In 1997, I went outside at night to look at the Hale Bopp Comet with a friend. It was a surreal sight to a young boy’s eyes, an object far away in space, yet so brightly visible, if only briefly, to us mortal human beings.
That same year, the Heaven’s Gate group committed mass suicide, guided by the belief that their souls would be evacuated onto a UFO travelling behind the Hale Bopp Comet.
Below is my interview with Dr. Benjamin Zeller, author of the excellent book Heaven’s Gate – America’s UFO Religion (2014). Thank you, Dr. Zeller, for your time!
(note: Dr. Zeller avoids using the word “cult”, but I use it as a generic term simply to direct the reader’s thoughts towards the right kind of imagery)
Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m an American academic, a professor of religious studies at Lake Forest College, which is in the suburbs of Chicago. I study new religious movements, the groups that people generally call “cults.” I don’t use that term because the people I study wouldn’t call their own groups that, and because the word “cult” generally just means someone else’s religion that we don’t like. I try to champion the need to understand the people and groups that are normally considered deviant or crazy. I don’t have to share their beliefs or condone their actions to try to understand them and take them seriously.
For fun I like to hike in the summer and cross-country ski in the winter. I like dark beer, dark bread, and smelly cheese.
You actually spent some time living here in my hometown of Turku (Finland). Tell us a bit about your experience!
It was great! I was a Fulbright Fellow at Åbo Akademi University, which is the Swedish-speaking university in Turku. I worked with colleagues who were studying the place of religion in a secular culture like Finland, and I provided feedback on their research and did some of my own at the Hare Krishna community in Helsinki.
I loved living in Turku. If you know anything about American culture, we’re so automobile focused. The six months I lived in Finland my family and I walked and biked everywhere (unless there was bad weather, when we took the bus). I used to bike out to Ruissalo, a forest-covered island not far from where I lived. Foraging for mushrooms and berries in the archipelago with Finnish friends was a summer highlight. I learned just enough Finnish to be able to talk to the “potato men,” the old guys in the market square who sell the produce. It’s a difficult language, and Finnish culture is reserved, so I didn’t get much chance to try much small talk.
Also, my apartment in Turku had a sauna. I’m rather addicted now. When we got back to the States we ended up building a sauna in our basement (with an electric stove, not wood-burning). I sauna as often as I can. I did just last night!
How did you initially become interested in Comparative Religion? Why?
So I got into the study of religion as an undergraduate student when I took an Asian religions course, just out of interest. I had gone to school to study computer science, but the more I took classes on religion the more it fascinated me. How could people believe and do such radically different things from each other, but it makes total sense to them? How can so many different cultures have so many different ideas about the transcendent, the meaning of life, and the nature of who we are? It wasn’t long before I decided to focus my studies on that area. I am fascinated by those who claim to have the Truth.
What are your earliest personal memories of the Heaven’s Gate group? Were you aware of them before the 1997 mass suicide?
I had run across the group’s postings on Usenet before the suicides, but didn’t really pay attention. Usenet was an internet discussion board platform from before the web was popularized. There were thousands of different newsgroups. I used to read the Star Trek newsgroups. (I’m a Trekkie. 🖖) They posted a message to one of those groups about the end of the world and how their leader was in communication with extraterrestrials. I ignored it because I wasn’t wearing my religious studies hat at the time. It was only after the suicides in March 1997 that I realized I had seen the group’s materials months earlier.
So like most people I only became aware of them in March 1997, after what they called “the exits.” I was a student at the time, and taking a class on ancient and medieval forms of millennialism (ideas about the end of the world) and messianism (ideas about saviors). It was a cool class, and I had planned on writing my final paper on Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th century kabbalist who claimed to be the messiah, and is said to have been able to fly and perform other miracles. But when Heaven’s Gate hit the news, I was struck by how little the news media seemed to know about religion and the history of millennialism and messianism. Nothing about Heaven’s Gate was historically unusual. There have been numerous groups like them, and rather than dismiss them as crazy or incoherent (as most people seemed to be doing), I wanted to take them seriously. So I wrote my paper on Heaven’s Gate. Then my undergraduate thesis. Then part of my doctoral dissertation. And then the book! I actually finished writing the book in Turku. It took me years.
Who exactly were the Heaven’s Gate cult? Could you give us a brief “bio” of them?
