Story by Maddie F
Additional Reporting By Syran Warner
What The Cult Left Behind
The UFO death cult Heaven’s Gate became one of the most sensational stories of its era after the bodies of 39 people with matching haircuts were discovered in a mansion on the outskirts of San Diego on March 26th, 1997. It was obvious to investigators at the scene that what they found was a ritualistic mass suicide they’d be answering questions about for a long time.
Once reporters got their hands on the story, images of the group’s leader Marshal Applewhite were blasted all over television and the saga of the cult’s horrific final chapter became the highest of priorities for media outlets as they battled for exclusive leads. The nation tuned in to the circus from the jump. Audiences only increased as the motivation behind the mass suicide came into focus and details that seemed straight out of science fiction were revealed. It was a story without parallel. UFO death cult? What kind of world were we living in?
As information trickled in on cable news, a loop of footage showing police finding the bodies played over the voices of talking heads attempting to make sense of the tragedy. Reporters scrambled to get more data on a group that had been obscure before the bodies were found. It was as rare of a moment as they come; Heaven’s Gate was “the fringe of the fringe” as one outlet put it, but the cult offered a few things to make the lives of reporters a little easier. They’d prepared for this moment in the spotlight.
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The tremendous loss of life was what made Heaven’s Gate the top headline in the nation; what kept the story in the news cycle after the facts came out was all the media the group had made themselves documenting their ultimate pursuit.
Hours of video surfaced of Marshal Applewhite telling his story about holy space aliens and justifying the groups self-extinction. In addition to the ramblings of the leader were tapes of Heaven’s Gate members giving “exit interviews” for the people they were leaving behind. The contents of these recordings offered a glimpse into the kind of thinking that could drive well-meaning people to participate in their own deaths. Beyond the videos, the cult had left something even more modern behind that created another narrative to follow in ’97. The group was online and had been searching for new recruits on the internet. No one had seen anything like it.
Danger Online in ’97.
The news glommed on to www.heavensgate.com, an advanced-for-its-era website designed to get out the cult’s message and lure in potential followers. The URL turned heads, and it wasn’t just that no one had seen a cult advertising itself online before; it was also the design. The site wasn’t a hastily thrown together static form like many small organizations had back then, nor was it a blog (those didn’t exist yet)- this was a website with native coding and scrolling graphics that was clearly put together by someone who knew what they were doing. The site even had commerce. Sure, the aesthetic has a distinctly Windows 95 vibe and by today’s standards it looks completely ridiculous, but in ’97 this was a savvy website for the kind of industry the organization was in. That the design would have looked legitimate to internet users in the ‘90’s made it all the more dangerous, or so it was claimed.
There are images from the news that stick out in the minds of people over 35 who watched the story unfold in real time. The unfortunate product placement for Nike, purple face coverings, those uniform haircuts. There was plenty to ogle at for the morbidly curious. The Heaven’s Gate logo and the front page of their website also were repeatedly splashed across screens, and these were perhaps the images that contained the most meaning for those following along at home.
That the internet was the dominion of a death cult spun off into a hysterical story of its own. The public was aware that there was scary stuff on the internet, but this crossed a boundary. Many people were still skeptical of “the web” at the beginning of the second Clinton administration and sensational stories about its dangers were common on daytime talk shows and nightly news. Heaven’s Gate gave some parents another reason keep dial-up away from their children. If we use that AOL disk our baby’s going to join a cult!
Less than 20% of American’s were online when the Heaven’s Gate website was being bandied about as a cautionary tale. It wouldn’t be the last story to make people think the internet was a dark portal into depravity and doom, but the fear of nightmare scenarios online would be quickly outmatched by the pace of those who adopted the platform.
By the start of the next decade, the internet was becoming ubiquitous in homes, and society was more or less accepting the dangers that came with it in exchange for the greatest source of information in the history of mankind. Our ideas would evolve even further by the time we could put the technology in our pockets. Most everything changed online as the algorithms got smarter and more users entered the picture, but there’s one particularly notable exception that hasn’t changed a bit.
Left Alive and Unchanged
It’s been 35 years since Heaven’s Gate captured the world’s attention, and people are still talking about it. In recent years there have been new documentaries and buzzy web features about the cult that have brought the story to a new generation. There’s also a remnant of Heaven’s Gate that’s been stuck in ember for the curious to examine since even before the cult made headlines.
