The Staggering Number Of People Who Died In The Heavens Gate Cult

The mass suicide committed by members of the Heaven's Gate cult was one of the largest in American history. The followers methodically took their own lives in shifts over the course of three days, but before they did, they all made videos to say goodbye. They also explained that they chose to leave their bodies — which they called containers, vessels, or vehicles — to culminate their spiritual journeys and follow their leader, Marshall Applewhite, to a heavenly extraterrestrial world. 

According to The Baltimore Sun, the cult members donned black pants, black long-sleeved shirts, brand new black Nikes, and white socks as they followed handwritten directions on how to end their earthly lives. The directions were still in the pockets of many of the dead. By then, the cult members had long cut ties with family and friends, gave away all their money and belongings, and eight of the men, including Applewhite, had even undergone voluntary castration. 

As reported by Rolling Stone, the group strove for an androgynous existence, and sexual relationships were forbidden. The cult strongly believed in the place they were striving to go — the "Next Level," where there were no genders. Indeed, in the videos they shot before the mass suicide, cult members with similar short haircuts and invented first names expressed how they were excited and eager to enter the "Next Level" as birds are heard chirping happily in the background. 

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.

The cult members were expecting to be picked up by an alien god in his spaceship

A total of 39 Heaven's Gate followers took their own lives — 21 women and 18 men, ranging in age from 26 to 72. According to New York Daily News, there were three shifts for the suicides. On March 24, fifteen people went first. They donned their matching death uniforms, took the anti-anxiety medication phenobarbital, and chased it with vodka. They made sure they had identification and $5.75 in their pockets before putting plastic bags over their heads. Once they were dead, members of the second shift covered the bodies with purple fabric and removed the bags. 

Fifteen more people did the same thing the next day, with the remaining nine on clean-up duty. The following day the rest went. Applewhite was the third to last to die on March 26, with two female members of the group following him. Per The Baltimore Sun, there were two women who were found not covered in purple sheets who still had plastic bags over their heads, and they are believed to be the final two.

The timing was chosen to coincide with the passage of the Hale-Bopp comet, which came close to earth in 1997. Heaven's Gate believed God was an alien who was coming to gather them up in a spaceship that was traveling in the tail of the comet, according to Rolling Stone. In his goodbye video, which is on YouTube, Applewhite said: "We're about to return to whence we came. I can lead you into that kingdom level above human. That can't happen unless you leave the human world that you're in and come and follow me. Time is short. Last chance."

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