The core idea was that they wanted to leave the planet on a UFO. At first they believed they would do so in physical form, and then later they came to believe it would be in a non-physical manner. The founders were Marshall Herff Applewhite (1932-1997) and Bonnie Lu Nettles (1927-1985). At the end there were 39 active members, including Applewhite, but there had been hundreds of people who joined and left the group. More people joined and left (or were kicked out) than were present at the end. Applewhite and Nettles started the group in 1972. They were spiritual seekers who looked to Christianity, Asian religions, Western esoteric traditions, and the nascent UFO and ufology movement for spiritual meaning. Applewhite and Nettles came to see themselves as “the Two,” individuals who had a role to play in the end of the world. They gathered a group to teach them, which we know as Heaven’s Gate. Members of Heaven’s Gate called it “The Class.”
Were they unique in terms of the era of their beginning? Were there other cults like theirs in the 1970s?
The center of the group’s teachings were ideas about UFOs and about the Bible. There were lots of other new religious movements in the 1970s with ideas about both of those, as well as groups that believed the end of the world was coming. Nothing is quite the same, but there are some parallels. There were new religions that looked at the Christian Bible and tried to interpret the endtimes prophecies. The Children of God and the Unification Church are two example, and are about as far apart in terms of theology and culture from each other and from Heaven’s Gate as you can imagine. The Children of God practiced free love and acted like Christian hippies, and the Unification Church organized rightwing political conferences and protests. But both thought the world as we knew it was coming to an end.
There were fewer UFO groups, but the Valley of the Dawn (in Brazil) and the Raelians (in France) started around the same time, and both centered on contact with extraterrestrials. But neither of them have an end of the world focus.
The group’s theology was a fascinating combination of Protestant Christianity and “New Age” themes such as UFOs, and apparently also incorporated elements of conspiracy theories of various sorts. Can you speak a little bit to this?
Perceptive question! Most of what Heaven’s Gate was about came down to how they read the Christian Bible. They read it through the lens of ufology. So they believed in Jesus, but that he was an extraterrestrial. They believed in Satan too, and he was also an extraterrestrial, just a hostile one. They read the Bible as a record of extraterrestrial contact. It is similar to some of the “ancient alien” style of interpretation that sees the pyramids, Nazca lines, etc. as all evidence of extraterrestrial visitations. There is a lot of overlap.
They believed in divine grace and even predestination of a sort, but rather than see this as something mystical or supernatural, they believed certain people had “chips” to help them recognize the truth. They didn’t talk about souls or the spirit, but believed something similar, that the consciousness and identity could be uploaded out of the body into a new one. They thought heaven was real, just in outer space. So a lot of similar ideas to Protestant Christianity, just in new forms.
Bonnie Lu Nettles, who co-founded the group, was a channeler. She believed she could access and speak for the Next Level (what Christians call heaven, but in outer space). After she died—members would say that her consciousness returned to the Next Level—the group no longer had a proper channel, but Applewhite tried to be receptive to what he believed were her communications with him. This sort of channeling is found in New Age groups, like the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, or A Course in Miracles.
Heaven’s Gate came to conspiricism because they believed that UFOs were real, UFO visitations and crashes were real, and that world governments were covering it all up. This led them to embrace a whole set of related conspiracies about collusion between powerful elites and evil space aliens. There are a number of Christian groups with similar sorts of conspiricism, beliefs about Satanic cabals and the like. Today’s QAnon is sort of similar. Unlike many other conspiracists, Heaven’s Gate was not antisemitic, racist, or violent.
This is obviously a vast topic, as your book makes clear, but in a “nutshell”: how did their beliefs change over the decades? They were fairly flexible throughout the decades, it seems.
They always had the same goal: to evolve beyond the human condition and leave the planet. At first they thought that each individual member would physically evolve and transform themselves into a perfected extraterrestrial being. They did this by following strict behavioral guidelines (no sex, no drugs, a very monastic lifestyle) to prepare themselves to evolve into what were effectively space angels. They believed that a UFO would hover midair and pick them up. It is basically a reading of a particular Protestant millennial idea called “the rapture” through the lens of UFOs. Then they would go to heaven and live forever as perfect beings.
