessel to be shed off when the time to ascend and board the mothership.

Their diminished view of life on earth was embraced totally by their followers, who willingly gave up all of their worldly possessions and lived a very basic lifestyle devoid of most common pleasures. What little resources allowed were shared communally, and members were encouraged to reject any human characteristics, including family, friends, employment, sexuality and of course, individuality. The denial of sexual identity was particularly important for the male members (including Applewhite himself), who were voluntarily castrated in order achieve a higher evolutionary state.

The group, which eventually went by the name Heaven’s Gate, had a wealth of literature and video instructions about their beliefs, much of which has been archived on the internet, but the group managed to exist throughout the 1980s and 1990s without any major mainstream media scrutiny.

Around 1997, the group rented a building in the Rancho Santa Fe area of New Mexico, and a new tape of Applewhite began circulating. In the tape, the cult leader claimed that the Earth was soon going to be “recycled,” and the only way for anyone to avoid being lost in this planet-wide cleansing was to “evacuate the Earth” in the hopes of attaining a higher level of being. He believed a spaceship was trailing behind the Hale-Bopp comet, and that Heaven’s Gate needed to be ready to get aboard. This was all a thinly-veiled code of course, and the true nature of Applewhite’s message would be revealed on March 26th, 1997.

On that date, the bodies of thirty-eight Heaven’s Gate members were found decomposing on the compound. The group had poisoned themselves with phenobarbital-laced apple sauce and vodka. Each body was lying neatly in its own bunk bed, wearing the same black shirts and sweat pants, as well as black-and-white Nike Decades (I’m sure that isn’t what they were talking about when they said “just do it”). Evidence suggests that the lot of them died in groups over the course of three days, and that surviving groups were tasked with tidying the remains of the recently departed.

The disaster at the Heaven’s Gate compound is now known as one of the most famous cases of mass suicide, alongside the Jonestown massacre and other similarly disturbing incidents. It stands as a cautionary tale for those who are feeling vulnerable and in need of some form of alternative guidance. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be part of a group, it’s intrinsic to the human experience. But we should always be wary of who/what we’re pledging our allegiances to, lest we lose ourselves and everything we care about in a drone of fear and rhetoric.

About the author
Christopher La Vigna

Christopher La Vigna is a writer, filmmaker, and the newest batch of blood to be welcomed into the haunted halls of FANGORIA. He’s a graduate of Hunter College*, and can be found lurking around any movie theater or comic shop near his person. You can argue about movies with him on Twitter: @Chris_LaVigna

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