On March 26, 1997, thirty-nine bodies were discovered in a residence in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Notes left by the deceased explained that the victims were members of Heaven's Gate who had departed to find the mother ship hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
The members of this group believed that death would enable them to make their passage from Earth to a higher level. On March 24, 1997, after 24 years of preparation for their departure to a better world, Marshall Herff Applewhite and the members of his group took the ultimate step in their passage to an extraterrestrial world.
To understand their deadly choice, it is first necessary to look at the history of this group.
Marshall Herff Applewhite, co-founder of Heaven's Gate, was born and raised in a conservative family by a father who was a Presbyterian minister. In his early years, Applewhite strove to conform to his parents' expectations. He studied music and became a professor.
Although a homosexual, he married and had two children. During this time, he taught at the University of Houston in the Department of Music. He was unable, however, to completely repress his homosexuality and, while married, had a series of homosexual relationships.
Applewhite lost his job after an affair with a student came to light and caused a scandal on campus. In an effort to cure his homosexuality, he appealed to the doctors of a psychiatric hospital.
During his hospital stay, Applewhite met Bonnie Lou Nettles, a nurse, who also practiced astrology. They soon became inseparable. At the time of their meeting, Nettles was married with four children. Raised as a Baptist, in her adult years she became a member of the Theosophical Society and learned astrology. She also sought, with a small group of people, to receive messages from higher spirits.
Applewhite and Nettles decided to leave Houston on a spiritual quest. While they were in the desert, they claimed to have received a message from extraterrestrials, asking them to spread the message to earthlings about the destiny of the universe.
Both of them believed that they had been chosen to carry out a special mission, to prepare a group of men and women for a voyage to the planet of the extraterrestrials. According to the message received from divine beings, those who agreed to follow Applewhite and Nettles would be picked up by a spaceship and brought to another world, the universe of extraterrestrials.fn 165
In 1973, Nettles left her husband and children and set out with Applewhite to discover her destiny. After reflection and research, Applewhite and Nettles concluded that they were the two witnesses mentioned in the Book of Revelation. They travelled across the United States to spread the word. A few people joined the group and they lived together using the money and goods supplied by the new members.
Around this time, Applewhite and Nettles were arrested and charged with credit card fraud and automobile theft. Applewhite was sentenced to six months in prison for the latter charge. Both charges against Nettles were dropped and she was released.
After serving his prison term, Applewhite and Nettles headed for Wyoming to preach the extraterrestrials' message.
The objective of the members in this period was to purify their souls. To attain this goal, the members had to submit to a strict regimen based on: fn 166
· The elimination of all forms of sexual relations;
· Self-denial of their human needs (affection, food, comfort, etc.).
At this point, the members of the group embarked on a crusade. They crossed the United States to preach their message to the public. Here are a few of the laws the leaders preached during their lectures:fn 167
· The human body will be abandoned for The Evolutionary Level Above Human (TELAH), a place of higher consciousness where the inviolable spirit will live;
· Traditional religions should not be trusted;
· The flight is nearing, and will only take place when the members give their power to the extraterrestrials.
The group travelled from city to city, offering information sessions. During this period the leaders presented themselves as guinea pigs that the extraterrestrials were using for various tests.
Each lecture they gave was presented to their audience as an opportunity to join the group in order to attain a higher consciousness and thereby access to the Promised Land in a universe of extraterrestrials.
In March 1975, Applewhite and Nettles mailed out pamphlets to the public to spread the extraterrestrials' message. A professor of new age religions received this pamphlet and invited Applewhite and Nettles to present their ideas to his students. Following this meeting, 23 students converted to the group.
As the group travelled across the country the number of members grew, peaking at about 1000.fn 168
To join the group, members had to cut ties with their past, separate from their material possessions and cut all contact with family, friends and acquaintances. They also had to agree to completely submit to the rules established by Applewhite and Nettles.