By the end of the movement, they had gotten much more apocalyptic (in the common sense of the term). They believed that they had to escape before society would be wiped out. They taught that “the weeds had taken over the garden” and that the benevolent Next Level beings would “spade under” the planet so a new society could start over. They also abandoned the idea of physically transforming and getting on board a UFO. Instead they believed that their consciousnesses could leave their bodies, what they called “vehicles,” and receive new bodies grown for them in the Next Level. Most members also came to believe themselves to be space aliens who had temporarily inhabited human bodies and needed to return home, rather than human beings evolving to a new stage of existence.
So, the same idea of leaving Earth on UFOs. But different reasons. And whereas at the beginning you had to be alive to get into the UFO, by the end you had to abandon your body to do so.
The idea of an “evacuation” of Planet Earth via UFO was one of their core beliefs. Where did this come from?
Probably from the Bible, to be honest. American Protestant Christianity tends to emphasize the idea of going to Heaven. Historically, Christianity has taught about the idea of the resurrection of the flesh and that eternal life will occur here, on Earth, at the end of time. But the sort of Protestantism that is most popular in America doesn’t really emphasize that, even if trained theologians would admit that is actual orthodox Christianity. So the idea of devaluing life here on Earth in our bodies and instead valorizing getting to Heaven is central to a lot of American religion.
Heaven’s Gate’s particular view of salvation is based on the idea of the rapture of the faithful, which comes from a form of theology called premillennial dispensationalism. The idea is that the elect few will get lifted up by Jesus to Heaven to escape the world, which will then experience a hellish set of tribulations involving war, famine, and other forms of suffering. This idea is really popular among many Evangelicals and Fundamentalists.
The members were avid listeners of the radio show “Coast to Coast”, which features conspiracies, esoterica, paranormal tales, etc. Did this show influence their beliefs?
All members were probably not listeners of “Coast to Coast,” but some were, and some also seemed to have connected to other conspiracy theory broadcasts and bulletin board services (BBS’s) in the early days of the internet. Members really did believe that UFOs visited the planet, that extraterrestrials interacted with government officials, and that there was a conspiracy to keep this all secret. They believed that evil space aliens, what they called the Luciferians, worked with human governments against the good extraterrestrials, the Next Level beings. Luciferians looked like Reptilian space aliens. Next Level aliens looked like “Greys,” if you know UFO lore and iconography.
Individual members might have accepted other conspiracy claims (cryptozoology, etc.), but it wasn’t part of the official beliefs. But they absolutely beloved in conspiracies. Many also believed in other paranormal claims, like spirits and ESP and such.
Was the concept of a mass suicide always in the plans of this cult?
No, not at all. When the group started in the 1970s they were clear that you had to be alive to leave the planet! They believed in reincarnation, so if you died you would have to wait another 2000 years until the next opportunity.
But in 1985 Bonnie Lu Nettles, who co-founded the group, died. Adherents in Heaven’s Gate interpreted this as her consciousness returning to the Next Level, abandoning her human body. More and more members of the group came to identify their consciousness as other than their bodies, which they called “vehicles.” Like a vehicle, one could abandon the body and just pick up another one, particularly if the vehicle broke down or became unnecessary.
They kept waiting for a UFO to arrive and pick them up. When it didn’t come, they decided to take matters into their own hands and leave the planet on their own.
How were new members recruited?
They held public meetings. You can still see some of the posters they used to advertise them. Here’s one on the Heaven’s Gate website. That one is from the 1970s when they got started. Here’s another from right before the end. They would put these posters up around college campuses, at health food stores and local bookshops, and just out on the street or public bulletin boards. Sometimes their leaders (Applewhite and Nettles) would lead the meetings, but a lot of times it was just members. They talked about their ideas and hoped people would join. The grew in the mid-1970s, attracting several hundred people. Most left. They didn’t generate a lot of interest from their meetings in the 1990s.
In the 90s they also posted to the internet to Usenet, created a website, and used direct emails to recruit. But only one person of the 39 at the end had joined after interacting with them on the internet. So when people call them an “Internet cult,” that’s wrong.
The group lived together. How did they generate income to pay for their house?
At first they worked odd jobs. They operated ski lifts during the winter, for example, or took jobs stocking shelves at stores. Most members didn’t have advanced education to get higher paying jobs. One member inherited some money that sustained them for a while. They were able to afford to rent a house rather than live in tents!
