Lessons Learned From Covering the Heaven's Gate Mass Suicide 25 Years Ago
By Caitlin Rother
The night in 1997 before 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult ate phenobarbital-spiked applesauce to await death—with Nikes on their feet and plastic bags over their heads—my husband went into an unrelated alcohol-fueled rage.
Recently married, I was an energetic general assignment reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune at the time. But I was so exhausted and traumatized the next morning that I called in sick. I needed a mental health day to recover.
When I heard the news that evening that sheriff’s deputies were responding en masse to a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, I started feeling the adrenaline of a big story developing. Only I was stuck at home, unable to call in to offer to help or my editor would think I’d been malingering.
As more details of this mass suicide were released, I grew more and more angry that my husband’s tirade had caused me to miss one of the biggest stories of my career. So, primed and ready the next day, I sat in the morning news meeting, racking my brain to find a way into the story.
Thankfully, I found one: Drawing from my experience covering county government, I came up with an enterprising idea that made up for lost time and resulted in my covering this story for the rest of its natural life, which ran 2½ years.
By obtaining a long list of food items and other belongings that the county Public Administrator/Public Guardian’s Office had seized from the mansion, I was able to describe the highly regimented, celibate and sugar-happy lifestyle of these cult members. I also illustrated the tenets that they lived by, and offered a rationale to explain an act that none of us could understand—how they were shedding their earthly vessels to catch a ride on a spaceship in the Hale-Bopp comet’s tail and rise to the “next level” they called “Level Above Human.”
The county had to recover its costs of handling the cult’s estate, which it ultimately took over, and also find a way to cover the cult members’ families’ $130,000 in claims for funeral, burial and other expenses. But when the county tried to do that by auctioning off the cult’s belongings, that move was blocked by two former cult members who had left the group to get married, and who filed a lawsuit in probate court to take possession of the cult’s artwork and intellectual property. The county won the legal battle, and the cult’s surprisingly mundane items, such as bunk beds, were sold in November 1999 at one of the most globally newsworthy memorabilia auctions ever.
Along the way, I learned about the planning of an elaborate suicide and the inner workings and management strategies of cults in general, which have unique yet common philosophies for member recruitment and retention. This knowledge would help inform my future books about the Manson Family murders (Hunting Charles Manson), the Rebecca Zahau death case (Death On Ocean Boulevard), and even, ironically, my husband’s own suicide in April 1999 (Secrets, Lies, and Shoelaces).
Among the items I found most fascinating and telling were a diagram of where the cult members sat in a room to watch TV and a description of what programs or movies were allowed and prohibited. The seating arrangement correlated to the hierarchy within the cult. So science fiction shows were good, such as “The X-Files,” “Star Trek: Voyager,” and “Star Trek: Deep Space 9,” presumably because they saw themselves as spending their futures in space. But James Bond movies, or even “Multiplicity,” where Michael Keaton’s character cloned himself several times, were not.
The programming they were encouraged to watch was a vehicle for mind control. Only they called it discipline, organization, and self-improvement. Just like Charles Manson, who didn’t want his followers reading newspapers, Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall “Do” Applewhite didn’t want his members watching anything sexual. By diverting their energy elsewhere and keeping conflict among them to a minimum, they were told they could improve themselves without having their “vibration changed,” that this was to assist them, not restrict them.
By following their own religion of sorts— Applewhite’s was asexual, and Manson’s was sexual—both cults were striving to reach a common goal, as a family, that surely couldn’t have been a selling point to join at the start: to kill themselves or others.
Such cults provide a lesson that is still relevant today. Charismatic leaders can convince large groups of disillusioned people to harm themselves or others by using misinformation, delusions, or conspiracy theories, whether it be done by eating applesauce in a bunk bed, refusing to take a COVID-19 vaccine, or declaring war to take over a neighboring country.
This essay was originally published in The San Diego Union-Tribune