Why Heaven's Gate Used Science Fiction To Brainwash Its Members

For most of its existence, very few people were aware of Heaven's Gate. The cult was concocted in 1974 by Marshall Applewhite – who served in the U.S. Army before becoming a music professor – and Bonnie Nettles, a former nurse. The group utilized a blend of Christian mysticism and fantastical ufology to recruit members throughout the decades. Applewhite and Nettles — going by the names "Do" and "Ti" — created a religious mythos that echoed the promise of redemption after early life found in the New Testament. And the name of the group became infamous in March 1997, when a mass suicide performed by 39 of its members hit the headlines, leaving readers around the world asking how such a disturbing tragedy could possibly happen.

According to History, Applewhite and Nettles had for a long time been preaching to their followers about the existence of UFOs, which they believed would serve a spiritual function. Followers were told that aliens had the power to remove people from their bodies and beam their souls onto their spacecraft, after which the abductees would evolve into a higher human form.

The beliefs of the group became sharpened following the 1995 discovery of the Hale-Bopp comet, with Applewhite telling his followers that behind the comet hid one such UFO. On the night that the comet was closest to earth, Applewhite and his followers drank poison, believing they were "leaving" planet earth.

Heaven's Gate melded Christianity and sci-fi

If the beliefs of the Heaven's Gate cult sound more like science fiction than religion, there's apparently a very prosaic reason for that. According to Rolling Stone, ​both Applewhite and Nettles — who died in 1985 — were fans of '70s space dramas, especially "Star Trek" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Through such shows, the pair ended up convincing themselves that the birth of Christ could be interpreted as a story of alien abduction and insemination, and that aliens had visited earth and were inherently benign. Heaven's Gate members were convinced that a UFO would return, their beliefs mirroring the Christian and Islamic belief in a Second Coming of Christ.

Applewhite filmed a number of long videos of his followers in hours before their suicide, which show the jumpsuits the 39 died in. Each wears a patch (pictured above) saying "Heaven's Gate Away Team," which Rolling Stone notes is a "Star Trek" reference.

But the strangest link between Heaven's Gate and the world of science fiction comes from one of the cult's victims: Thomas Nichols. According to CNN, Nichols was the brother of Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Lt. Uhura in the original series of "Star Trek."

If you or someone you know is dealing with spiritual abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.