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Heaven's Gate: America's UFO Religion

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In March 1997, thirty-nine people in Rancho Santa Fe, California, ritually terminated their lives. To outsiders, it was a mass suicide. To insiders, it was a graduation. This act was the culmination of over two decades of spiritual and social development for the members of Heaven's Gate, a religious group focused on transcending humanity and the Earth, and seeking salvation in the literal heavens on board a UFO.

In this fascinating overview, Benjamin Zeller not only explores the question of why the members of Heaven's Gate committed ritual suicides, but interrogates the origin and evolution of the religion, its appeal, and its practices. By tracking the development of the history, social structure, and worldview of Heaven's Gate, Zeller draws out the ways in which the movement was both a reflection and a microcosm of larger American culture.The group emerged out of engagement with Evangelical Christianity, the New Age movement, science fiction and UFOs, and conspiracy theories, and it evolved in response to the religious quests of baby boomers, new religions of the counterculture, and the narcissistic pessimism of the 1990s. Thus, Heaven's Gate not only reflects the context of its environment, but also reveals how those forces interacted in the form of a single religious body.

In the only book-length study of Heaven's Gate, Zeller traces the roots of the movement, examines its beliefs and practices, and tells the captivating story of the people of Heaven's Gate.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published October 31, 2014

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Benjamin E. Zeller

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 36 reviews
Profile Image for Tori Centanni.
Author 18 books193 followers
April 13, 2018
Really good, if more academic, study of Heaven's Gate. Picked this up after listening to the podcast of the same name, which was super riveting. In both, I learned a lot of things I didn't know about the cult.
Profile Image for Seth.
115 reviews16 followers
June 7, 2021
I'm really surprised this has so few reviews/ratings on here given the boom in interest in true crime and cult phenomena in recent years. This is an incredibly in depth and meticulously researched academic assessment of the new religious movement, Heavens Gate. This is one of the best biographies i've read. Zeller does a conclusive job analysing the social, religious and historic context that not only allow groups like this to operate, but to flourish within. The depth of his research is at times over my head, however his ability to engage with a subject where information and sources are limited to this degree can only be applauded. The origins of Heavens Gate are investigated and examined through a number of different lenses, including social and cultural spirituality, philosophy, science fiction, theosophics, Protestantism and Calvinism.

Before starting, I think it's important to say that the best thing Zeller does in this book is to not act under the presupposition that the members of Heaven's Gate were brainwashed. Zellers examination of faith, belief, trust and the search for truth that some undergo within the confines of groups like Heaven's Gate gives a far more detailed, complex analysis of groups like this. The details of the mass suicide that occurred in San Diego are of course heart-breaking and Zeller, through his expert research and analysis does an incredible job at deconstructing and trying his best to understand the multiplex of interconnecting reasons why events like this continue to happen.

Heavens Gate was founded in 1974 by Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite. It was previously known as both Human Individual Metamorphosis and Total Overcomers Anonymous. The group were a UFO religious movement that focused on extra-terrestrial Christianity. Applewhite and Nettles were both spiritual seekers who dabbled to differing degrees with Theosophy, Buddhism, Christianity before forming their own group.

Their theology eventually settled on the belief that the "next level" was something to strive toward. This next level existed outside of human consciousness. Applewhite and Nettles viewed the bible as a document through a science fiction hermeneutic. They believed that the "god" of the bible was in fact an extra-terrestrial and that the "heaven" of the bible meant the space outside the earths atmosphere. To achieve "the next level", members would need to exert great amounts of self control and purging. The group were partially influenced by Star Trek. They used slang like "captain", "admiral" and "away team". Attachment, drugs and alcohol, indulgent eating, money, employment, distraction and relationship were all prohibited as they were seen as distracted a member from their sole purpose of working toward this new level of body consciousness. Money was communal and although members were freely allowed and at times even recommended to leave, the lifestyle was strict. Bodies were called "vehicles" to overcome. Members were renamed to remove themselves from their old "vehicle".

Before Nettles died in 1985, the group were told that the next level could be reached with their earthly body. However, after Nettles passed away this belief changed and Applewhite became confused. The belief changed and Applewhite no longer believed the "next level" could be achieved with their earthly vehicles, culminating in the mass suicide in 1997. The group believed that the would exit their vehicles and the earth, transcending onto a UFO that trailed the Hale-Bopp that passed over earth on the day of the mass suicide.