All these years later, what might be the most astonishing thing about Marshal Applewhite’s legacy is that the number one search result for Heaven’s Gate isn’t a Wikipedia page or a piece of journalism, but the original website the cult built. It’s a bizarre time capsule of the bygone worldwide web that’s still getting traffic and it looks exactly the same as it did in ’97. Click here to experience the fossilized remnants of a death cult from the dial-up days in all its retro insanity.
This is crazy! When organizations die out their domains generally go with them. There’s no such thing as a URL provider selling space on the internet in 35-year increments, so how the hell is this thing still around? The people who were most invested in the cult are obviously no longer around to pay for it, so who’s keeping the lights on? It’s a subject worth investigating.
As it turns out, the answer to the domain legacy question was mapped out in advance of the demise of Heaven’s Gate by none other than Marshal Applewhite. How exactly this has gone on for so many years and who paying for the website is coming up, but there’s another piece of the story to pick apart before the mystery is solved. It’s important to understand why creating an internet legacy was so important to Applewhite and company in the first place. The world of 90’s web design turns out to be a much bigger part of the story of Heaven’s Gate than you’d ever expect.
The Internet Is Fabric in the History of Heaven’s Gate
To understand the internet’s role in Heaven’s Gate, you’ve got to turn back the clock and start with the economics of running such an esoteric cult in the first place.
In the analog 70’s when Marshal Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles formed a nameless entity that combined boarding UFO’s with religion, it wasn’t exactly a financially viable operation. “Do” and “Ti,” as the pair referred to themselves, were middle class and looking to go into the divine-spaceship business full time with no investors to offset their expenses.
There were costs associated with traveling around the country to the speaking engagements where they told their story of eternal life among aliens to people curious about UFO’s. They didn’t have a tangible product to sell either. If the project was going to survive, leadership would have to count on new members bringing their assets into the fold. Keep in mind that the sales pitch for the group involved Applewhite and Nettles claiming they had special authority on UFO’s because they were “higher-level minds” and, erm… alien prophets. You can imagine how that would be a tough sell to some, but Do and Ti weren’t ordinary salesmen, they were cult leaders, and cult leaders are generally very persuasive and don’t concern themselves with ethics when it comes to fundraising.
When the nameless UFO cult found new members they got them to believe that soon they’d be on one way trip to the cosmos, so it was best to turn over earthy assets to the mission. US currency is useless in space, the logic went. Members sold their homes and emptied their bank accounts to prove their loyalty to the aliens running the show. To avoid members hearing a second opinion about their galactic investments, Do and Ti instructed members to cut off contact with their loved ones. Those were “earthy relationships.” Heaven’s Gate was unique in a lot of ways, but these tactics aren’t uncommon in cults.
There were all kinds of predictions for when the ship was going to arrive, and there were rules to abide by in order to gain entrance. That they all had androgynous haircuts was no accident. On occasion, Nettles would have cosmic foresight into dates of departure and locations where the group would be picked up by aliens, so the group would all camp out in some natural setting easily seen from space and they’d stay up all night waiting to be recovered. Being that Nettles and Applewhite were con artists and their story was a hoax, the mothership never arrived, of course. Leadership would find creative ways to explain away what went wrong after these situations. Years went by without promises being fulfilled or any evidence to support the theories of Ti and Do, but by then many members were so deep into the cult and isolated from the outside that the group maintained a high retention rate. As time dragged on the assets the group had were running low, and the trajectory of the mission would morph towards something that would be an even tougher sell to new members.
In the 80’s Bonnie Nettles had cancer in her eye. By 1985, the cancer had spread to her liver and she didn’t make it. This was not according to plan. It had been central to the group’s theology that the folks in leadership where immortal aliens, so Marshal Applewhite had some explaining to do. “Do” came up with a story that “Ti” had transcended her “container” and that bodies were merely vehicles to get to the next stage of existence. Applewhite’s new theory involving transcendence by death planted the seeds that would eventually lead to group’s extinction. With one charismatic leader gone and a very unpleasant element now in the groups plot to transcend, finding new members to exploit would be more difficult, but Applewhite would find new blood and way for remaining followers to prove their worth.
Two members, a couple named Marc and Sarah, decided to leave the group after Nettles died, but they promised to remain loyal to Applewhite. Down in numbers, the leader amended the rules a bit and cut down on travel so members could find conventional work and donate their checks to the mission. A little further down the line is where the internet comes in.
