On March 26, 1997, 39 people dressed in matching black shirts, black sweatpants and Nike Decades prepared themselves to board a spacecraft trailing the impending Hale-Bopp comet and ascend to another level of human existence.
At least that's what was told to them by Marshall Applewhite, the cunning and charismatic leader of the group that called themselves Heaven's Gate. In separate groups, Applewhite and his followers mixed the barbiturate phenobarbital into applesauce and washed it down with a swig of vodka, tying plastic bags over their heads to assure asphyxiation.
Over the course of three days, the Southern California mansion that the group called home would become the site of what remains the largest mass suicide in United States history. Police would find Applewhite and the Heaven's Gate members draped in purple shrouds — save for two who were the last to die — each with five dollar bills and three quarters in their pockets.
"Being in the Heaven's Gate cult was an experience in which I gave my power away on all levels," Frank Lyford, a Heaven's Gate member who left the group before its tragic end, told PEOPLE in 2019. "I had to wake up to the fact that I had given that power away before I could wake up to the fact that I could take it back."
Heaven's Gate, now known as one of the most notorious cults, isolated its members from their loved ones and the outside world. They sustained themselves through an early-Internet web design business, Higher Source, and according to survivors who left the group, many never set foot outside their Rancho Santa Fe compound.
In honor of the 25th anniversary of the tragedy, PEOPLE sat down with Daniel Shaw, a psychoanalyst with expertise in cult recovery and a former member of the Siddha Yoga group, to talk about the warning signs of cult ideology, its modern-day iterations and how to help someone in danger.
Siddha Yoga, a spiritualist group that rose to popularity in the 1970s, was founded by the guru Swami Muktananda and later taken over by Swami Chidvilasananda, also known as Gurumayi. Still operational, its leaders have been accused of sexual abuse, pedophilia, harassment, rape and other crimes.
PEOPLE: Tell me a little about your background and your journey to helping victims of cult ideology. Do you consider yourself a survivor?
Shaw: I entered the mental health profession after spending 13 years participating in a religious group, which I came to view as an abusive cult. Once I was licensed as a mental health professional, I began to work with survivors of cults, families with loved ones in cults, and other kinds of abusive, controlling relationships and groups. My own experience with that kind of group is what has led to my working with other survivors, and I consider myself a survivor.
I was a full-time resident and worker in a religious group, where ultimately I was treated in a very abusive way and exploited. It took me more than a decade to understand what was happening. Finally, once I left, I began to study cults, and I met other cult experts, and then wrote about my experience, specifically about traumatic abuse in cults.
PEOPLE: How did you come to join Siddha Yoga?
Shaw: I grew up in a pretty secular Jewish home in New York, and there was no cult activity on anybody's part. We were a socially conscious family, progressive. I was a young adult in the '70s, when everybody was trying to recruit you into something. I managed to avoid getting recruited into anything until the end of my 20s, when I was drawn to Siddha Yoga, which was very popular with a lot of people in the arts at the time, which I was involved with. I got fully drawn into it and decided to commit myself to it and a certain point. Ten years later, I left recognizing how abusive the group really was and how abusive the leader really was.
PEOPLE: Why do people feel compelled to join these abusive groups?
Shaw: The reason anybody gets involved in a group that ultimately can be seen as a cult is that this group is promising a community of people who are committed to a meaningful purpose. In the case of Siddha Yoga, the meaningful purpose was to bring peace and enlightenment to others through meditation. My own experience, upon being introduced to the group and meditation, was absolutely phenomenal and felt incredibly different to anything I'd experienced before.
I felt connection and peace in a way that I had never felt and actually immediately improved some of the things I was struggling with — my anxiety — and it helped me feel much more motivated and more positive. So the initial impact of being introduced to meditation through this group was very powerful. Little by little, my experiences were so meaningful and powerful that I wanted to become a part of the organization, not just a visitor, and because it felt like the most meaningful thing I've ever experienced.
Most people who enter this kind of group — and it doesn't have to be religious, it can be political, it can be a business-oriented group, a self-help group — these kinds of groups attract people who are looking to be more successful, to be more productive, be more happy in their personal lives, to be able to contribute more to society. So the idealistic aims of the people who get involved are taken advantage of in these groups, because the groups themselves claim to have all of these kinds of idealistic purposes.
