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Bo and Peep gained worldwide attention in 1975 when it was feared that their Human Individual Metamorphosis cult had abducted twenty Oregonians in a spaceship. Twenty-two years later, they gained even greater notoriety when the UFO cult committed mass suicide.
Bo (Marshall Herff Applewhite) and Peep (Bonnie Lu Trousdale Nettles), the founders of the Heaven’s Gate cult, achieved national media attention after a UFO lecture in Waldport, Oregon, on September 14, 1975, when they were said to have taken away twenty members of the audience aboard a flying saucer. Concerned family members of the vanishing Oregonians were not convinced that extraterrestrials had kidnapped their relatives. They feared that their missing kin had been murdered. Law enforcement officials tried to squelch rumors that satanic sacrifice was involved in the mysterious disappearances. However, it would soon be revealed that a good number of the UFO enthusiasts who had attended the lecture had chosen of their own free will to join Bo and Peep on their spiritual pilgrimage.
The theology of Heaven’s Gate was born in the cosmic revelations received by Applewhite and Nettles sometime around 1972 when they formed the Christian Arts Center in Houston for the declared purpose of helping to make humans more aware of their spiritual potential by sponsoring lectures in comparative religion, mysticism, meditation, and astrology. Applewhite, the son of a Presbyterian minister, had served with the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Salzburg, Austria, studied sacred music at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, directed musicals for the Houston Music Theatre, and from 1966 to 1971 taught music at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Nettles, an astrology enthusiast, was a graduate of the Hermann Hospital School of Nursing in 1948 and worked as a nurse in the Houston area. Although they had each been previously married to others, in 1974 Applewhite and Nettles, while creating their philosophical blend of apocalyptic Christianity and UFOlogy, said that they were not married but were living together “by spiritual guidance.” Espousing the highest principles, the couple stated that they had renounced sex in preparation for their journey to the “Father’s Kingdom,” and they invited others to join them in the process that they called Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM).
Applewhite and Nettles began to refer to themselves as “Bo” and “Peep” or “the Two,” and they proclaimed that they had awakened to their true extraterrestrial origins. As benevolent aliens, they had come to Earth to demonstrate how the human body could undergo a dramatic metamorphosis, just as the chrysalis changes from caterpillar to butterfly.
Bo and Peep claimed to have originated from the same level as Jesus, asserting that they were the two witnesses referred to in the book of Revelation as the harbingers of a great harvest time for humanity:
And I will give power to two witnesses, and they shall prophesy. And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall overcome them and kill them. And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city three days and a half. And after three days and a half the spirit of life from God entered them and they stood upon their feet. And they heard a great voice from heaven saying to them, Come up hither. And they ascended to heaven in a cloud and the remnant were affrighted and gave glory to the God in heaven. (Rev. 11:3–13)
Many members of HIM inferred from various pronouncements by Bo and Peep that the pair would quite likely be assassinated sometime around June 1976. The couple told a number of their followers that they would lie in state for three and one-half days, then rise to the next level in full view of the media, thereby proving that they were the two witnesses spoken of in Revelation. According to Applewhite and Nettles, Earth was fast approaching “that season” when humans could enter the process that would enable them to graduate to a higher level.
The Two did not promise an easy path to higher awareness. They instructed their followers that they must walk out the door of their human lives and take with them only what would be necessary while they were still on the planet. Newcomers were advised that the process worked best if they had a partner and that they would be paired with one. However, the only bond that was to exist between them would be a mutual desire to raise their vibrational levels so they might ascend to the next realm. Those who heeded the summons of the Two should bring with them a car, a tent, a warm sleeping bag, utensils, and whatever money they could carry. Those who joined the Human Individual Metamorphosis group would be camping out a lot in order to take the word to others who might be seeking it.
In spite of this bleak picture of a nomadic existence, a remarkable number of highly educated professionals left high-salaried jobs, expensive homes, and loving spouses and children to follow the Two on a journey of faith that would have them living hand-to-mouth and sleeping under the stars.
It has long been a tenet of some branches of Christianity that if we attain a higher level beyond death, we will achieve such a state in spirit form, not in the physical body. However, Bo and Peep insisted that spiritual seekers must begin their butterfly-like apprenticeship by leaving the ways of their human caterpillar family and friends behind and would attain the higher level in an actual physical body. The kingdom of heaven and all those who occupy it, according to the Two, are literally physical in form.
When the much-promised demonstration of the couple’s death and resurrection seemed always to be postponed for one reason or another, a large number of disillusioned members dropped out of the group, leaving Bo and Peep and their most faithful followers to resume their nomadic lifestyle and take their ministry underground. In 1985 Bonnie, who at that time called herself “Ti,” died of cancer and, in the words of an ardent follower, “returned to the next level.”
Applewhite, now “Do,” carried on their mission of informing humans that salvation hovered overhead in a spaceship. He also warned earthlings that their planet was at the mercy of alien star gods, the “Luciferians,” who had fallen away from the Father’s Kingdom many thousands of years ago. In 1995, after renaming the cult Heaven’s Gate, Applewhite and his most devoted disciples moved to San Diego, California, and established a computer business, Higher Source, which specialized in designing websites.
In 1996 Do and his followers became excited about the approach of the Hale-Bopp comet, believing that it was the sign for which they had been waiting. They decided to hasten their “graduation from the human evolutionary level” through self-administered poison and hitch a ride to the Father’s Kingdom on the extraterrestrial spacecraft that they believed followed in the wake of the comet’s tail. On March 26, 1997, Applewhite apparently became convinced that he had found at last the narrow window of opportunity for that graduation. His body and those of thirty-eight followers, all having committed suicide by various means, were found throughout the rooms of the group’s spacious Rancho Santa Fe mansion outside of San Diego.