‘How I survived a suicide cult’
On the morning 39 members of the Heaven's Gate religious group prepared to take their own lives, spirits were as sky high as the extraterrestrial spacecraft they planned to board that day.
They had prepared for this moment for more than two decades.
Marshall Applewhite, or Ti, as he was known to his followers, believed himself to be Jesus's successor, a direct relative of the son of God.
Today his mission would finally be completed, as he and his followers would leave their earthly bodies and transport their souls to a spacecraft that was trailing the comet Hale-Bopp. From there they would enter a "level of existence above human".
Just before the group prepared to evacuate the Earth, they updated their website for the final time with a triumphant message, an "exit press release" as they put it, "to be issued to the news media".
"By the time you read this, we suspect that the human bodies we were wearing have been found and that a flurry of fragmented reports have begun to hit the wire services," it opens, before laying out their mission on Earth, along with some "relevant scriptures" that support their position.
"The task," they explained, "was not only to bring in information about that Evolutionary Kingdom Level Above Human but to give us the experience of working against the forces of what the human evolutionary level, at this time, has become."
They explain how the next kingdom is a physical realm, much like Earth, but "the body is merely a tool for that individual's use - when it wears out, he is issued a new one."
Then, they prepared to die.
THE MORNING OF THE MASS SUICIDE
On March 26, 1997, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult downed a potent mixture of drugs, apple sauce and vodka inside their 850sq m mansion in a gated community in San Diego.
The deaths had occurred in three stages over as many days for the sake of co-ordination.
The members were dressed identically: black sweats, shirts, and Nike Decades - a shoe line that was quietly discontinued after the tragedy. They all wore armbands that read "Heaven's Gate Away Team" - a glib Star Trek reference.
While the "Away Team" supposedly boarded the spacecraft and entered the Next Level, there was still work to be done back on Earth. And so, surrounded by the bodies of their brethren, two members of Heaven's Gate were left behind to deal with the administration that comes after such an exodus - a job they still carry on diligently today, 22 years later.
For obvious reasons, the pair keep their identity a closely-guarded secret but agreed to an interview with news.com.au via the Heaven's Gate email account, which they still use for correspondence.
"Everyone was quietly happy and fulfilled in that they were finally graduating into the Next Level," they say of the morning of the deaths.
It would seem the couple didn't choose to stay behind, and that it was more of an order. They drew the proverbial short straw.
"We received instructions to carry out the task to disseminate information of the Next Level to the world, which we have done for 22 years," they explain.
KEEPING UP COMMUNICATIONS
The information on the Heaven's Gate website has not been updated since the suicide, nor has the design, a clunky internet 1.0 fare with a rather fitting constellation background, a font-heavy index page written in various eye-smashing colours, and a garish logo designed well before Photoshop. A Comic Sans-style warning crash-zooms and flashes 'RED ALERT' at the top of the page. These were urgent times, it seems.
Despite the site being preserved in amber, there is still maintenance to be done: renewing the domain name registration and replying to emails that come in - about 20 a day, which fall loosely under three categories.
"It is about a third just curious, a third somewhat ill-informed and rude and a third really serious to learn more," the survivors say.
To that latter third, they "supply tapes and the book and take care of getting information of the Next Level out to various universities, newsagencies and documentary sources that inquire".
The book is where the bulk of Applewhite's teachings is contained, the written legacy of the Heaven's Gate organisation. Whereas Charles Manson's ramblings were incoherent calls for insurrection and David Koresh's were steeped in interpretations of the Book Of Revelations, Applewhite's teachings are rooted in next-level science fiction, often impenetrable, often reading like a treatment for a sci-fi flick.
To quote just a portion, in which he is describing space aliens who travel to earth and pose as Gods: "They are not genderless - they still need to reproduce. They have become nothing more than technically advanced humans, clinging to human behaviour, who retained some of what they learned while in the early training of Members of the Level Above Human, e.g. having limited space-time travel, telepathic communication, advanced travel hardware (spacecrafts, etc.), increased longevity, advanced genetic engineering, and such skills as suspending holograms - as used in some so-called 'religious miracles'."
The aforementioned video tapes the two remaining Heaven's Gaters still send out are the 70-minute "Last Chance To Evacuate Earth Before It's Recycled", which was filmed in September 1996, and, coming a mere week later, the decidedly more urgent "Planet Earth About To Be Recycled - Your Only Chance To Survive - Leave With Us".
Both are still available from their website upon request, although given the timing of the recordings, it is presumed the offer to skip Earth has now expired.
JOINING HEAVEN'S GATE
The two surviving Heaven's Gate members first encountered Applewhite in 1975 at one of his meetings in Oregon. The pair remember the exact date, September 14, which isn't surprising considering how largely it looms in their lives - it was the day they disappeared on a whim.
At this point, Applewhite ran Heaven's Gate with co-conspirator Bonnie Nettles who he first met in 1972. He was a patient in a psychiatric facility, she was a 44-year-old married nurse who worked there.
Applewhite told her he was sure they had met in a previous life; she went one further and confided in him an extraterrestrial had visited her and foretold of their fateful meeting.
The pair had a divine mission to carry out, and by June, 1974, they had collected their overarching beliefs in a pamphlet they distributed.
The following year, they began to conduct group meetings, and in September 1975, 20 newly-minted members of the group gathered at a motel in Waldport, Oregon, then simply disappeared.
They abandoned their property, possessions and loved ones and went into hiding.
Families were alarmed, and the mass exodus made the CBS Evening News, with legendary anchor Walter Cronkite stating: "A score of persons … have disappeared. It's a mystery whether they've been taken on a so-called trip to eternity - or simply been taken."
The two surviving members were part of this group of 20.
"We listened to them and joined immediately," they explain. "We found both of them to be kind, wise and very concerned for our ultimate welfare."
Nettles died in 1985, and Applewhite became the sole head of Heaven's Gate, twisting its teachings further into the realm of science fiction.
The Cronkite report was the earliest in a run of fiercely negative press Heaven's Gate received throughout its 22 years of operations, not to mention the 22 that have followed since the deaths.
"The press exaggerated and twisted facts then and until this day," the survivors lament. "That has been disappointing."
Like what, I ask. "The biggest misconception is that the leaders were crazy and the students were weak-minded. Just the opposite is true."
I ask them both if there is anything about Marshall and Nettles' personalities they would like to share. They claim both were "very level-headed and very wise in the way they performed and spoke".
"They were very consistent and frugal, like us," they said.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Much like their own roles after the mass deaths, there is a succession plan in place so the teachings can carry on after the surviving pair are gone, although they are tight-lipped as to exactly what this entails. They are adamant Heaven's Gate is no longer operational, and they don't receive new members.
"The group came to an end in 1997," they say.
"We get people who want to join everyday but we have to tell them no."
Yet they still distribute the books and the teachings - "we do educate and supply them information, if they request it" - and presumably someone will have to handle the administration that comes with running a cult - even a largely non-operational one.
They will only confirm that, yes, there is a plan for when they pass on so Applewhite's teachings will continue into the future and beyond.
Maybe a website refresh will be on the cards, too. After all, stranger things have happened.
In an emergency, please call 000.
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the 24-hour Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
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Nathan Jolly is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @nathanjolly