The story of the Heaven’s Gate cult is bizarre, fascinating and ultimately, extremely sad.
Thirty-nine people, including cult leader Marshall Herff Applewhite, participated in a mass suicide in 1997, convinced that their souls would leave their “human containers” and be transformed into enlightened alien beings. Hitching a ride on comet Hale-Bopp, they would soar through space to a better place, known as “the Next Level.”
For folks back on Earth, though, their demise was baffling as well as tragic. How could anyone believe such a thing? How could anyone go through with it?
News reports of the time attempted to unravel the thinking of the cult, and explain the philosophies espoused by its leader. Applewhite, who died at age 65, evidently was a charismatic figure -- an apocalyptic Pied Piper, of sorts -- who could convince his followers to leave their homes, abandon their families and adopt a mindset that fused principles of Christian religion with “Star Trek”-style science fiction.
Now, a new documentary series on HBO Max takes another look at the origins, development and shocking culmination of Heaven’s Gate. The four-part series, “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,” made its streaming debut on Dec. 3.
The project, directed by Clay Tweel, relies on the testimony of former cult members -- some of whom still believe in the concepts Heaven’s Gate espoused -- as well as family members and friends of those who died, sociologists, researchers who specialize in alternative religious movements and more.
Viewers in Alabama may have a special interest in the series, courtesy of a link to our state. Applewhite, the cult’s guru, was a former music teacher at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. His tenure at the school was brief -- about two years in the early 1960s -- and took place about 12 years before Heaven’s Gate was formed.
The new docuseries indicates, however, that Applewhite’s music background played a role in the Heaven’s Gate cult. Also, the traits he exhibited at UA -- his talent as a performer, his ability to engage students -- were early touchstones on his path to cult leader.
There’s plenty more to unpack in “Heaven’s Gate,” which explores and illuminates about two decades in the cult’s history, roughly 1975-1997. Applewhite looms large, of course, and although viewers aren’t likely to sympathize with him, they’ll certainly know more about his ideas and motivations when the final credits roll.
Here are seven things we learned about Applewhite by watching the series -- all of them specific, all important to the cult and all rather creepy in retrospect.
1. Applewhite was a follower before he was a leader.
Applewhite was not the original mastermind of the Heaven’s Gate cult. According to the docuseries, he was recruited by Bonnie Lu Nettles, a nurse he encountered in a Texas hospital in the early 1970s. Nettles had a mystical bent; she was interested in astrology, UFOs and various New Age philosophies.
“I think most people don’t think of (Nettles) as the real leader of the group, but she met (Applewhite) when he was obviously at a vulnerable point,” says sociologist Janja Lalich. “She convinced him that he was her soulmate. (Nettles) really recruited (Applewhite), and (Applewhite) was her follower. ... She was very much the force behind the founding of the group, and the way the group functioned.”
Benjamin Zeller, a religious scholar and the author of “Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion,” agrees.
“She deduces that they are fated to work together on some grand project,” Zeller says in the series. “They are destined to be spiritual partners.”
Nettles and Applewhite grew close, although they were never romantically involved, the docuseries says. After an “awakening” in the mid-70s, they decided they were “the Two,” alien beings in human “vehicles” who would teach others about the Next Level and lead followers into outer space.
2. Applewhite’s music background was a factor in the cult, where he and Nettles were known as “Do” and “Ti.”
At various points in cult history, Applewhite and Nettles were known as “the Two,” “Bo” and “Peep,” and “Do” and “Ti.” The names “Do” and “Ti” were linked to their fondness for musical theater and in particular, Nettles’ admiration for “The Sound of Music.” The show includes the song “Do-Re-Mi,” performed as the main character, the free-spirited governess Maria, teaches her young charges about the musical scale.
To please Applewhite, Heaven’s Gate members sang their own version of “Do-Re-Mi,” altering the lyrics to suit cult lore. A performance of the tune, “When You Know Ti and Do,” was filmed about three months before the group committed suicide.
“Do’s first love was music,” author Zeller says in the docuseries. “Before he got into religion and spirituality, it was music.”
In the first episode of the series, titled “The Awakening,” composer Neely Bruce, a former student of Applewhite’s, offers his recollections of Applewhite at the University of Alabama.
“It’s very disorienting when you call him Marshall,” Bruce says. “Nobody called him Marshall; everybody called him Herff. So when Herff Applewhite came to the University of Alabama, he didn’t look at all like a professor. He was very casual, very laid-back. There was no hint that all this catastrophe was looming in his future. He had a fantastic voice. He had a lot of charisma. He was such a natural performer. He would have the audience in the palm of his hand.
“But it was widely rumored that he was having an affair with one of the male graduate students, and his father was a very, very hard-nosed Presbyterian minister who did not like the fact that he had a gay son. His wife divorced him. I remember her very well, very nice family,” Bruce says. “Then that seems to put him in a bit of a tailspin, and so on. He left Alabama for Houston. I got a call, telling me that this notorious couple in the news was actually, you know, Herff Applewhite and his former nurse.
“This is the story that I heard: He was going to attempt a career on the opera stage in Houston Grand Opera. He was going to do his biggest role there, which was the role of Olin Blitch. He’s a traveling preacher who seduces Susannah in the opera ‘Susannah.’ He was in rehearsal, and he has some sort of a psychotic episode, and was actually hospitalized,” Bruce says.
At this point, the docuseries indicates, Applewhite had his fateful encounter with Nettles. They forged a strong connection, and a cult was born.
3. Applewhite and Nettles gave cult members new names, all of which ended in “ODY.”
New names were part of the cult’s indoctrination, which aimed to separate followers from their previous lives.
“What cults need to do is to turn you into a conformist, to get you to hopefully become a true believer,” sociologist Lalich says in the docuseries. “They need to break down ‘you,’ and create a new you.”