The book raised some interesting questions.

What made thirty nine people not only live for so long within the confines of this group, but commit suicide, seemingly without duress? (as far as could be ascertained)

Why did these people adhere to rules that significantly limited their freedom, based on a promise that one day they would achieve freedom?

Was Heaven's Gate really that different from other religions?

The notion that the soul is a separate entity from the body and that we arose and operate on a single common singularity or shared energy is a relatively recognised idea in spiritual movements. Is the belief that the body is a useless conduit for something more important that different from more accepted spiritual beliefs?
Profile Image for abby.
15 reviews
July 10, 2021
Had to read this for my Cults & New Religious Movements course in college. We only had to read a handful of chapters, but after the course was over I decided to go ahead and complete it.

While reading, I was able to understand how the group came to be through the dual leadership of Nettles and Applewhite, as well as how much their students really believed in what the two said. Unlike some NRMs and their leaders that scorched earth, Heaven's Gate was very peaceful and gentle in nature. It was part of their doctrine. For example, they were all extremely well-mannered and even courteous enough to take out the trash before they died. I'm not saying I side with the deceased or agree with their actions, but I think Heaven's Gate should not be demonized as much as they are. To the members of Heaven's Gate, their deaths were not suicides, but instead graduations onto the Next Level to join their long-lost and dearly missed Nettles. In order to approach a NRM, you must try and understand where they are coming from. For me, it was very easy and enlightening to understand this group in particular. Just my opinion.
Profile Image for Beth Chats Books.
195 reviews24 followers
January 10, 2018
This book was simply fascinating. Rather academic in tone and listening to it on audible did mean I was limited in what I could digest and comprehend. Nevertheless this book (recommended to me from glen Washington’s 10 part podcast on heavens gate) gave me a rich and academic history of the infamous cult. This book is a staple text on this cult and it deeply descriptive on the culture and social background of the group, the use of technology by the group and the context and explanation for the eventual suicide and demise of the group in 1997. This book gives serious food for thought on this cult, on their mass suicide and on their humanity and beliefs. While I couldn’t give this book 5 stars as in audible form this book was too dense to digest. I am hoping to acquire it in physical copy and see if my rating goes up when I have more time to comprehend Zeller’s interesting perspective. Overall a very informative and fascinating book.
Profile Image for Kay.
14 reviews1 follower
February 23, 2017

In 1997, thirty-nine people of a new religious movement (NRM) called Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicide in a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California. For those who never understood this movement, this was a case of “cult,” “brainwashing,” and just a suicide act committed by people who believed in bizarre beliefs. But for the members themselves, this occurrence was a “graduation” from this world. In this book, Zeller studied about how Heaven’s Gate originated, developed, and ended the way it did. With a theology combination of Christianity, New Age movement, Ufology, and elements of American culture, we see in this NRM how the members believed in eternal salvation and their relation to Comet Hale-Bopp.
In this book, Zeller presents two arguments. One, in order for us to understand why the members committed suicide, we must understand the movement’s history and their development as “integral” (Zeller 8). This means that we have to consider the members’ history background as fundamental so we can understand well why they ended their lives. In his second argument, he argues that “Heaven’s Gate was not a complete aberration” (Zeller 8). With this, he means that this group was not abnormal, but rather it showed parts of American culture and society that helped create the movement.
This book includes six chapters where Zeller organized his studies from the origins to the end of the movement. In the first three chapters, he talks about how the founders of the group first developed a theology based on their own spiritual beliefs and pursuits. Also, he talks about how he does not believe in the concept of brainwashing in this group. He describes brainwashing “as a rhetorical tool … in assuaging public anxieties over the legitimacy of new religions” (Zeller 57). However, he believes that members of the group made choices because they found their message believable and had faith in the beliefs of the founders. In addition, he talks about the worldview of the group and mentions the concept of “extraterrestrial biblical hermeneutic” (Zeller 74). In the last three chapters of the book, Zeller focuses on the group’s religious theology that includes elements of “soteriology, eschatology, cosmology, and Christology” (Zeller 91) that are found in other religions’ beliefs as well. Also, he talks about the group’s religious practices where he mentions Thomas Tweed and “crossing and dwelling” (Zeller 132) as a model of religion that Tweed himself developed. And lastly, he argues that the members chose to commit suicide in 1997 “because their dualistic theology had long led them to view this act as a possible necessity” (Zeller 172).
Zeller persuasively supported both of his arguments. One of the important things he used in this book to support his arguments were primary sources. The primary sources he used were supportive and helpful in understanding his main points and the movement as well. Learning about Heaven’s Gate beliefs and their reasons to commit suicide from their point of view is an important way to understand why it ended the way it did. This is what Zeller said in one of his arguments; understanding it as integral. Most of these sources come from members of the group such as interviews, where we learn about their religious practices and the origins of their theology. Examples of this are seen where Zeller talks about the use of technology, the internet, “UseNet” – a website where they explained their beliefs and had sections that targets particular audience (Zeller 188), and other media to attract outsiders and teach about their beliefs. With this, and many other examples, Zeller did a good job in supporting his thesis.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for James.
639 reviews18 followers
April 23, 2020
Red Alert! Comet Hale-Bopp brings closure to Heaven's Gate! In 1997 with the appearance of the comet Hale-Bopp, the nearly fifty members of Heaven's Gate chose to commit suicide and leave their physical bodies to ascent to a level beyond human in a physical heaven far among the stars.