According to the teachings of Ti and Do (names assumed by Nettles and Applewhite), the members had to be flexible, which was seen as synonymous with being compliant, enabling them to control their personalities and bodies and become distinct from others.fn 169
Members thought of themselves as students and had to share their daily lives with a partner who could monitor their actions.
Complete immersion in the group's routine was required to be considered a good member. Knowledge of the various purification processes ensured that members would be ready when the spaceship arrived. Since the exact arrival time was not known, members always had to be in a state of purity.
It was forbidden to have any friends in the group. If members wanted to be accepted into the higher level of being, they were expected to show no human feelings. Their daily lives were devoted entirely to abandoning their human habits in order to attain a level of purity necessary to be accepted by the extraterrestrials. Thus, the idea of departing for a better place was a notion that existed right from the inception of the group.
Members' lives were governed by several rules designed to limit human reactions. They carefully followed various diets with the goal of renouncing their need for food. Each day was punctuated by frequent changes in activity. On some days, members had to meet their partners every 12 minutes to ensure that their behaviour conformed to the group norm. Other days, they were required to wear a cone on their heads to simulate the effect they would experience when they received their extraterrestrial cones.fn 170
Shortly after their arrival in Wyoming, one of the group's young male members questioned the group's philosophy and the power of its leaders. This dissident believed that once the apex of purity had been achieved and dependency on human behaviour had been broken, members should be able to resume typical human conduct, including sexual relations and alcohol consumption.
His proposal was quickly embraced and most of the members proceeded to engage in sexual relations while some smoked and others took drugs. In reaction to this behaviour, Ti and Do changed their tactics in order to better control the members who were deviating from the norm. At this point, several members left the group.
In 1985 Nettles died of cancer and Applewhite interpreted her death as a sign of her great power. He concluded that as one of the oldest members, she had departed more quickly to the higher level.
In 1991, the group produced a television program called Beyond Human - The Last Call, which helped to recruit some new members.
On May 27, 1993, the group drew media attention with an advertisement it published in the U.S. daily USA Today.fn 171
In January 1994, the group visited 22 U.S. states and 63 cities to recruit passengers for the final voyage. The group held its last lecture in Boston, in 1994. At the end of this tour, the group returned to a life of seclusion and moved to a residence in Rancho Santa Fe, in the San Diego area.
The group opened a lucrative Web page design business, which attracted some area businesses and helped them to spread their ideas on the Internet.
In the 1990s, the number of prohibitions grew, and included:fn 172
· Lying to professor Do;
· Keeping an offence to oneself and not sharing it with others;
· Acting on sensual desire;
· Violating procedure;
· Not checking with another member if an action one is about to take is acceptable;
· Trusting one's own judgement;
· Being defensive with class partners;
· Criticizing others;
· Being selfish;
· Suggesting an action or behaviour;
· Exaggerating the reaction of one's vehicle (body);
· Having preferences;
· Seeking approval; wanting to be perceived as good;
· Being too familiar with the other students;
· Being aggressive;
· Being concerned with appearance;
· Being curious.
Members were expected to question their personal needs. For example, if a member wanted a new deodorant, he or she had to submit a written request to Do, indicating that to the best of his or her knowledge there was no more deodorant.fn 173
Members did, however, engage in some leisure activity. Each week, they watched episodes of the television series Star Trek and X-Files. On one occasion, the group visited Las Vegas and stayed at the Stratosphere Hotel.
Despite these diversions, the members were instructed by Applewhite to be on high alert at all times since the spaceship could arrive at any moment. The members, therefore, prepared themselves every day for their departure to the new world.
In 1995, the members built a fortress using tires. They also bought arms but resold them shortly thereafter.
From 1994 to 1997, the members became more androgynous. All had identical hairstyles and clothing. Some of the male members even castrated themselves in order to better control their bodies.
On November 15, 1996, a radio host announced that an amateur photographer had taken a photograph of a mysterious object trailing the Hale-Bopp comet. Applewhite stated the object was the extraterrestrials' spaceship coming to pick them up.
