|“||We do in all honesty hate this world.||”|
— Applewhite's posthumous message
Applewhite was the son of a Texan Presbyterian minister and he was very religious in his youth. In 1952, he enrolled at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with the intention of studying Theology and becoming a minister, but he left to study music instead. He married around that time and had two children. While he was teaching music at the University of Alabama, in 1965, he was discovered in an affair with a male student and he was fired. His wife abandoned him, and they divorced in 1968. He moved to Houston, Texas and resumed teaching at the University of St. Thomas, but he resigned in 1970, citing depression. Some speculate that this was a cover for another homosexual relationship with a student. His depression worsened in 1971 as he accumulated debts, his father died, and his relationship with a woman ended when she left him due to pressures from her family.
In 1972, Applewhite had visions that convinced him he was chosen for a higher purpose, like Jesus. While teaching drama in a theater, he became interested in Astrology and met Bonnie Nettles, a nurse interested in Theosophy and Biblical prophecy, who variously said that their reunion had been foretold by fortunetellers or extraterrestrials. The two had an instant connection and became close friends. Applewhite felt like he had known her for a long time, and concluded that they had met in a past life and that she was his soulmate. Though their relationship was not romantic, Nettles's husband abandoned her and she lost custody of her children. Afterward, Applewhite and Nettles moved together and opened a bookstore called the Christian Arts Center, where they taught yoga and theosophy. After its failure, they took the road and preached their ideas in the southern and western U.S. They had little money and survived doing odd jobs and selling their blood.
Cult leadership and suicide
In August 1974, Applewhite was arrested near the Texan-Mexican border for failing to return a car rented in Missouri. After claiming that he had been "divinely authorized" to keep the car, he was jailed for six months. This incarceration changed Applewhite's cosmic vision profoundly. He renounced religion and adopted a pseudo-scienstific vision of the world based around the idea that extraterrestrials monitored human history, with the Christian Bible in particular being a flawed retelling of alien interactions with ancient humans. He and Nettles held meetings in California and Oregon campuses, where they claimed to be lab technicians from the planet "Next Level" who were looking for a "crew" willing to reach a superior evolutionary level. Despite being ridiculed as brainwashers by the media, they gathered some 70 followers and lived in nomadic camps on the Rocky Mountains and Texas until the end of the decade, when the cult received a large cash influx and acquired houses in Denver and Dallas which were dubbed "crafts".
Following Nettles's death from cancer in 1985, Applewhite suffered from renewed depression and a crisis of faith, but he concealed both successfully. He told followers that Nettles had traveled to the Next Level and that he had not accompanied her because he still had much to learn, but that she continued to communicate with him. Thought his explanation was initially successful, by the early 1990s the group's membership had dwindled to just twenty-six as a result of defections and Applewhite's refusal to admit new members for fear that they were government infiltrators. Applewhite tried to reverse the trend with several ambitious propaganda measures including a 12-part satellite video series broadcast in 1992, a $30,000 full-page ad in USA Today where he warned of a catastrophic judgement to befall Earth, a new round of lectures, and the early internet. As a result, twenty former members returned to the group. In 1994, Applewhite renamed the cult for the last time, to Heaven's Gate, and spoke for the first time of suicide as a way to reach the Next Level. In June 1995, the cult purchased 40 acres in rural New Mexico and attempted to build a "monastery" called the "Earth Ship" with tires and lumber, but they abandoned the project in the winter and moved to San Diego. A likely factor was Applewhite's fatigue and declining health, which made him secretly fear he had cancer. Stressing the need to renounce all basic desires to prepare for life in the Next Level, Applewhite and seven male followers looked for doctors that would subject them to chemical castration. After finding none that would agree in California, they underwent the procedure in Mexico in early 1996.
In October, the group rented a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California and released two videos offering viewers a "last chance to evacuate Earth." Applewhite told his followers that the approaching comet Hale-Bopp was followed by a spaceship and that Nettles was aboard, preparing to rendezvous with them. Beginning on March 22, 1997 (the day of Hale-Bopp's closest approach to Earth) the cultists filmed farewell messages and committed suicide. An autopsy found that Applewhite had atherosclerosis at the time of his deah, but no cancer. Because the bodies had bloated before their discovery and laid unclaimed, they were incinerated. However, at least eight members did not die with the rest. An unnamed man committed suicide in a Northern California country house on April 1 and two others followed on May 5 in a San Diego hotel, but one survived after being hospitalized. Another pair, a man and a woman, stayed behind to maintain the Heaven's Gate's website, which remains online and unchanged since 1997. The last member to join the cult in 1994, Rio DiAngelo, chose not to commit suicide and filmed the bodies of his colleagues, but he did not turn the film to Law Enforcement until 2002. DiAngelo successfully claimed ownership of some assets of the cult and auctioned them along with film and television rights.