A few members self-taught themselves how to code and work in the tech industry. They were early adapters to the world wide web, and that was pretty lucrative in the mid-1990s. Their web design business was sustaining them by the end. That also had the advantage that you would work from home. Members told me that they never wanted to leave the house since they might miss a class session or interaction with their teachers Applewhite and Nettles.
What was day-to-day life like in the cult?
Extremely routinized. They thought of themselves as living as a crew on a spacecraft. They tried to model here on Earth how they wanted to live in the Next Level. Next Level beings don’t eat, procreate, or engage in tasks unrelated to their mission. Again, they are basically space angels. So members were celibate, didn’t drink or smoke, and tried different diets to make themselves less attached to eating as a process. They worked to support the group, and their leaders would give classes on their teachings.
They renamed the parts of their house after parts of a spaceship. So the kitchen became the nutrilab, and the laundry room became the fiberlab. When they had to leave their house to do something, like go to work or to a doctor appointment, they called it an “out of craft task.” They saw themselves as a crew, and were inspired by the way that a single-minded devotion to duty was portrayed on shows like Star Trek. So they tried to live that way. They weren’t crazy. They knew Star Trek was fiction, they just thought it was a good model for living. It is like a Christian who emulates what they see in a movie about the life of Jesus.
Members sometimes also referred to themselves as monks and the group as a monastery. It’s a good comparison. They did live very monastically, and collectively.
Who were the people in Heaven’s Gate? Was there a “pattern” to their lives and how they ended up in the cult?
Heaven’s Gate tended to attract spiritual seekers, people deeply interested in the meaning and purpose of life, how to read and interpret ancient religious texts, and those who wanted to make sense of what they believed were present-day UFO visitations. Some members joined because they came at it from the Bible, others from the UFO angle. It was an eclectic group.
I write about this in my book, but I came across a newspaper interview with the husband of a woman who had joined in the 1970s. When the reporter asked if he was surprised, he said no. His wife had been baptized multiple times in the last year, and had been trying out different religions! This was just one more. I wasn’t able to track down if she stayed, since the reporter didn’t use her name. But my guess is not. Most members left. That’s typical for new religious movements that attract spiritual seekers. They keep seeking!
The people who stayed were pretty dedicated, and even some people who believed it all but didn’t feel like they were dedicated enough ended up leaving. So by the end, the core group was extremely devoted.
Most of them felt like they never belonged on Earth, and never fit in within normal (human) society. They felt profoundly alienated. So it makes sense that they joined a group which taught that the reason they felt this way was because they were, in fact, aliens!
What went down on the day of the mass suicide?
They performed the “exits,” as they called them, in three waves over three days. Before it began each member signed out of their logbook. This was the book that members would use if they had to leave the house, and needed to take money from their collective purse or one of the collectively owned automobiles. But normally they would sign out, say what they were taking, then see what time they expected to be back.
But this time they just signed their names. They didn’t take anything, they didn’t expect to come back. A few wrote that they would come back if directed by the Next Level. One wrote “Hasta la vista, baby!,” which is a reference to an Arnold Schwarzenegger film. They had a sense of humor.
They wore special uniforms that they had made in the months preceding. Each individual put their identification next to them so aid the investigators. They also carried a roll of quarters and five-dollar bill. This was a bit of an inside joke, since that was what they took when they left the house normally. It is like being buried with your car keys.
Then they ingested a mix of phenobarbital and alcohol, and tied bags over their heads. They asphyxiated. Other members would then tidy up around the bodies, lay a purple shroud over them, and the process would continue. The last two people still had bags around their heads, and no shrouds.
How accurate do you think the media coverage of the case was?
It was the very beginning of the 24-hour news cycle, and it was a complete media circus. There wasn’t a lot of information about the group out there. At first the media got a lot of details wrong, like that they were all male. What often happened with groups like this is that the media goes to known “cult experts.” Those are typically not academic experts, and not people who actually know anything about the group. So they made all sorts of generalizations about “cults like this.” It was pretty sad. Eventually a few media sources tracked down Rob Balch and David Taylor, two sociologists who had studied the group in the 1970s.
Some reporters did a good job of trying to explain the group. Many did not. I understand why: Heaven’s Gate combined Biblical prophecy, Protestant theology, ufology, New Age channeling practices, conspiratorial thinking, and Neo-Gnosticism. You need a degree in religion to make sense if it all!