The members' suicide coincided with the time at which the comet passed closest to Earth.fn 174
On March 26, 1997, twenty-one women and 18 men were found dead, in a state of advanced decomposition. They had ingested applesauce laced with barbiturates and vodka. However, their deaths were attributed to suffocation with a plastic bag that covered their heads. They were all dressed identically in black pants and sweaters, and white running shoes.
Analysis of the texts available on the group's Internet site reveals the group's core belief:fn 175
· At the right moment, only the real believers will be picked up by the extraterrestrials, namely, the members of Heaven's Gate.
This belief led to the requirement of constant purification of the body. For the members, their vehicle (the human body) was an envelope, a container for their real identity, which had to be completely pure for passage into the new world.
The requirement of purity spurred the creation of a number of rules, including:
· Negating human needs, including the need to eat, express emotions, have physical contact with other members; such as handholding, caressing and sexual relations;
· Eliminating distinctive personality traits, for example gender traits, by wearing identical clothing and similar hairstyles;
· Severing contacts with family and friends.
The belief that members would be the only ones chosen by the extraterrestrials gave them the strength to tolerate such a controlled lifestyle. The members a few days before their suicide, stated in videotaped testimonials that they were leaving their bodies voluntarily and without fear.
In their daily existence, members divided individuals into two groups: pure members and impure non-members. This dichotomous view influenced Applewhite's decision to minimize contact with non-members. For example, during the numerous lectures given by the group, it was forbidden to talk or socialize with members of the audience. Members had to neutralize the negative effects of Lucifer who was in the room in the form of audience members.
For Applewhite, society was imbued with the workings of the Devil and evil spirits directed individuals' actions. The Earth's inhabitants accepted the responsibilities dictated by the body and evil forces in order to maintain world stability.fn 176
Applewhite believed that inferior forces had made human beings dependent on their bodies and on satisfying their sexual desires. He viewed all consumer goods, from toothpaste to clothing as accentuating men's and women's sexuality. He considered society to be perverse, permeated as it was with sexuality.fn 177
To respect to this worldview, Heaven's Gate members had to make the difficult choice of rejecting their responsibility to be human beings.
Members constantly had to prove their total submission to the dictates of their leaders, leading to a gradual loss of their identity. Here are a few aspects of the internal functioning of the group that promoted members' extreme submission to their leaders:
· Total acceptance of the leaders' dictates;
· Severance of all contact with friends and family;
· The constant presence of another member;
· Abandonment of human knowledge and needs in order to become pure beings.
Constant fear of not being pure enough to be admitted into the other world contributed to the members' complete subjugation to their leaders.
Analyzing the experience of Heaven's Gate members from the perspective of the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms shows that no Charter articles were violated. Even at the time of the members' deaths, they (all adults) left video testimonies of their free choice to leave this world for a higher level.
Despite the publicity in a few American newspapers and the launch of their Web page announcing their departure, no information pointed to their intention to leave this world for a better one through suicide.
In the examples of the Order of the Solar Temple and Heaven's Gate, the pursuit of an ideal gradually led members to choose to depart for a better world. In both cases, death for the members did not signify the end of life, but rather the beginning of a new life. Thus, most of the members of the two groups did not commit suicide believing that it would lead to their deaths, but rather of them being reborn in a heavenly new world.
In the three cases described, the idea of living in paradise influenced many members to abandon everything—their families, friends, jobs, and so on—in order to belong to a group of chosen people. For some, this was accomplished through fasting, vegetarianism and a life free of sin, while, for others, it involved accepting physical abuse. All of the groups shared the notion that access to paradise required total submission to the group leader.
While the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms or the constitutions of various countries ensure the protection of individual rights and freedoms, it is difficult to intervene unless a complaint is made to the authorities. Furthermore, despite fears expressed by ex-members, the families of members or the surrounding community, it is difficult to intervene on the basis of concerns or conjecture.
Prompt intervention by the police or social workers to prevent abuse requires sufficient proof and knowledge of how a group in question functions in order to ensure that the rights of all are protected.