Marshall Applewhite in a screen grab from Murder in America TW: death by suicide
Next month (March 26) marks the 26th anniversary of the Heaven’s Gate cult mass suicide—when 39 people ingested poison in a Rancho Santa Fe Mansion, in the hopes of catching a ride on the Hale-Bopp comet. Inspired by cult leaders Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite, the group strived to reach what they called the “Kingdom Level Above Human,” and believed that by killing themselves they were releasing themselves from their physical vessels and would ascend to heaven aboard a UFO. It’s a terrible story and way too reminiscent of the Jim Jones Jonestown massacre.
Whether you’re familiar with the case or are just hearing about it, if you want to learn more, the podcast “Murder in America” just released a terrific episode covering it. The podcast, hosted by Courtney Browen and Colin Browen, describes the episode:
On March 26th, 1997, the largest suicide mass on US soil was unearthed in a prestigious neighborhood of San Diego, called Rancho Santa Fe, California. To the outside, it appeared to be a mass suicide, a horrible and unfortunate event. But to the 39 people inside, it was a commencement—a graduation that their leader, Marshall Herff Applewhite, had been preaching to them for years. This is the story of The Heaven’s Gate Cult and you are listening to Murder in America.
Even though I’m pretty familiar with this case—I lived in New Mexico when it happened, and had a friend who was doing ethnographic research for his dissertation on New Age groups in Taos who had met the group and took copious fieldnotes at some of their meetings, which he shared with me—I still learned new information from this episode, including that at least four former members of the cult died by suicide in the months and years following the 1997 mass suicide. What a terrible addendum to an already tragic event.