Since that night, the group has been subject to all kinds of rumours and misunderstandings, a cult that brainwashed its members into servitude or perhaps the first true cyber-cult. None of this was really true as Zeller outlines the history and more importantly the detailed faith of the group. Based in the New Age cultic milieu that arose in the 1960s and 1970s, Heaven's Gate (formally known as HIM among others) was surprisingly founded on a mix of evangelical Protestantism and ufology upon which was organised an increasingly-detailed theology that transitioned from a physical translation to Heaven to the ultimate rejection of physical bodies to ascend spiritually to a physical heaven in space.

Benjamin Zeller draws on a detailed interviews with former members and surviving members to explain the group's theology and background. There is a great wealth of resources from the group's own publications and exit videos that Zeller has consulted to humanise and explain the group, dispelling many of the previous rumours. His examinations of the group's theology and the realisation that it is based on Christianity is surprising but only if one had such a superficial understanding of the group and Zeller clearly has gone in depth. His tone can be quite scholarly but it is marked with respect for his subjects and for the members themselves. There is no sense that either current members or those no longer on Earth were exploited and his analysis treats them as a proper religious group, without any sensationalist cries of cult or brainwashing.

Heaven's Gate arose in a unique atmosphere of New Age and countercultural beliefs in America during the 1960s and 70s and continued to draw on American experiences of evangelical Protestantism and ufology as the years progressed. Even their demise, fearful of government repression (such as the Branch Davidians at Waco or the fundamentalists at Ruby Ridge) amid increased millennialism, was typically American. Zeller has written the definitive work on Heaven's Gate and it will be the standard for all future works on New Religious Movements.
Profile Image for Einzige.
273 reviews9 followers
December 27, 2018
Heaven's Gate is cult that despite its relatively small size and general obscurity for most of its existence has had a profound impact on the popular stereotypes and memes regarding cults - shaved heads, wacky new age beliefs, uniforms, brain washed fanatics, bizarre and incomprehensible mass suicide ect . It's also a group that has been and continues to be rather poorly understood and dealt with. This book does a fantastic job at addressing this problem and is a great example of how cults and new religious movements should be approached from an academic perspective.

Relying on a broad array of primary and secondary sources it treats the matter with the same degree of respect and diligence that would be expected in studying traditional religions and subjects within the humanities. Many of the articles and podcasts you come across deal with the group in a way that whilst interesting and emotionally provoking nevertheless leaves you with a poor understanding of the group and what they were actually practicing and studying for the 21 years prior to their suicide (indeed even the name Heavens Gate was something the group adopted in their final years) and likewise is rife with unjustifiably lazy pathologising and pseudo science.
This book cuts through all of this and provides definitive answers -including what is probably the scariest conclusion of all, namely that the Heaven's Gate tragedy was not just one suicide and the murder of 38 brainwashed dopes but a genuinely voluntary and logical decision based on their religious views - which far from being alien were deeply American.

