In 1997, the Heaven’s Gate cult took part in a mass suicide, assuming they would ascend to heaven in a UFO. Marshall Applewhite, one of the founders of this sect, was a music professor at the University of Alabama for a few years in the mid-1960s before teaching at St. Thomas University and finally taking a psychotic break. .
Following this psychotic break, he became close to Bonnie Nettles, his nurse. After starting to have visions, the two formed their own set of apocalyptic spiritual beliefs, recruiting followers and spreading their alien spiritual message to anyone who wanted to listen.
Despite how Applewhite’s mental health deteriorated throughout his life, his time at the University of Alabama painted a different picture for Neely Bruce, composer, professor of music at Wesleyan University. and alumnus of the AU.
“His singing was really remarkable, and I love to remember him as a really good singer who had a lot of charisma on stage,” Bruce said.
For Bruce, it was a shock to learn how much Applewhite’s life had changed. Bruce had casually followed the story in the news, and he didn’t realize it was his old music teacher until a friend informed him.
In the 1960s, it was rumored that Applewhite’s time in Alabama ended following an affair with a graduate student, but little evidence exists. Bruce had no idea why Applewhite left college, but said the rumors he was with a graduate student were not true.
“This rumor was circulating [in] lots of places. It annoyed me because I had no direct evidence for it, and I don’t think people should be spreading rumors, ”Bruce said.
Besides the path Applewhite life had taken, Bruce was surprised at how much his appearance had changed.
“If you see this amazing pale, ghostly face that can be found on the Heaven’s Gate website, it’s almost like he’s cultivating a look that makes him look alien,” Bruce said.
Heaven’s Gate created a media sensation in the 90s, but public interest in the cult topic resurfaced.
Lily Davenport is a PhD student studying English at the University of Cincinnati who has taught several first-year writing courses at the University of Alabama focusing on sects. She attributed this renewed interest to podcasts.
“A lot of media around the cults is coming out of the podcast world, and I think that’s a direct result of the growth of real criminal podcasts,” Davenport said.
A 2020 HBO documentary about the cult has also rekindled interest in Applewhite’s life. The story of Heaven’s Gate carries more weight with a modern audience, as Applewhite has used modern techniques to gain followers.
“One thing I often talk about with my students is that they were one of the first sectarian groups to use the Internet as a recruiting medium,” Davenport said.
The Paradise Gate website, now a relic from the 90s, has been preserved and is still available online.
Davenport said that because of his use of technology, if the cult had existed now, it would have “overwhelmed the memes market.”
Alexa Tullett, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Alabama, said people are often drawn to groups like Heaven’s Gate to feel a sense of belonging.
“We want to be part of the communities. So sometimes I think groups, especially groups that have a marginal belief system or an unconventional belief system, can be very inviting to be a part of it, ”Tullett said.
To 2021 to study published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality found that 57% of cult members reported were female and more than half “had a college education.”
It may seem surprising that educated people frequently join these groups, but addiction can lead cult members to ignore outside information and evidence.
“There is a certain effort that comes in questioning all of our actions and questioning the claims of our political leaders or those in power, but I think sometimes people like to have a source of information or advice. that we don’t have. question, ”Tullet said.
It is important to remember that people who are drawn into sectarian groups do not always fit a stereotype. Russell McCutcheon, chairman of the university’s Department of Religious Studies, said the wide variety of people involved in the Heaven’s Gate suicides made the group stand out in the media.
“It became difficult to think of them as crazy or upset, as many rushed to do first, when the ‘goodbye’ videos were posted and we realized how diverse the band members were. and articulate / educated, how old some members were, how excited they were. they all seemed to be for what to expect, ”he said.
Many in the audience saw parts of themselves in the members of Heaven’s Gate, and this is a key part of what made it so terrifying to some. Applewhite appeared to convince the group that their ascent to heaven was imminent.
Heaven’s Gate is also the story of a struggle for mental health – a struggle that not only impacted Applewhite, but resulted in the deaths of 39 people.
“It’s not pretty, and people need to be more and more aware of the real damage mental illness does to its victims,” McCutcheon said.
This story was published in the Rumor Edition. See the full issue here.
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