When the bodies of the 39 men and women were found in rooms throughout the spacious Rancho Santa Fe mansion outside of San Diego, California, on March 26, 1997, their deaths by suicide enabled the media to transform them from members in a UFO cult previously known as Human Individual Metamorphosis to the Heaven's Gate suicide cult. According to what could be learned about the deceased in letters and videotapes that they had left behind, they had interpreted the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet as the sign for which they had been waiting. When the comet passed overhead, they would hasten their "graduation from the human evolutionary level" through self-administered poison and hitch a ride to their "Father's Kingdom" on the extraterrestrial spacecraft that they believed followed in the wake of the comet's tail.
The cosmology of what has come to be known as the Heaven's Gate cult was born in the minds of Marshall Herff Applewhite (1931–1997) and Bonnie Lu Trousdale Nettles (1927–1985) sometime around 1972 when they formed the Christian Arts Center in Houston for the declared purpose of helping to make humans more aware of their spiritual potential by sponsoring lectures in comparative religion, mysticism, meditation, and astrology. Apple-white, the son of a Presbyterian minister, had served with the Army Signal Corps in Salzburg, Austria; studied sacred music at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia; directed musicals for the Houston Music Theatre; and from 1966 to 1971 taught music at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Nettles, an astrology enthusiast, was a graduate of the Hermann Hospital School of Professional Nursing in 1948 and worked as a nurse in the Houston
Applewhite and Nettles began to call themselves "Bo" and "Peep," and they proclaimed that they had awakened to their true extraterrestrial origins and earthly mission. They had come to the planet to acquaint humankind with the basic methods by which a human might leave his or her humanity and make the graduation to an entirely different consciousness. As benevolent aliens, they had come to Earth to demonstrate, if need be, by their own deaths and resurrection in three and a half days, how the human body could undergo a dramatic metamorphosis, just as the chrysalis changed from caterpillar to butterfly.
Bo and Peep claimed to have originated from the same level as Jesus (c. 6 B.C.E.–c. 30 C.E.), asserting that they were the two witnesses referred to in the Book of Revelation who would be the harbingers of a great harvest time for humanity: [Revelation: 11:3–13] "And I will give power to two witnesses, and they shall prophesy.…And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall…overcome them and kill them. And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city…three days and a half.…And after three days and a half the spirit of life from God entered them and they stood upon their feet…And they heard a great voice from heaven saying to them, Come up hither. And they ascended to heaven in a cloud…and the remnant were affrighted and gave glory to the God in heaven."
It has long been one of the major tenets of Christianity that if one aspires to a higher level beyond death, one will achieve such a state in spirit form, not in the physical body. However, Bo and Peep insisted that spiritual seekers must begin their butterfly-like apprenticeship by leaving the ways of their human caterpillar family and friends behind and attain the higher level in an actual physical body. The kingdom of heaven and all those who occupy it, according to the two, were literally physical in form. No spirits were permitted in their father's kingdom. If one stays at the human level, Bo and Peep warned, whether incarnate or discarnate, one still has all ties with this garden Earth.
Bo and Peep achieved national media attention after a UFO lecture in Waldport, Oregon, on September 14, 1975, when they were said to have mysteriously whisked away 20 members of the audience aboard a flying saucer. Concerned family members of the vanishing Oregonians were not convinced that extraterrestrials had kidnapped their relatives. They feared that it was more likely that their missing kin had been murdered. Law enforcement officials tried their best to squelch rumors that satanic sacrifice was involved in the mysterious disappearances. However, it would soon be revealed that a good number of the UFO enthusiasts who had attended the lecture had chosen of their own free will to join Bo and Peep on their spiritual pilgrimage.
The two did not promise an easy path to higher awareness. They instructed their followers that they must walk out the door of their human lives and take with them only what would be necessary while they were still on the planet. Newcomers were advised that the process worked best if they had a partner and that they would be paired with another for a time. However, the only bond that was to exist between them would be a mutual desire to raise their vibrational levels so they might ascend to the next realm. Bo and Peep admitted they didn't know where their father would lead them or when their assassinations and subsequent demonstration overcoming death might occur. But those who felt they must accompany them, they were to bring with them a car, a tent, a warm sleeping bag, utensils, and whatever money they could carry with them. Those who joined the Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM) group would be camping out a lot in order to take the word to others who might be seeking it.
In spite of painting such a bleak picture of a nomadic existence, traveling from city to city as Bo and Peep spread the word, within a few months a remarkable number of highly educated professionals left high-salaried jobs, expensive homes, and loving spouses and children to follow the two on a journey of faith that would have them living hand-to-mouth and sleeping under the stars. Bo and Peep stated firmly that they found no need to defend themselves against any charges of kidnapping or of brainwashing their followers into any kind of organized cult activity. The only kind of conversion experience that the two were interested in was that of the physical—the biological and chemical changeover from human-level creatures to creatures on the next evolutionary level. Just as a caterpillar has to cease all of its caterpillar activities in order to achieve its chrysalis, they instructed their followers, so must the same thing happen to a human who wished to make the transition. All human desires and activities must be left behind so one could emerge as an individual capable of entering a realm that is altogether different from the human.
Applewhite and Nettles warned their followers and the members of their lecture audiences that Earth was fast approaching "that season" when humans could enter the process that would enable them to graduate to a higher level. They insisted that they were not speaking of anything "etheric." They were talking about actually leaving the Earth's atmosphere. Those who took the trip would no longer be associated with the human kingdom, but with the next level of existence. They will have graduated from Earth.
Many members of the HIM inferred from various pronouncements by Bo and Peep that it was quite likely that they would be assassinated sometime around June 1976. They told a number of their followers that they would lie in state for three-and-a-half days, then rise to the next level in full view of the media, thereby proving that they were the two spoken of in the Book of Revelation.
When such a convincing demonstration of their true identity was delayed because of the two's dissatisfaction with certain media representations of their mission, a large number of disillusioned followers dropped out of the group, leaving Bo and Peep and their most faithful members to resume their nomadic lifestyle and to go underground with their ministry. In 1985 Bonnie Nettles, who at that time called herself "Ti," died of cancer, and, in the words of an ardent follower, "returned to the next level." Applewhite, now "Do," carried on their mission of informing humans that salvation hovered overhead in a spaceship. Sometime in 1993, there were signs that the group was active under the new name of the Total Overcomers, and still under the leadership of Applewhite, who now warned earthlings that their planet was at the mercy of alien star gods, the "Luciferians," who had fallen away from the Father's Kingdom many thousands of years ago.
In 1995, renaming the group Heaven's Gate, Applewhite and his most devoted disciples moved to San Diego and established a computer business, Higher Source, which specialized in designing computer websites. In October 1996, the group, which had seemingly chosen to live quietly and avoid extensive media exposure, moved into the mansion at Rancho Santa Fe.
Five months later, on March 26, 1997, news media around the world carried the startling announcement of the mass suicide. Apparently Applewhite had become convinced that he had at last found the narrow window of opportunity for graduation to the higher level provided by a spacecraft bound for heaven, the father's kingdom. Tragically, he took 38 loyal followers with him.