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Pop Culture Reopens '90s Mysteries, Like Heaven's Gate Mass Suicide

The dead bodies found in a California home in 1997 were a mystery. It's just one of the '90s enigmas being relooked at today.
Posted at 9:39 PM, Feb 22, 2018

Scandals and mysteries from the '90s are enjoying a renaissance of sorts. The Versace murder, the siege at Ruby Ridge, the Menendez murders — all being re-examined. Psychologists say it helps us tap into days gone by and reorder national mysteries.

Probably none of these was quite so stupefying as Heaven's Gate.

Here's what happened on March 26, 1997: Police entered a mansion in suburban San Diego, California, and found 39 bodies. 21 women, 18 men. All members of the Heaven's Gate cult wore black Nikes and tracksuits and were covered in purple shrouds.  

They died from eating apple sauce laced with phenobarbital and hydrocodone, washing it down with vodka and then putting plastic bags over their heads. They each had a five-dollar bill and three quarters nearby. Coroner's reports showed they didn't all die at once. It took place in three waves, over several days.

Perhaps the most well-known cult leader Marshall Applewhite was among the dead.

Why did they do it? In filmed statements, members made it clear they didn't believe they were killing themselves. They saw it as an "exit" from their human "vehicles," allowing them to ascend to a "Next Level" aboard a spaceship that was carrying God and hiding behind the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet, which was passing near Earth in 1997.

Heaven's Gate actually began two decades earlier, and it wasn't advertised as a doomsday group. Applewhite, who grew up a Presbyterian, started the cult in the 1970s with a Baptist nurse and astrologer named Bonnie Lu Nettles. Through the years, they went by Guinea and Pig, Bo and Peep and finally settled on Ti and Do. 

The also were sometimes called "the Two," a reference to Revelation 11:3: "And I will appoint my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth." Nettles — she was Ti — died of cancer in 1985 and Applewhite carried on. She also was believed to be on the spaceship with God.

Their doctrine was a little hard to follow, but Gizmodo provides a succinct description: The Earth was about to be wiped out and those who wanted to survive needed to reach "The Level Above Human." That's where escaping the human "vessel" and heading to the spaceship came in. 

The group had a "no sex, no human-level relationships, no socializing" rule, according Rolling Stone. Some members met that standard with castration. Other rules, according to People magazine, included "tomb time," which meant no speaking for days, and tuning forks were taped to members' heads to dispel human thoughts. The end goal was always to reach the "Next Level."

Members used the internet to preach their beliefs. And the group made money from designing web pages. The home page still exists at heavensgate.com

On it, a member's parting message from March 18, 1997 reads: "My more intimate reasons for wanting to leave at this time come not from any sense of hopelessness or despair, as one might suspect. Quite the contrary, it is a profoundly joyous time for me — the fulfillment of everything I have always hoped for — to dwell in the Creator's house and be called by Him, a son."

One week later, 39 members were dead, families were left grieving and a nation was perplexed how this could happen in a mansion in the middle of San Diego.