Names chosen for Heaven’s Gate members had six letters: three letters plus “ODY,” all of which were capitalized. Examples included MLLODY, SRRODY, TLLODY, RTHODY, CHKODY and ALXODY.
“Ti and Do said that the Next Level was adopting us into their family,” explains Sawyer, a longtime cult member known as SWYODY(pronounced “soy-oh-dee”). “So the family name was O-D-Y.”
Applewhite and Nettles said the “ODY” names identified their followers as children of the Next Level.
“When we became adults, they would drop the Y so we would be the family of OD,” Sawyer says, “which was like a little Next Level humor, because we were kind of odd.”
4. Applewhite, in crisis, reformulated the cult’s philosophy after Nettles died in 1985.
Initially, Applewhite and Nettles preached that followers would undergo a biological transformation and become perfect alien beings. (The docuseries compares this to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.) When the time was right, Applewhite and Nettles said, everyone in the group would physically travel on a UFO to an outer-space version of heaven.
The two said they’d already reached a state of alien perfection, and were now existing in human “vehicles” to help others achieve the miraculous change. Reality intruded, however, when Nettles became ill with cancer. Her death in 1985 -- which did not resemble a glorious alien rebirth -- was in direct conflict with Heaven’s Gate teachings.
“We were all devastated, most of all Do,” recalls Frank Lyford, a former member known as ANDODY. “How could this happen? This wasn’t supposed to happen. We were all supposed to graduate together.”
To make sense of this, Applewhite altered the cult’s philosophy. He announced that death was actually necessary for the alien transformation. Their souls, not their bodies, would evolve into alien beings and be whisked away to outer-space nirvana. Nettles had left her body behind and was waiting for them.
This crucial shift in thinking, the docuseries says, led to the mass suicide in 1997.
5. Applewhite, as sole leader of the cult, asked members to marry him in a group ceremony.
Applewhite had always deferred to Nettles and called her the “older member.” She leaned to metaphysical philosophies, and Applewhite followed her lead. But in her absence, Applewhite’s ideas about religion and spirituality came to the fore, and the cult became more biblical in its outlook.
“It’s no more than a decade after her death that Do publicly declares himself Jesus returned to Earth and declares that Ti was the one known as God the Father,” author Zeller says in the docuseries.
Applewhite also designed a loyalty test, asking his followers: If each of you had $100 to spend on yourself, what would you buy? The correct answer, it turned out, was a wedding ring -- a simple gold band that symbolized commitment and devotion.
“Do became even more obsessed with control after (Nettles) passed on,” Lyford, a former cult member, says in the docuseries.
“And so he had a little ceremony, to where we were marrying him,” Sawyer says. “He was birthing students into the next level.”
6. Applewhite and several other members of the cult were castrated.
Heaven’s Gate required its members to adopt a uniform -- unisex shirt-and pants ensembles -- and a blunt pixie haircut. Sensuality and sexual contact were outlawed, because Next Level aliens were said to be asexual.
“Since we are moving into a world that is genderless, we are doing everything that we can do to not identify with gender,” Applewhite said in a training video.
The concept was heightened after Applewhite took control of the cult -- so much so that he said the men of Heaven’s Gate should consider castration. Sex was a powerful drug, Applewhite said, and cult members had to go through a withdrawal process to overcome it.
“Marshall Applewhite didn’t like his homosexuality, so he created a myth around that piece that he didn’t like,” a former cult member says in the docuseries. “He came to a conclusion about his body, that it was abhorrent.”
“Do held a meeting and he said that he had a nocturnal emission, and he was investigating having himself castrated,” Sawyer says in the docuseries. “Would any of you have reservations of having the same procedure done?”
The cult attempted its own castrations, but the first try resulted in a hospital visit for Steven McCarter, known as SRRODY. (Sawyer says he threw SRRODY’s testicles off a pier, to get rid of the evidence.) After that, Sawyer says, the cult found doctors to perform the surgery, and Applewhite was among those who were castrated.
“Eventually, there were, depending on which source you look to, between seven and nine men within the group that had been castrated,” author Zeller says in the docuseries. “But most of the men were not interested in having the surgery done.”
7. Applewhite committed suicide with his followers, and was not the last to die.
By the mid-1990s, cult membership had dwindled and efforts to recruit others -- via a website, radio interviews and other methods -- were finding little success. Applewhite decided it was time to leave the planet. The group needed a sign from above, however, and found it in comet Hale-Bopp, which appeared in the sky in 1996 and burned brightly overhead in early 1997.
Rumor had it that a giant spaceship was hiding behind the comet, but the members of Heaven’s Gate said that was irrelevant.
“The joy is that our Older Member in the Evolutionary Level Above Human (the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’) has made it clear to us that Hale-Bopp’s approach is the ‘marker’ we’ve been waiting for -- the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to ‘Their World’ -- in the literal Heavens,” the Heaven’s Gate website said. “Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion -- ‘graduation’ from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave ‘this world’ and go with Ti’s crew.”
At this point, members of Heaven’s Gate were living in a large house in Rancho Santa Fe, California. To prompt their exit, Applewhite and 38 followers ingested a lethal concoction of phenobarbital and vodka, mixed into applesauce or pudding.
Their bodies were found by police on March 26, 1997. All cult members were wearing black uniforms and black Nike sneakers with a white swoosh, and most were covered with purple shrouds. Applewhite’s body was separate from the others, lying on a king-size bed in the master bedroom.
According to the docuseries, members of the group “laid down their vehicles” in three shifts on March 23, with each shift cleaning up after the preceding one. Applewhite joined the second group, instead of waiting for all of his followers to die.
“One last thing we’d like to say is, ‘39 to beam up,’ cult member Denise Thurman says in a farewell video.