Cult's horrific journey from strict rules on bedtimes and showers to mass suicide

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March 26, 1997 was a bad day for a lot of people.

It was a bad day for the family and friends of 39 Heaven’s Gate cult members, who learned that their loved ones had died in a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California, in a mass suicide.

And it was a bad day for the marketing department at Nike, who had to deal with the reports that all 39 people were wearing identical pairs of Nike Decade sneakers when they took their own lives.

They were also wearing the same black, homemade baggy tops, loose black trousers, had the same amount of change in their pockets, and all had a purple square of cloth placed over them like shrouds.

This suicidal group is the subject of the eighth episode of Yahoo News Australia's Cults Unpacked series.

House with reporters camped out front. Source: Getty Images
39 Heaven's Gate members took their lives in a mass suicide. Source: Getty Images

Death is tragic in most circumstances but in this case it was also very, very weird.

To make it even weirder, the Heaven’s Gate cult members were excited to die.

Through hard work and dedication, they believed they had reached an "evolutionary level above human", that their souls were now on a UFO on its way to a planet where they would be rewarded while Earth was left to die.

Most members even made farewell videos to describe their enthusiasm for what was about to happen. 

We normally associate people who want to take their own lives with depression or trauma, so watching these videos, where people speak of their decisions with excited giggles and big smiles, is bizarre.

Heaven’s Gate was started by Marshall Applewhite – a gently-spoken Texan with silver hair and a penetrating stare – and Bonnie Lu Marshall – a nurse with equally strong fascinations with the occult and The Sound of Music.

Marshall Applewhite. Source: AP
Marshall Applewhite was the founder of Heaven's Gate. Source: AP

Founder believe they will kick-start the apocalypse

Marshall and Bonnie met in 1972 at a Houston hospital where Bonnie Lu worked and where, depending on whose story you pay attention to, Marshall was either visiting a sick friend or seeking treatment himself.

The pair hit it off instantly, believing they’d each met their spiritual soulmates, and while their relationship was never romantic or sexual, they were inseparable life partners from that moment on.

Believing that they were "the two" – a pair mentioned in the Christian bible as being pivotal to the kick-starting of the end of the world – Bonnie and Marshall started their cult.

Not all cults are about exploitation and sex – Heaven’s Gate is one of those rare fringe groups in which the leaders seem to genuinely believe their own… y’know. Bullshit.

Salvation expected to come from a UFO

Bonnie and Marshall were absolutely sure that it was their job to prepare people for salvation, and that salvation would come in the form of a UFO that popped by Earth to pick up anyone deemed worthy, taking them to a planet where they could finally feel they belonged.

Marshall and Bonnie spent the better part of the 80s and early 90s figuring out their mission and manifesto, recruiting a modest number of followers via travelling lectures and flyers.

Person's body covered in purple cloth. Source: Getty Images
Authorities were met with grisly scenes following the mass suicide. Source: Getty Images

They decided that aliens had planted humans on earth like a garden, and would soon return to harvest those who had evolved the most.

They also initially believed that, when the aliens returned, the highly-evolved Heaven’s Gate members would be taken physically onto a spaceship.

But in 1985 Marshall was forced to change that theory when Bonnie lost her fight against liver cancer and died.

He quickly adjusted his theory, claiming that the aliens would only take their souls to the new planet, so it was up to the worthy individuals to make sure that their souls were free from their bodies at just the right time.

The right time was, due to a spaceship swooshing past in its tail, during Comet Hale Bopp’s visit near Earth in 1997. And the method of freeing their souls from their bodies was suicide.

Staff pictured next to wrapped up bodies. Source: Getty Images
Members believed they had to take their own lives in order to hitch a ride on a UFO passing the Earth. Source: Getty Images

In the meantime though, it was the job of Heaven’s Gate members to make sure they were worthy of hitchhiking to heaven, ridding themselves of things that humans naturally do – exercise free thought, succumb to sexual urges, be different from one another – and reaching the evolutionary level above human. 

Followers share mansion where they face strict rules

So in the mansion they all shared in California, this meant following many, many rules.

A lot of cults are attractive to some people because if you join, you no longer have to make any of your own life decisions, and Heaven’s Gate was absolutely an example of that.

Heaven’s Gate members wore baggy, shapeless clothing to minimise any hint of their gender or sexuality.

Loose pants, full shirts buttoned at the neck and gender-defying bowl haircuts meant that no time was spent obsessing over your physical appearance, and the chance of any fellow members finding you attractive was extremely low.

Being sexual was just not on the menu at Heaven’s Gate. Eight cult members even volunteered to have themselves castrated, which is, if you’ll forgive me, nuts.

Cult leader shown in a TV appearance. Source: AP
Heaven's Gate members believed they were more evolved than other humans. Source: AP

There were rules about how long showers should be (six minutes), how large pancakes should be, how to butter toast, how much toothpaste to use, how often to check in with your fellow cult members to make sure you weren’t thinking for yourself (every eleven minutes) and what time to go to bed (9:54pm).

Cult members were even given new names – three consonants followed by "ody", usually, and all money went into a collective pool.

Anyone leaving the mansion to shop, work, or recruit would do so with the same amount of change in their pocket ($5.75).

The thing is, all this sameness, this lack of autonomy, this very singular focus on not being human-y, completely and utterly filled the cult members with joy, in a way that being human-y in the real world never did. It’s happy-sad. But still deeply weird.

Heaven’s Gate funded itself partly through donations and partly through web design – the kind of web design that no doubt looked impressive in the nineties, but viewed from a twenty-first century perspective is pretty clunky and cute.

In fact, the Heaven’s Gate website is still maintained by cult members who didn’t take the final life-ending step with the others.

No other cult story makes you feel the same way the Heaven’s Gate story does.

It’s such a bizarre mix of tragedy, joy, science fiction, sincerity, and sneakers. But as always, best not to join a cult, eh.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

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