When a group is a cult, it's because the leader is a malignant narcissist, and these kinds of narcissists can be profound and incredibly charismatic. They make all kinds of claims for super intelligence and all kinds of accomplishments, very often those are fraudulent claims. Back when I got involved, there was no internet, so you didn't have a place to look up a group and find out its background. People who join initially believe that they're part of something very meaningful and important, that they can make a meaningful contribution to, and that they can benefit from you. The deeper you go in, really never an end to what's going to be asked of you. You're going to be asked to give and give and give. If you're not receiving what you were told you would, you'll be told that that's your fault, because you're not giving enough.
PEOPLE: How did you realize you were being taken advantage of and leave the group?
Shaw: In my own case, and in the case of most people in these groups, the participation is initially very exciting and very invigorating. You're in a group of people who are similarly highly motivated and everybody's working very hard towards the goals of making the group a success, and bringing the group's message to a wider audience. But if you get more and more deeply involved in a cultic group, what you begin to understand is that the leader is entirely self-aggrandizing and that the purpose and mission that is stated is never getting fulfilled. The only thing happening is that the leader is becoming more powerful and every way, having more control over the followers having more money, in many cases having whatever person they want to have sex with at their disposal.
Most people who spend anyone's time deeply involved in the group become exhausted and burned out. They work night and day, they're always on high alert. Everything is always a crisis. Many cult members blame themselves and their failure to be committed and motivated enough. I certainly was in that position for a while before I left, and once I left, I did so because I witnessed a great deal of abuse and cruelty and manipulation of people, including myself. When I heard a story from another follower about a young woman in the group who was being sexually abused by one of the higher-ups, who was told that it was her fault, and that she should never tell her mother. Actually, it was hearing that story that finally snapped me out.
PEOPLE: What are some warning signs that someone is becoming a victim of cult ideology?
Shaw: A group that has the characteristics of a cult, you don't necessarily have immediate exposure to the leader, you're more exposed to the followers at that point. The followers who are already involved are eager to welcome new recruits and make them feel very important and special. We call that love bombing. Once you've been recruited, and you really want to commit to being in the group, you may start to have more exposure to the leader and to other group dynamics, because the group kind of follows the behavior of the leader. That behavior in social psychology is called intermittent reinforcement. So if you're in a relationship or a group in which your experience is that you are greatly appreciated and loved and paid attention to, interspersed with being intimidated, that's the first and most important red flag.
PEOPLE: What can loved ones do to help a friend or family member who is recruited by one of these groups?
Shaw: Loved ones are in a very painful situation. They often feel helpless and unable to reach the person who's gotten involved in this kind of group. Being angry at them, confronting them, trying to prove them wrong, typically will drive people deeper into the group and further alienate them from you. So in order to try not to create further alienation, family members can try to extend themselves in a loving and empathetic way. It's very difficult because they have to hide their fear and their pain when they do that, but if it's maintaining that connection, they have a chance sooner or later — and it's often quite a bit later — for that family member to come back and realize they are loved unconditionally. That is an ideal situation.
PEOPLE: In the case of Heaven's Gate, how do these groups escalate to such a level of tragedy?
Shaw: Most groups don't end in this kind of mass suicide tragedy, but the ones that have ended in that way certainly get the most publicity, because it's the ultimate example: giving everything to the group and to its mission, including your life. Many, many people are in cults where they're giving everything just short of their actual life, and are being drained and exhausted. But when a group goes to that ultimate level, this has to do with the acute, near-schizophrenic kind of paranoia of the leader. For many group members, the leader is God, and if God is saying something, then it must be true. It's devastating for the survivors who were helpless all along to extract the loved one from the group. Law enforcement has its hands tied. We have laws about religious freedom, for example, or other kinds of freedoms.
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PEOPLE: How can one spread awareness of the dangers of cult ideology in a way that avoids simply retelling its more sensational associations?
Shaw: There's a problem currently with trust in sources of information, and so many people who are currently involved in groups, such as QAnon and other splinter groups, are only receiving information from very limited sources, and are convinced that any other information is fake news. This is one of the problems we face, and people can easily just decide that they don't trust any information other than from the source that they're getting it from. There's no easy answer, but reliable information that is researched, that is backed up by evidence is available, and anybody who wants to research a group now and learn about its history, all of that information is readily available.
It's much more diffuse, and there are many branches. It's also fed by different groups who seek different aims. We don't quite have the means of fully protecting our citizens from disinformation. It's unfortunate that the internet has become one of the biggest recruiting tools in the history of the planet for actors who are creating cult-like groups.
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