So if you want a book to gawk at some kooky people this is not the book for you - however if you genuinely want to understand the group and the general issues with studying new religious movements and cults this is a great starting point.
Profile Image for Chris Hall.
363 reviews1 follower
February 22, 2021
Given that Heaven's Gate was amongst the furthest out of far-out groups, it would be understandable if Zeller had written a sensationalist book on the subject. (Certainly when it comes to expectations, any book with 'UFO' in the title immediately pays a price).

What's surprising is that this actually an intelligent book.

I think Zeller gets it. I think he gets that a sensationalist approach can help you to *know* about a group but to actually *understand* it, you *have* to take it seriously. Sensationalism places distance between the reader and the subject and that inevitably forms a barrier to understanding.

(I suppose you could argue that a sensationalist approach would take the subject from a psychological angle and a serious approach would take it from a theological angle; the psychological angle would be focused on the problems (coercion, control, etc) while the theological angle would be focused on the reasons and [perceived] rewards)

Take one example: Zeller's refutation of brainwashing in the group. It would have been so, so easy for him to just say the followers were brainwashed (psychological angle) but instead he says they weren't and that they *genuinely* believed what they said they believed (theological angle). (This is important as it means - if correct - that there were no victims; victimhood sat at the heart of much of the public response to what happened)

This is an approach that few would take but Zeller has the integrity to do so - and he justifies doing so. This sets it apart from 95% of books on NRMs and cult groups.

When the sensationalism is set aside what becomes apparent is that Heaven's Gate *did* carry a coherent philosophy and that philosophy was not as different from mainstream religious thought as most people want it to be ...

If you have an interest in the subject (as I do) then this is an excellent book.
Profile Image for Reggie Martell.
79 reviews2 followers
January 27, 2018
A strong, scholarly work with nary an ounce of humanity or genuine insight into the relevant personalities involved.

This is a book concerned with reviewing the literature of the field; defining and placing heaven's gate within a taxonomy and placing the author's research within that context. It is deeply esoteric and highly pedantic.

I give this book 4 stars, because it is well-researched and academically thorough, but it's the most detached book you can imagine. There is no real sense of the human stories involved. It is a work that seems to respect its subject, but only through antiseptic detachment. It is a work seemingly without empathy, in that there's no attempt to know the individuals involved. Zeller makes the a convincing case for the rationality of the Heaven's Gage suicides, but there's no visceral component. Much like the group sought to distance themselves from humanity, so has Zeller created a work seemingly lacking human presence.

As a methodology it makes sense. Zeller has created a book that is based on verifiable facts and a thesis that is eminently defensible.

There is little speculation. Unfortunately, because of the group's demise, a book of speculation would be interesting to read. If you need a source for an undergraduate research project, you've found a good source here. If you want something a little trashy to read on the beach, skip this.

In summation: I recognize the many strengths of this book. It is expertly rendered. And I basically hated it.

Objectively 4 to 5 stars.
Subjectively: 2 stars.

663 reviews2 followers
December 14, 2017
It's funny, a lot of the time I kinda hate sequential books that take you from A to B to C through a person's life an event or whatever. This book doesn't document the how Heaven's Gate got started sequentially through 'til the suicides and aftermath. Rather, it jumps around covering different aspects of the group as a whole, from how people could be drawn to it, it's relation to other religions and popular culture and of course the mass suicide event. I don't think it necessarily hindered the book, as I liked how you were just dropped into the story into one of its many sides, instead of having to parse out every piece of information as you would normally tell the story from beginning to end, but I'd be curious to see how it would read if it was more traditional.

The book feels almost like some kind of thesis or university-esque essay or project. In each section, Zeller has an introductory paragraph where he lays out what the will argue in the following pages and what he hopes to accomplish. Again, I don't think this style was greatly positive or negative overall, but it did give the book a nice scholarly feel, along with the mountains of source material that makes this feel like the definitive exploration into the religion and its people.
Profile Image for Lirazel.
311 reviews12 followers
June 30, 2018
This is a fairly scholarly work, but I found it easy enough to read. It does contain a sort of chronological history of the group, but mostly it's about the actual beliefs of the movement and the influences on them. I was convinced by his argument that they were actually a variation on your standard premillennial Protestant American Christianity, just filtered through an ufology hermeneutic--an assertion I found farfetched at first, but he was very thorough in examining the various influences on the group.

