Marshall Applewhite created Heaven’s Gate and led all members to commit suicide.
On March 26, 1997, San Diego police discovered the bodies of 39 members of a then-obscure cult, all of whom had committed suicide. Copies of the goodbye tapes were sent to former members, including one who drove down from Los Angeles, went into the 9,000-square-foot, two-story mansion and saw all the corpses. He called 911. And soon enough the whole world began hearing about Heaven’s Gate.
The Heaven’s Gate had existed since the 70s. Several hundred people joined the group over the years, although the vast majority left for a variety of reasons. Some who left came back. Those who remained to the end were largely longtime devotees. Twenty-one were women, 18 men. They ranged in age from 26 to 72 with more than half in their 40s.
They believed they were exiting their Earthly bodies to board a UFO that was hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet as it made its closest approach to Earth.
Heaven’s Gate had a telltale style. They wore matching black trousers, black Nike Decades, and covered their bodies with purple shrouds. To take their lives, they ate apple sauce spiked with a lethal dose of phenobarbital, then washed it down with vodka, and suffocated themselves with plastic bags.
They wore matching black trousers, black Nike Decades, and covered their bodies with purple shrouds.
But these 39 members hoping to hitch a ride to the next plane of existence they call the Next Level weren’t the totality of Heaven’s Gate. A small handful of members survived. Two would kill themselves in the year that followed, but two others had an important task assigned to them by the cult: preserve Heaven’s Gate’s digital legacy.
A screengrab of the Heaven's Gate website today, which is exactly how it looked in 1997.
The mass suicide of members of the UFO cult Heaven’s Gate is one of the most bizarre and heartbroken events of the 90s. But nearly 20 years after the strange deaths, part of the cult’s legacy lives on via its perfectly preserved retro website, loyally maintained by two surviving members. They’ll even answer your questions via email.
By all accounts, the administrators behind HeavensGate.com are a couple named Mark and Sarah King. Via email, the couple told me they were entrusted with this task after being members of the group for 12 years. They have regular full time jobs outside of tending the site, but take their duties seriously. They answer any inquirer’s questions within a day or so, and make sure the site—crammed with information about the cult’s beliefs, and with a strikingly 90s aesthetic—ticking along, exactly as it was in March 1997.
“[We do this] to make the information available to those who are interested in learning about it,” the administrators wrote. “In a way it is like planting seeds into the future so that more people can get familiar with the ways of the Next Level and prepare for an eventual return.”
The site provides lengthy explanations of the cult’s beliefs, a warning against suicide—other than in their very specific situation, Heaven’s Gate sees it as a futile act—and eerie “exit statements” from some of the members who killed themselves.
How Heaven's Gate members envision their evolved beings might look in the Next Level.
It’s a fairly fitting legacy considering the cult had earned money throughout the 90s through a web design company (which is detailed in this Motherboard story from 2014). But what’s the purpose? Marshall Applewhite, the founder of Heaven’s Gate and one of the members who killed himself in ‘97, had predicted that the Earth would be “recycled” shortly after the cult member’s deaths, and that this was the last chance to exit to the Next Level. If it was the last chance to depart Earth, why force two believers to stay behind and preserve information for a planet full of hopeless beings?
The admins simply told me they stayed behind because they were asked to, but in an interview with Reddit’s blog, Upvoted, last year, they went into a little more detail, explaining that those on the Next Level will return at some point, and anyone on Earth who is ready may have an opportunity to join them.
For sociologists and religious studies scholars, though, Heaven’s Gate remains in orbit. They continue to evaluate and write about the group’s foundations, arguing whether it was fundamentally Christian or New Age, trying to put it in context with America’s long history of spiritual yearning. They debate whether members were brainwashed into joining and staying. They discuss the timing of the suicides.
And they ponder a provocative question: Are the forces that helped shape Heaven’s Gate still in play in American society? Or, to put it another way, could it happen again?