March 26

A story too sad not to be retold: 1997 Heaven’s Gate suicide cult discovered

One of the most persistent beliefs in history is the notion that our body is only the temporary form of our true self — the soul, or spirit, which lives on after the physical corpus dies. For many religions, the purpose of life is to escape one’s prison of flesh and bone and be reunited with the Universal One or be reanimated in a perfected body. The faithful of most of these religions are content to wait until one’s natural death for the parting of body and soul to take place, but there have been some sects who have encouraged suicide in order to hasten the process: thus the perfecti of medieval Catharism, or the techno-cultists of America’s Heaven’s Gate.

On March 26, 1997, the bodies of 39 members of the group were found by San Diego police in the mansion where they had lived and earned their livings as IT consultants. All had committed suicide; all were wearing new Nike runners with black shirts and sweat-pants; all had $5.75 in their pockets. All had taken phenobarbital medication mixed with apple sauce and washed down with vodka; all but two had plastic bags tied around their heads. Astonishingly, their suicides had taken place in waves, with three groups in turns dying over three days. The purpose of their deaths was to evacuate their bodies, freeing their spirits to be picked up by an alien spacecraft lurking behind the Hale-Boppe comet. They would then advance to a higher level of existence in bodies that were purer, sexless and vegetarian. All who remained behind on Earth were to die from an imminent planetary cleansing.

The chief loon behind this tragedy was Marshall Applewhite (1931-97), aka “Bo” or “Do”, former music teacher, wandering prophet, and voluntary eunuch. He had been able to recruit followers to his esoteric beliefs with promises of an end-times apocalypse that could be escaped only by those with the knowledge he imparted. His teachings were a mixture of Gnosticism, Biblical interpretation through a lens of UFOlogy, and sundry New Age touches. Like the medieval Cathars they shunned sex, with Applewhite and seven of his male disciples travelling to Mexico to be castrated.

The fate of their souls and the alien spacecraft are unknown; their bodies were cremated.

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