I really appreciated the way the author treated Heaven's Gate as a religion on its own terms--really diving into its worldview and showing how the belief system makes sense from the inside. He never treated the members like a bunch of brainwashed or mentally ill people he could dismiss, but instead really tried to understand what it was about the religious teachings and practice of Heaven's Gate that drew them in, and also why the group suicide was, in the end, inevitable. He managed to be compassionate without ever endorsing their beliefs.
9 reviews
May 6, 2020
After finishing this book I realized the only three highlights of this book for me was the following; the author talks about mid-90's Usenet newsgroup posts and early websites in relation to the cult, the author talks about Art Bell and a handful of his mid-90's shows that dealt with the cult, and finally the author mentions Bill Cooper's book "Behold a Pale Horse". For those 3 reasons only I would recommend this book. Otherwise I found it lacking in many of the details I was hoping to read about. For example, how did these weirdos make all their money without seemingly working a day in their lives?? That subject is surprisingly never even broached!
Profile Image for Paul.
692 reviews63 followers
June 6, 2022
A well written and empathetic exploration of the origins and history of the Heaven's Gate religion, which ended with a mass suicide – a term that obscures the group's own conviction that they were in fact not killing themselves but leaving behind their physical body to obtain immortality aboard a spaceship trailing behind the Hale-Bopp comet. By taking the group seriously, Zeller illuminates much more about religion, UFO beliefs, and America than the often sensationalized news accounts of the time could do.
August 14, 2021
O livro tem como ponto muito positivo o fato de considerar as pessoas por trás de heaven's gate e de fato tentar entender as suas motivações de modo muito respeitoso. A leitura é um pouco cansativa e repetitiva nos dois primeiros capítulos, mas ainda assim considero uma excelente obra para quem quer conhecer o grupo sob uma perspectiva menos sensacionalista do que se costuma encontrar em materiais na Internet.
Profile Image for Rachel Grace.
380 reviews14 followers
December 2, 2021
I fell down a heaven’s gate rabbit hole recently and this book gives a thorough study of what the followers actually believed and the cultural influences of those beliefs. I wanted to hear more about the individuals who joined the group rather than a more anthropologic perspective. However that’s not the book’s fault it’s more of my own expectations. Still a super interesting book that I got a lot out of.
Profile Image for Mikey Lindfield.
39 reviews
August 20, 2022
This was a little too academic for me (my fault for reading an academic title!!)

I felt it got a little too bogged down in semantics. There were pages going over whether Heaven's Gate was a Christian religion with New Age leanings, or a New Age movement with Christian leanings.

But this is very well researched and detailed!
Profile Image for Brian.
797 reviews22 followers
March 2, 2020
Eh. This was more of a thesis from a former practitioner. When the chapters end by telling you what happens in the next chapter I and how they are going to defend their claims I just tune out. That’s what happened for most of this.
Profile Image for Aric Brose.
29 reviews
March 26, 2018
A good overview of a group with unique beliefs drawn from many sources. Their strength of belief and why they believed was interesting.
Profile Image for Jake.
179 reviews1 follower
November 9, 2019
Possibly the most dry book I've ever read, came off like a college research paper, tough sledding, as they say.
Profile Image for Hanna Moria.
1 review
January 7, 2021
This book was well-written and thoroughly researched. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the psychology of NRMs.
Profile Image for William.
39 reviews
May 14, 2021
Call me shallow but this is more a text book than a juicy tittle tattle type documentary.
Consequently it got a little boring and didn’t tell me anything about the main characters.
Profile Image for David.
1 review
June 28, 2021
Libro muy bien documentado y con un enfoque empático hacia los miembros de este culto. Lo he disfrutado mucho
315 reviews7 followers
March 24, 2022
Quality Details Within Book Are Outstanding Profile Of Delusional Cult! 💭Lesson Is 🧐Critical Thinking 🤓🤔
Profile Image for Kevin McAvoy.
182 reviews
March 31, 2022
I shouldn't have read this.
I don't tolerate them well.
This is mainly about some idiots.
Not worth knowing about really.
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