The Simple Tool The Heaven’s Gate Leaders Used To Control Their Members

On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 men and women in a Rancho Santa Fe, California, compound, each of them wearing identical black Nike tracksuits and sneakers. These people were members of a UFO cult known as Heaven’s Gate, and as they explained in a farewell video, they were committing mass suicide to ascend to the “Evolutionary Level Above Human” and be with God, whom they believed to be an alien traveling aboard a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet (via Rolling Stone). That was just one of the many bizarre sci-fi-tinged theories promoted by the cult’s founders and leaders, Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles, the latter of whom died in 1985.

One reason why Heaven’s Gate stood out from other cults was the fact that many of its members were intelligent individuals with stable backgrounds, as detailed by People. There were others who were more vulnerable due to family tragedies that preceded their decision to join the cult, and quite a few members had a strong interest in UFOs and other unexplained phenomena. By and large, however, they didn’t seem like the type whom you’d expect to get mixed up with such activities. That begs the question — how did Heaven’s Gate’s leaders control all these people to the point that almost 40 of them agreed to die by mass suicide?

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Heaven's Gate used indoctrination to take away its members' individuality

For Heaven’s Gate, it seemed easy enough to recruit interested members — the same could apply to any one of the many other cults that have gained notoriety over the years. As for the methods used by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in convincing their recruits to stay, they were simple, if still disturbing. It was all about teaching the members to do everything in the exact same way as everyone else in the cult, effectively robbing them of their individuality. This process, according to Rolling Stone, is known as indoctrination.

“What cults need to do is to turn you into a conformist, to get you to hopefully become a true believer,” said sociologist Janja Lalich in the HBO Max documentary “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,” as quoted by “They need to break down ‘you,’ and create a new you.”

Former member Michael Conyers, who left Heaven’s Gate in 1988 (via The New York Times), has been quite open about his experiences with the cult, including the style of indoctrination Applewhite and Nettles used. “Everything was designed to be… an exact duplicate,” he recalled. “You were not to come up with, ‘Well I’m going to make the pancakes this big.’ There was a mixture, a size, how long you cooked it one side, how much the burner was on, how many a person got, how the syrup was poured on it. Everything.”

Heaven's Gate promoted a genderless, chaste society, also through indoctrination

Heaven’s Gate’s desire to have everything and everyone be an “exact duplicate” of each other extended to physical appearances, as men were asked to shave their facial hair in an identical fashion (via Rolling Stone), while male and female members alike had to have the same short, close-cropped haircuts and wear oversized unisex shirts and loose-fitting pants, as noted by Marshall Applewhite explained his rationale for this dress code in a training video. “Since we are moving into a world that is genderless, we are doing everything that we can do to not identify with gender,” he explained.

In a further attempt to make sure everybody was on the same page in preparation for their trip to the “Next Level,” members were given new, six-letter names ending with “-ODY.” Another surviving Heaven’s Gate member, simply known as Sawyer, offered an explanation for these unusual new names. “When we became adults, they would drop the Y so we would be the family of OD, which was like a little Next Level humor, because we were kind of odd,” he said on “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults.”

As co-leader, and later sole leader of Heaven’s Gate, Applewhite forbade any form of sexual activity among his followers — the Next Level aliens were purportedly asexual, so he wanted Heaven’s Gate members to suppress their libidos. And while most of the cult’s male members opted against it, it’s believed that Applewhite and at least six other men voluntarily underwent surgical castration to eliminate any possibility of unwanted sexual urges.

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