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UFOs and New Religious Movements: Heaven's Gate

Ryan J. Cook, Center for AnthroUfology - Anthropology and UFOs

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: After a brief overview of the history and cosmology of the group, I'll look into how Heaven's Gate used UFOs religiously and how they compare to other NRMs, including others profiled in this site.

After a brief overview of the history and cosmology of the group, I'll look into how Heaven's Gate used UFOs religiously and how they compare to other NRMs, including others profiled in this site.


The meeting

Before becoming a leader of a new religious movement, Marshall Herff Applewhite was a popular music teacher and talented singer in Houston, TX. His eventual partner and co-leader, Bonnie Lou Trousdale Nettles, worked as a nurse and maintained a healthy interest in the occult. The two first met during an early 70s hospital stay for Applewhite (How and when...). They developed a platonic relationship - which Applewhite portrayed as master-pupil, with him as the pupil - around a shared interest in spirituality and a nebulous feeling that they should do something about it together.

They started a metaphysical bookstore and an ostensibly Christian outreach center in Texas. After a short but rocky term in spiritual entrepreneurship and teaching, Applewhite and Nettles left their respective families and wandered around the central and western US looking for some kind of sign. They had some trouble with the law (involving stolen credit cards and car), for which Applewhite spent a short term in jail. Then, on a retreat in March of 1975 at Gold Beach, OR, the two came up with what would be the core of Human Individual Metamorphosis, or Heaven's Gate, which they issued as the "Ojai Statement." It outlined their claim to being the two messengers from the Revelation of John whose preaching and ultimate martyrdom would mark the beginning of the End Times. And it first made the links between flying saucers, science fiction, and Christianity that characterized Heaven's Gate to the end.

The wandering Classroom

The Two, as they sometimes called themselves, adopted code names (Guinea and Pig, Bo and Peep, and Do and Ti) and began to travel the US, this time with a more or less coherent message. At over 130 meetings throughout the US and Canada they presented their version of the End Times and then offered a flying-saucer rapture to those who would follow. And people followed; the most dramatic conversion occurred in Waldport, OR, 14 Sept 1975 when 20 adults left their kids and  jobs for the group, attracting the first barrage of media attention ("Flying saucery...").

While the Two continued to travel, their new followers gathered in campgrounds to await instruction. But, left unsupervised, dissent brewed among the recruits--one group of whom included two sociology graduate students who saw this as an invaluable opportunity to study the dynamics of a cult in formation (Balch 1995). But on 21 April 1976, Do and Ti gathered all the recruits together and announced that the "Classroom" (a recurrent metaphor for the group) was closed and the members must prepare themselves for existence in the "Next Level" (i.e. heaven). This meant the institution of strict discipline, and the subsequent loss of all but about 70 members. Numbers continued gradually to shrink as the group moved from campground to campground, and as Ti and Do perfected the ascetic techniques for "overcoming" the corporeal containers that held their Next Level spiritual bodies.

Submergence and split

By the late 1970s Ti and Do's group had split into cells living in separate cities throughout the West. The group also underwent a reorientation in 1981 from being a course of study on how to "graduate" from this world to the Next to being a more complete classroom where neophytes gained knowledge about The Evolutionary Level Above Human (TELAH) and how it has tried to influence humanity. This is when UFO lore became even more integrated into HG belief system, especially the increasingly important Roswell saucer crash story.

An even more important change was occasioned by the death of Betty Lou Nettles in 1985. Do explained it as the return of his "older member" and direct superior to TELAH, whose instructions he insisted he continued to follow but whom he no longer shared the reins. His "'88 Update" reiterated the goals of the mission and reached out to former members. Then in 1991 and 1992 the group - as Total Overcomers Anonymous - issued a videotaped lecture series on their cosmology and mission. By 1993 they were placing ads in newspapers and holding seminars across the country. The Classroom was once again open. About 40 remaining members collected in Dallas and Los Angeles. They also set to work on a base in New Mexico, complete with fortifications, supplies, and (uncharacteristically) weapons.

Sign, sacrifice, aftermath

In the mid-1990s Total Overcomers Anonymous moved to the exclusive community of Rancho Santa Fe near San Diego, CA, renting a mansion owned by a foreign millionaire. They reinvented themselves (some say at the insistence of younger, more technologically savvy members) as web-design company Higher Source. This allowed Do to spread his message through the Internet (see Higher Source mirrors) as well as provide a steady source of funding.

The appearance of comet Hale-Bopp in 1996 - or, more accurately, reports of a possible spaceship companion to the comet - constituted a strong enough sign for Do to announce the imminent end of the Classroom. After one last trip and some minor, human indulgences, the group set about the methodical termination of their terrestrial containers (not previously a requirement) in late March of 1997 using a combination of alcohol, barbiturates and asphyxiation. Former member Rio di Angelo received videotaped "exit statements" of his friends on the 27th, and convinces his boss Nick Matzorkis to investigate the Rancho Santa Fe mansion. They find 39 bodies, alert the police, and set off the most frenzied news coverage and public debate the group ever occasioned.


As with other NRMs using UFOs, the aspect of Heaven's Gate to which many people reacted most strongly (factoring out accusations of brainwashing or cultishness) was the combination of mainline religious elements with science-fictional elements. HG was actually much less eclectic than other UFO NRMs on this count. Do, Ti, and their students integrated a basically Christian narrative of salvation and End Time with UFO narratives like the Roswell saucer crash and with sci-fi entertainment like Star Trek.

The central theological idea is that Heaven implanted some souls into earthly bodies in order for those souls to figure out their nature, listen to the heaven-sent teachers, and work to overcome all human limitations to thus re-enter TELAH. To do so they had to work against the weaknesses of the fleshly container and the evils of civilization and its Luciferian alien corruptors. And they had to accomplish this overcoming before the forces of TELAH "spaded under" this garden Earth to make way for the next experiment.

