Marshall Applewhite, Heaven's Gate
Applewhite was the son of a Presbyterian minister, which acquainted him with Biblical prophecy from an early age. He met a woman named Betty Nettles in a psychiatric hospital (she the nurse, he the patient) in 1972, and the two joined forces to create their own doctrine of prophecy, believing they were brought together by extraterrestrials. Together, Applewhite and Nettles -- who went by the nicknames Do and Ti -- researched almost every corner of theology and scripture. They were influenced by everything from the King James Bible to science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke, and movies like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Ultimately, they came to believe that they were beings from the “next level” who experienced revelations that they would be witnesses to the Biblical apocalypse. Applewhite also believed he was the direct descendant of Jesus Christ.
Applewhite and Nettles traveled the United States recruiting followers whom they called “the crew,” eventually calling their cult Heaven’s Gate. They attracted everyone from far-left hippies to Republican politicians.
When Nettles passed away from cancer in 1985, Applewhite revised much of the group’s doctrine. They became more and more reclusive and hive-minded; they left their families, started dressing exactly alike, and many followers willingly castrated themselves so as not to be tempted into sexual situations. They believed that the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet would help them ascend into heaven, an idea they circulated on their website, which still exists to this day. Eventually, they established a headquarters: a home in Rancho Santa Fe, California, that they called “The Monastery.”
Though their beliefs evolved and relied on a wide range of influences, most salient is that they were convinced the world was about to be “recycled,” and they needed to leave it immediately. In March 1997, Applewhite convinced 38 followers that a spaceship trailing Hale-Bopp was coming for them, and they needed to vacate their bodies.
Those 38 members, plus Applewhite, consumed a mixture of phenobarbital and apple sauce, which they washed down with vodka, then secured plastic bags around their heads and went to their bunk beds. They died over the course of three days (March 24, 25, and 26). Infamously, every member was dressed in a black sweatshirt, black sweatpants, and Nike Decades sneakers (the shoes were quickly discontinued, and are now collectors items, going for thousands of dollars on eBay).