There was one big asset the group had in spades that happened to be increasing in value as the 80’s turned into the 90’s- computer literate members. Not to denigrate the members of the cult, but you could call the group a collection of “nerds.” And what are nerds good at? Coding! When the group wound up in California, the demand for people who could design and write code was high, as were salaries in the field. Heaven’s Gate entered the tech world and this step altered their fate significantly. Member’s brought money in from their high paying jobs and a certain point the cult opened its own internal web design company which had a homepage with a very similar aesthetic to the project they’d design in the future.
Exploiting members for their coding skills turned out to be more profitable than exploiting them for preexisting financial assets. It didn’t take long for the cult to be flush with internet cash, and this currency became the group’s primary source of income. With more resources at their disposal, the cult could afford new housing big enough to cram 40 or so members into one space. If leadership hadn’t been psychotic, who knows what the nerds could’ve accomplished?
Marshal Applewhite was at his zenith as a cult leader, but he didn’t come down from the perch of his post-Nettles prophecy to revel in the spoils of capitalism that had blessed his creation. He was steadfast about the death element, and informed his followers they’d be leaving their “bodily containers” to reach an alien vehicle hidden behind the Hale Bopp comet, which would be passing by the earth at a safe enough distance to board in 1997.
Preparations needed to be made, the message needed to be preserved, and more people were sought to join the killer journey to space. There was enough time for all this as Applewhite made his proclamation well in advance of doomsday. The cult bought A/V equipment and a telescope that costed thousands of dollars to try to take a peak at the spacecraft they thought was on its way. What else did they do to keep themselves busy? More coding and design. This is when Heaven’s Gate became something of brand, with its own logo and website. It was a new home for Applewhite to spread his message and try to find his final recruits, in addition to being a marketplace for the sale of a book he was selling for $45. It was a very niche website for obvious reasons, but it got clicks.
How did a cult with such an esoteric story advertising the “Last Chance to Evacuate Earth” gain traffic in the 90’s internet landscape? Primitive SEO. Search engines of the era weren’t as advanced as they are today, which meant websites of all sizes would often bury text into the background of their pages to be recognized. If you examine the Heaven’s Gate URL, you can highlight the words Applewhite wanted to show up in searches that might attract people to the main page. It probably goes without saying that the web surfers who found the page weren’t looking to join a death cult but had interests in topics Heaven’s Gate was adjacent to like UFO’s and transcendence. Because it’s ridiculous, here’s the metatext of search terms in their redundant, baffling absurdity in full-
Heaven’s Gate Heaven’s Gate Heaven’s Gate Heaven’s Gate Heaven’s Gate Heaven’s Gate Heaven’s Gate Heaven’s Gate ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo ufo space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien space alien extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial extraterrestrial misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation misinformation freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom second coming second coming second coming second coming second coming second coming second coming second coming second coming second coming angels angels angels angels angels angels angels angels angels angels end end times times end times end times end times end times end times end times end times end times end times, Key Words: (for search engines) 144,000, Abductees, Agnostic, Alien, Allah, Alternative, Angels, Antichrist, Apocalypse, Armageddon, Ascension, Atheist, Awakening, Away Team, Beyond Human, Blasphemy, Boddhisattva, Book of Revelation, Buddha, Channeling, Children of God, Christ, Christ’s Teachings, Consciousness, Contactees, Corruption, Creation, Death, Discarnate, Discarnates, Disciple, Disciples, Disinformation, Dying, Ecumenical, End of the Age, End of the World, Eternal Life, Eunuch, Evolution, Evolutionary, Extraterrestrial, Freedom, Fulfilling Prophecy, Genderless, Glorified Body, God, God’s Children, God’s Chosen, God’s Heaven, God’s Laws, God’s Son, Guru, Harvest Time, He’s Back, Heaven, Heaven’s Gate, Heavenly Kingdom, Higher Consciousness, His Church, Human Metamorphosis, Human Spirit, Implant, Incarnation, Interfaith, Jesus, Jesus’ Return, Jesus’ Teaching, Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven, Krishna Consciousness, Lamb of God, Last Days, Level Above Human, Life After Death, Luciferian, Luciferians, Meditation, Members of the Next Level, Messiah, Metamorphosis, Metaphysical, Millennium, Misinformation, Mothership, Mystic, Next Level, Non Perishable, Non Temporal, Older Member, Our Lords Return, Out of Body Experience, Overcomers, Overcoming, Past Lives, Prophecy, Prophecy Fulfillment, Rapture, Reactive Mind, Recycling the Planet, Reincarnation, Religion, Resurrection, Revelations, Saved, Second Coming, Soul, Space Alien, Spacecraft, Spirit, Spirit Filled, Spirit Guide, Spiritual, Spiritual Awakening, Star People, Super Natural, Telepathy, The Remnant, The Two, Theosophy, Ti and Do, Truth, Two Witnesses, UFO, Virginity, Walk-ins, Yahweh, Yeshua, Yoda, Yoga
Heavensgate.com didn’t end up having the conversion rate it intended after its launch, the cult lost more members then they gained after the site went live, but that mind boggling list illustrates the concepts leadership wanted to ensnare would-be members with. Some of the items here seem like longshots to attract devotees, for instance, the terms Harvest Time and Non Perishable are barking up the wrong tree. The mention of other cults sticks out too- what are the Children of God doing here? Perhaps the most curious of entries is listed at the very bottom when Star Wars sage Yoda is given a shout out.
