Heaven's Gate: The Cult Of Cults: 7 Things To Remember Before The HBO Docuseries

Marshall Applewhite in the Cult of Cults

Over the course of the past few years, HBO has released some of the most engaging and enlightening true crime docuseries that have covered everything from the McDonald's Monopoly scandal, the Golden State Killer, and the NXIVM sex cult. And with the release of Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults upon us, subscribers will be given an in-depth look into the life and death of the infamous alien-obsessed spiritual group whose 39 members committed mass suicide in the final years of the 20th Century, bringing a shadow to the once sunny Southern California location.

Before watching Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults, there are a few things to know about the story of doomsday cult, one that continues to shock the world 23 years after the discovery of more than three dozen deceased lying on beds and cots in matching uniforms.

Marshall Applewhite in Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults

Heaven's Gate Was Founded In 1974

Before we dive into the mass suicide that shocked the world, we need to briefly talk about the history of Heaven's Gate, specifically its two founders, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. Applewhite and Nettles, who went by the names Do and Ti, respectively, started Heaven's Gate in 1974 and recruited their first members the following year when they convinced 20 people to leave their families and lives behind to move Colorado after telling them an alien spaceship would take them to heaven. According to History.com, the group began to lose members in years following after no such spacecraft arrived, and was all but gone when Nettles passed away in 1985.

By the 1990s, however, Marshall Applewhite rekindled the flames of Heaven's Gate with the upcoming passing of the Hale-Bopp comet and began recruiting members with the promise of a pass to the afterlife.

Marshall Applewhite in one of the final Heaven's Gate vidoes

Applewhite Convinced His Followers He Was The Same Alien Spirit That Inhabited Jesus Christ

In the years leading up to March 1997 suicide, Marshall Applewhite, going by the moniker Do, had not only convinced Heaven's Gate's members that the cult was their path to salvation but that he was the same alien spirt that had inhabited Jesus Christ. According to LA Weekly, before her death, Bonnie Nettles, going by the name Ti, had convinced the members that she was the heavenly father. Together, the leaders combined elements of science fiction (more on that later) and Christianity to form a new type of spirituality that preached the practice of letting go of worldly possessions and connections with family and friends outside of the group.

The Heaven's Gate Away Team from Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults

Heaven's Gate Committed Mass Suicide In March 1997 In A California Mansion

On March 26, 1997, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department received what first was thought to be a prank call regarding the mass suicide of 39 individuals at a 9,000-square-foot mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California, an exclusive suburb of San Diego. According to the Escondido Grapevine, upon entering the massive estate discovered the bodies of 39 Heaven's Gate members, all dead on beds, mattresses, or cots. It would later be learned that the suicides began in the days leading up to the call, with 15 ingesting a cocktail of barbiturates (which were dissolved into apple juice) and vodka before placing plastic bags around their heads. Several more groups did the same in the following days before everyone, including Marshall Applewhite, had deceased.

Members of Heaven's Gate from Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults

Each Of The 39 Members Wore Matching Nikes And Uniforms With A "Heaven's Gate Away Team" Patch

If there is one thing people remember about Heaven's Gate it is the way in which each of the 39 members were dressed at the time of their deaths. Footage on all of the nightly news programs the days following the March 1997 mass suicide featured images of the cult members in matching Nike shoes, black pants, and black sweatshirts under those purple clothes that had been placed over all but two of the bodies. If the outfits weren't odd enough, each member's shirts featured a patch reading "Heaven's Gate Away Team," and their pockets were each filled with a $5 bill and three quarters, according to Crime Library.

An animation depicting Heaven's Gate's members being taken by aliens in Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults

Heaven's Gate Committed Suicide To Be Picked Up By An Alien Spaceship Trailing The Hale-Bopp Comet

Unlike the Peoples Temple in Jonestown or other cults who have committed mass suicide in the past, Heaven's Gate's members didn't kill themselves to escape persecution for their beliefs or punishment for any crimes they may have committed over the years. No, they did so because Marshall Applewhite had convinced them that an alien spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet would pick up their souls and take them to the afterlife, according to the New York Times (via Space.com).

The cast of Star Trek: The Original Series

The Cult Had Ties To Science Fiction, With One Member Being The Brother Of A Cast Member Of The Original Star Trek Series

In a 2007 article looking back at 10-year anniversary of the Heaven's Gate suicide, Wired reported that the cult members (who largely worked as web designers) were obsessed with science fiction, specifically Star Trek, going as far as to include elements of the show in their religion and design work. The ties to the iconic '60s science-fiction TV show doesn't stop with the group's love of outer space. According to the Los Angeles Times, one of the members of Heaven's Gate who committed suicide in March 1997 was the brother of Nichelle Nichols, who played Nyota Uhura on the original series and in the subsequent movies.

The Heaven's Gate Website

The Heaven's Gate Website Is Still Up And Running 23 Years After The Mass Suicide

One of the strangest elements of the whole Heaven's Gate mass suicide is the cult's website, which remains active today, 23 years after most of its members killed themselves. The site, which looks like a time capsule from 1997 is full of early internet staples. There's the animated text at the top of the screen reading "RED ALERT" and then accompanying text reading "HALE-BOPP Brings Closure To Heaven's Gate." The links listed on the front page of the site are in working order and take users to various texts related to the cult and the suicide.

This is just the very beginning of the things to know about Heaven's Gate before watching Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults on HBO Max. All four episodes launch Thursday, December 3 for members, but the first episode will be available to stream free on the HBO Max website starting Friday, December 4.

Philip Sledge
Content Writer

Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or chatting about professional wrestling to his wife. Writing gigs with school newspapers, multiple daily newspapers, and other varied job experiences led him to this point where he actually gets to write about movies, shows, wrestling, and documentaries (which is a huge win in his eyes). If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.