When Applewhite and Nettles formed their partnership, he said she would be "the sage" and he "the speaker", but the group's ideology was shaped by him alone in practice. It was Christian-based in the beginning, science fiction-based after his incarceration, and Christian-based with a thin science-fiction cover after Nettles's death. When they used aliases ("Guinea" and "Pig", "Bo" and "Peep", "Do" and "Ti"), Applewhite was always named first in spite of his later assertion that he was Jesus and Nettles the Abrahamaic God incarnated. They started handing pamphlets outside churches; when this failed to attract followers, they published advertisements for meetings in colleges, where they rarely spoke to attendees. Instead, they asked for telephone numbers and contacted them individually. Stressing the importance of personal growth and choice, they eschewed pressure tactics and preferred to have fewer, but devoted followers. Though all were involved in the New Age movement at the time of recruitment, Applewhite and Nettles denied to be part of it.
Followers were told to renounce friends, family, media, drugs, alcohol, jewelry, facial hair, and sexuality; to not form friendships or discuss doctrine with other members of the cult; and to see Nettles and Applewhite as the only sources of truth, obeying them like "children and pets" and asking themselves what Applewhite and Nettles would do before making a decision. They were given new names, first from the Bible and later made from three consonants and the termination -ody, such as Rkkody and Lvvody. After April 1975, they stopped having public appearances and reduced their contact with followers to a minimum, communicating with them through writing or assistants. Applewhite never gave direct commands; instead, he presented followers with a choice, expressed his preference, and said they were free to disobey. This instilled an "illusion of choice" and made them obey without seeing him as dictatorial. A sense of community was instilled through social isolation, the threat of government raids, arbitrary rituals (called "games") and watching science fiction shows together. When they left the countryside, Applewhite and Nettles lived in a separate house and the followers in another, which was run like a boot camp and had all windows covered. Followers that disented were encouraged to leave and even given monetary assistance. Those who remained supported the group working as informaticians, web designers and car mechanics. In order to placate their families, the followers were allowed to call them from 1982 and to visit them for Mother's Day since 1983. While outside, they were instructed to say that they were studying computer science in a monastery.
In March 1997, the group cut all contact with the outside. Between March 24 and 26, the cultists recorded farewell messages in which they praised Applewhite or quoted his teachings; put on brand-new black Nike shoes and uniforms with armbands reading "Heaven's Gate Away Team" (a reference to Star Trek, which Applewhite quoted often and claimed to receive messages from); placed a bag containing an ID, five dollars and three quarters, next to their bunk or cot; took phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce and vodka; and lied down after placing a plastic bag over their head to induce asphyxia. The deaths took place in three waves of roughly fifteen people; after each wave, the remaining members placed purple clothes over the bodies, leaving the feet uncovered, and cleaned the scene. Applewhite was the fourth last to die. He recorded a video describing the mass suicide as "the final exit", and committed suicide in the mansion's main room with the help of three assistants, who then committed suicide themselves. The last two to die remained with their heads covered by bags only.
It was suggested that the conflict between Applewhite's strict religious upbringing and his emerging homosexuality led to a mental breakdown and that he suffered from a schizophrenic episode at the time of his spiritual 'reawakening' in 1972. Nettles's influence helped reinforce his emerging delusions, but at the same time kept him from suffering further psychological deterioration.
On Criminal Minds
- Season One
- "The Tribe" - Some footage of the Heaven Gate's initiation tape was included in the episode. As a result, Applewhite has the distinction of being the only real world criminal that can be seen and heard in an episode of Criminal Minds (although his speech is unintelligible). This footage was spliced in while the BAU was discussing the psychology of criminal groups. Although it coincided with Morgan speculating that the cases at hand may share a racist ideology, this wasn't the case of Heaven's Gate.
- Season Thirteen
- "Believer" - Heaven's Gate was mentioned.
- Season Fourteen
- "300" - Heaven's Gate was referenced again.