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Heaven's Gate

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On March 26, 1997, in what has become known as one of the most noteworthy mass suicides in history, thirty-nine men and women affiliated with the Heavens Gate cult took their own lives by ingesting a combination of Phenobarbitals mixed with applesauce and alcohol. Each was dressed all in black, their faces covered by a purple shroud. Those who wore glasses had them neatly folded next to their body, and all had identification papers for the authorities to find. The house was immaculate, tidier even than before the victims had moved in. It was as if, in preparing for their death, they were heeding the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live." And while their abrupt end may seem rather strange, the way they lived is even more perplexing.

The group came together in the mid 1970s under the charismatic preaching of Marshall Herff Applewhite, and his companion, Bonnie Lu Nettles, a former nurse. It enjoyed a short-lived burst of notoriety, during which time they referred to themselves as Bo and Peep, before the couple took it underground in 1976. After existing in deep seclusion in various Southwestern cities, the group surfaced again briefly in 1994, when members sought out recruits with a series of public lectures. In the group's documents, Applewhite and Nettles are described as representatives of an extraterrestrial plane called the Kingdom of Heaven, who have come to Earth "to offer the way leading to membership" to those who could overcome their attachment to money, sex, and family life. Such total separation, the group preached, was necessary because Earth's human structures --governmental, economic and, especially, religious-- were under the control of demonic forces: "Luciferians" and evil "space aliens," in the group's terms.

In time, they began calling themselves "the Two," a reference to the "two witnesses" of Christ foretold in the Bible's Book of Revelation. According to the Bible, the two witnesses are prophets who will be slain by a beast from the bottomless pit, then be resurrected and ascend to Heaven.

They were both anti-establishment and intolerant, calling for total separation from society, simple living with shared resources, and adherence to a rigorous moral code. Applewhite also required members of the cult to dress, talk, and look the same. He made them all wear the same clothes, shaved everyone's head, and made them refrain from using personal pronouns such as "he" and "she". They were also not permitted to marry, have sex, or drink. Members had to give all their possessions to the cult; several even voluntarily castrated themselves.

Much of the essential beliefs of Heaven's Gate are spelled out in a lengthy, first-person statement published on the group's website. Written in 1995 by Mr. Applewhite (under the title "An E.T. Presently Incarnate"), it reveals that Ms. Nettles died in 1985 (or, as he wrote, "separated from her borrowed human container and returned to the Next Level"). The rest of their faith system is detailed in a 200-page book that the members of Heaven's Gate self-published. One of them wrote that they had spent 17 years undergoing a type of re-education, "a 'metaphoric' classroom experience of changing over their consciousness and behavior," evolving to reach a stage in which they could enter the higher realm that Mr. Applewhite and Ms. Nettles preached. In these and other works, the group elaborated on its theology, based on a Christian framework, but with a whole new set of millennialist beliefs that seems more like the works of a renowned science fiction writer. The beliefs were these:

Two thousand years ago, the beings of the Kingdom Level Above Human appointed an "Older Member" to send to Earth a "Representative" (Jesus) to teach people how to enter the "true" Kingdom of God. But humans inspired by demonic forces killed this individual, also called "the Captain," and transformed his teachings into "watered-down Country Club religion."

Then a new chance was offered to humanity in the 1970's, when the Kingdom Level dispatched a second team of two Older Members to take up human bodies (or "vehicles") and resume the teachings. The documents also make clear that the group's members took peculiar new names, another sign of their complete break with the outside world. Applewhite was identified on the Internet site simply as Do while Nettles was Ti.

The group's followers arrived on Earth in "staged" spacecraft crashes and were temporarily disembodied before taking human form in bodies especially designated for that purpose by "other crews from the Level Above Human."

The document is full of foreboding about the state of the world, warning that the Government, the wealthy and "moral" leaders are controlled by evil space aliens, who have also used all

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