As the plan for the permanent transition of the group approached, Marshal Applewhite got his earthly affairs in order. Cult leaders are all narcissists, so preserving the philosophies and theology of their creation’s is really important to them, especially when the fate of the group is in jeopardy. Jim Jones famously made recordings of everything he thought was important at Jonestown for posterity, including the massacre. Applewhite was no different. Who could he trust to keep his message alive? He’d exited just about all substantive relationships outside his own cult.
Applewhite decided to get in touch with a few former members who’d done some collaborative work with heavensgate.com. There was an agreement to carry out a few tasks on behalf of the soon-to-be-former cult, and that’s the reason why the website is still alive all these years later.
The rest of the story you already know. 39 people died. The media circus, etc. And the internet played a role in the end of things too. Remember, 39 people died in a MANSION big enough for 39 beds. They didn’t die in a single-family home or in a field somewhere, they were in a luxurious estate. That mansion wasn’t financed with the sale of $45 books or bake sales. It was a funded by web 1.0 design. The story of Heaven’s Gate is incomplete without the internet, and somehow the death cult has an afterlife online today.
Keeping the Torch Alive Online
For over two decades the reason heavensgate.com kept getting renewed was a total mystery. In 2011, a Reddit forum started asking questions and began sifting through data associated with the website, but it wasn’t until 2017 that an investigation by The Daily Mirror turned up enough clues to crack the case.
It was finally revealed that Applewhite had tasked two former cult members with a purpose that could be carried out in their “current vessels.” The job entailed keeping the vision of Heaven’s Gate alive and maintaining the groups presence online after the rest of the cult “ascended” to cosmic glory.
The gatekeepers of the domain turned out to be Arizona couple Mark and Sarah King, who left the cult after Bonnie Nettles’ death in the 1980’s. The King’s agreed to participate in an exclusive interview with the Daily Mirror after maintaining a domain in the shadows for as long as the entire lifecycle of Heaven’s Gate. The couple, now in their late 60’s, kept a relationship with Applewhite up until the end.
When the King’s came forward with their story it was clear that Heaven’s Gate had a profound impact their lives. It seemed they were carrying the torch for Applewhite in more ways than holding onto the domain. It’s impossible to ignore the part of the story about the couple starting a company called the TELAH foundation. TELAH stands for The Evolutionary Level Above Human, and the foundation happens to combine elements of religion with space aliens. It appears to be an obvious nod to the teachings of their former leaders. TELAH is even mentioned in some of the Heaven’s Gate texts and is on the preserved website as something of a distributer for media Applewhite created.
Evolutionary Level Above Human is a term that would actually fit right into the ancient SEO text on the website they maintain. It’s kind of a mystery why it took so long to track the King’s down with how closely they were associated with Heaven’s Gate.
In the article revealing their identity, the couple are quoted as saying “We are very private… People who are close to us know what we do and accept our right to our beliefs, but the regular people we come into contact with during a normal day would not know of our circumstances and probably wouldn’t care.”
Wouldn’t care? That statement seems to underestimate people’s appetite for curiosities like heavensgate.com. A website going 25 years without a single update is bizarre enough with the economics involved. The fact the website in question belonged to a cult that took the lives of 39 people is beyond bizarre, and many are going to want answers. That the King’s came forward and turned out to be involved in a gambit similar to the one Marshal Applewhite ran is a somewhat satisfying resolution, if an unsettling one. The question now is how long the domain will remain active going forward.
Will the site go down when the King’s are no longer around to maintain it or will the baton be passed again? Whatever the website’s fate becomes, if it goes dark or continues for another quarter century, the subject will be something for another internet historian to contemplate.
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