Christian bases

As much as Heaven's Gate was dismissed as a "flying saucer cult," it was built firmly - if idiosyncratically - on a Christian theological base. Do and Ti became convinced that they were the Two Witnesses that die in Revelation, the continuation and fulfillment of the mission of Jesus on earth. They used standard concepts and terminology from Biblical exegesis, if in some unorthodox ways. For instance, "suicide" was defined as any action that separated one from a relationship with God. (This was what was prohibited, rather than the termination of the earthly body.) Their interpretation of the Bible itself was actually quite literal: Heaven was for them an actual place, and God and his hosts were real beings that influenced things in this world.

Ufological and science-fictional interpretations
But this interpretation of Christian theology and eschatology rested on what could be called a physicalist dualism. That is, all spiritual things simply had a different material composition, one that could interact with physical objects in this world but were nevertheless of a different order from mundane physical reality. The Next Level not only could influence our technology, it had its own (as did the various fallen "Luciferian" races roaming the universe between TELAH and the earth). This inspired an ambiguous view of technology. Good and evil alike wield it to their own ends, but the gadgets on the side of good are ultimately better. UFOs are thus the craft and laboratories of the Next Level, as well as the principal transportation for the rapture.

Heaven's Gate went beyond just straight UFO lore, incorporating concepts, jargon, and premises from sci-fi entertainment like Star Trek. These were not only convenient ways to relate to their contemporaries in a familiar idiom, they were in some cases the very categories of HG thought. A case in point is the "crew-mindedness" that many group practices were intended to bring about; in the written and videotaped materials Do frequently explains it in terms drawn from the show (e.g. the group is an "away team") even without mentioning their derivation. Among the viewing choices recommended to members was Star Trek and its spin-offs, often for the lessons they could derive from each episode.

Mass mediation

The relationship between Heaven's Gate and the mass media of communication, especially the news media, fascinates me. Though there are probably more, I would like to discuss three roles the media played for the group. Though Ti and Do tried to use the media as tools, they discovered that the media bite back. Yet eventually they received from the media an immortality far beyond what their own productions (or the productions of an interested social scientist, for that matter) could have insured.


Early on, Ti and Do recognized the utility of at least the print media as a means of reaching their target audiences. In fact, throughout the existence of the group they had a consistent approach to print for simple advertising and for spreading their message. And, like many NRMs, the group branched out into electronic media, though gradually. They didn't start making videotapes until the early 1990s, and didn't create a website until they were established as a web development company, though this may be more a function of waiting until the technologies were fairly widespread and inexpensive.


But, just as Chen Tao also found out, the mass media are not just technologies that can be used instrumentally but positioned, powerful actors that can easily work against their suitors/users. In the very same newspapers that their ads appeared were articles detailing fairly negative images of cults and, in particular, of Heaven's Gate. Images from instructional videos created by the group were used in television news reports to support a common claim that Applewhite and perhaps all group members were insane.


However, though news media personnel hammered at a "suicide cult" portrayal of Heaven's Gate, this only brought the group into public consciousness and kept it there more firmly. Reporters connected it, rightly or not, to issues already in public debates--what limits can or should be put on psychological influence, how personal choice should be reconciled with the public good (e.g. how to handle religious suicides in a liberal democracy). These may not have been exactly the issues Ti and Do or any other members sought to raise, but they resonated with contemporary and continuing debates.

Comparative issues

UFO specifics

Heaven's Gate used UFOs in a way comparable to Chen Tao and the Nuwabians, insofar as they served as magical vehicles for both good and bad beings (and flexible symbols of divinity). In another parallel, some "aliens" are beneficent guides, others are malevolent exploiters, and it takes instruction to tell the two apart. They also illustrate that UFO cults don't worship UFOs, for the most part. Aliens and their craft serve the same role as spirits in other systems, intermediaries between mundane and divine.

Technospiritual generalities

Compared to the broader sweep of technospiritualities, Heaven's Gate shows the ambiguities in interpreting technology even those with positive overall views have. It's a tool anyone can use, and thus can be used for good or evil purposes. HG's theology of technology insists, as do many technospiritualities, on the interface between the spiritual and the technological; this is possible because spirit is another kind of substance with traits comparable to mundane matter. So, despite the potential for abuse, Heaven's Gate remained quite certain of the ability of human technology to be used for divine purposes.

It is interesting to note that HG members were apparently more technologically hip than than their teacher Do, and that they managed to convince him to go into web publishing. The group is also just about the only NRM, UFO or not, to also do web publishing for profit to unsuspecting customers--that is, using Internet technology not just as a tool for proselytizing but also as a means to earn a livelihood. Considering the entrepreneurial leanings of many NRM leaders, it's surprising we have not learned of more groups earning income as web contractors.


Robert W. Balch. 1995. "Waiting for the ships: disillusionment and the revitalization of faith in Bo and Peep's UFO cult." In James R. Lewis, ed. The gods have landed: new religions from other worlds. Albany: SUNY.

How and when "Heaven's Gate" (the door to the physical Kingdom Level Above Human) may be entered. 1998. Mill Spring: Wild Flower

Rodney Perkins and Forest Jackson. 1998. Cosmic suicide: the tragedy and transcendence of Heaven's Gate. Dallas: Pentaradial.

Brad Steiger and Hayden Hewes. 1997. Inside Heaven's Gate. NY: Signet.

"Flying saucery in the wilderness." Time. 27 August 1974, p 58.

Jacques Vallée. 1979. Messengers of deception. Berkeley: And/Or.


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