The media worked on behalf of the public to mark Heaven’s Gate as bizarre and therefore safely “Other.” They referred to them as crazy, as brainwashed, as believing in nonsense. That’s a safe way to ignore what they believe, and the fact that adherents of Heaven’s Gate actually shared a lot of ideas with American Christians: like that Earthly life and the Earthly body are less important than eternal life in heaven, and the centrality of the Bible and the words of Jesus, which they took rather literally. They had a whole page of Bible verses on their webpage supporting their beliefs. Just like other Christians.
Looking back on the Heaven’s Gate now in 2021, what did the field of Comparative Religion learn from it, in your opinion?
There was already a small group of researchers who studied new religious moments (NRMs), which are generally called cults or sects. The Heaven’s Gate suicides (1997), which happened just a few years after the Branch Davidian siege and fire (1993), the deaths in the Ordre du Temple Solaire (1994-1995), and right before all the Year 2000 (Y2K) millennial fears, really forced scholars to pay more attention to these sorts of groups. The field the field of religious studies began to take NRMs more seriously after that.
But it also solidified an assumption that new religious movements are linked to violence and suicide. They aren’t, since the vast majority of NRMs (cults) are not violent. Groups like Heaven’s Gate attract a lot of attention, but they are the exception.
Does Heaven’s Gate still exist in some form? Are there still followers alive somewhere?
Two ex-members run the website (http://www.heavensgate.com), and they answer emails from people about Heaven’s Gate. There are also several other ex-members who have blogs and give interviews. Sawyer has a blog, as does Crlody. And of course, there are several hundred people who were members at some point, but left and went back to their old lives or joined some other group. People who joined the 1970s might not even have recognized what the class had morphed into!
But the Class is gone. To use their language, they’ve graduated. The teachers left the planet. There’s nothing to join.
Do you think there are similar groups out there with a similar potential for mass suicide at the moment? Should we be more concerned about groups like this, or is there no real cause for concern?
The potential is always there, but the vast majority of new religious movements are not violent or prone to suicide. Frankly, the more violent religious groups tend to be bigger, older groups. There are a fair number of fundamentalist Christian churches whose leaders have been accused of pedophilia, sexual assault, and other forms of violence.
The new religious movements that have committed mass suicide—and there aren’t that many—each had very particular motivations, so it is hard to draw comparison or make predictions. Groups that reject the world and have given up on it seem more likely to commit suicide, but we should note that there are hundreds of millennially-oriented groups that have never embraced suicide. A fair number of American Evangelical Christians believe they live in the End of Days and that the world is about to end, but they just go about their lives. But yes, there will be another such group one day. No one knows when.
What are you currently working on? New books on the way?
I have a new book out that I edited, also on UFO religions. As the editor I worked with other scholars to write chapters on important themes in the study of UFO religions (ancient astronauts, conspiracy theories, etc.), as well as particular UFO religions, including some in South America and East Asia that many people don’t know much about. The book is priced for the library market, so you won’t find it in bookstores. But you can ask your local library (academic or public) to buy a copy.
My other interest is religion and food. I had started a book on religion and food before the pandemic hit, but then with everything else going on it got pushed back. I’d like to get back to it. I’ll let you know when I get it done!
Where can people keep up with you?
Anything you would like to add that I forgot to ask about?
I’m always trying to update my work on UFO religions. So if anyone reading this is, or was, part of a UFO religion, or knows of a group that seems understudied, please let me know! You can find my contact information on my website.
And finally, my regular questions.
Your top 3 movies?
It’s got to be Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’m a sucker for anything SciFi or fantasy. So let’s go with The Dark Crystal too, because what is better than the apocalypse plus Muppets. We’ll round it out with Kubrick and Clarke’s classic 2001.
Your top 3 books?
I don’t tend to go back and reread books, but here are the top three I’ve read in the past year or so: N.K. Jemisin’s Fifth Season (and the other Broken Earth trilogy books), James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes and the other the Expanse series books, and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. You’re seeing the theme, I’m sure.
Your top 3 albums?
I’m an eclectic mess in terms of music. Here are three albums I listen to all the time: Pink Floyd’s Meddle (1971), which is experimental, psychedelic, and pretty cool; the Steep Canyon Rangers’ Lovin’ Pretty Women (2007). They’re a bluegrass band and they’re also the last concert I saw before the pandemic. And Nightwish’s Highest Hopes (2005), which I bet you know. It’s the Finnish symphonic metal band’s compilation album.