PUBLISHED: 19:51 EST, 26 March 2012 | UPDATED: 19:51 EST, 26 March 2012
March 26, 1997 brought the grizzly discovery that 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult had committed mass suicide, believing their souls would be transported to a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.
Fifteen years have passed since the group became an international sensation — attracting a mix of horror and ridicule — but New Age believers are still harboring hopes that alien visitors will beam them up and away from earth.
The newest crop of these have gathered in a commune, 200-strong, outside the upside-down mountain Pic de Bugarach in the south of France. There, they hope extraterrestrial saviors will whisk them away when the world ends December 21.
Horror: All 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult who committed suicide were wearing the same shoes and outfit. Each was draped in a purple cloth
Dangerous: Marshall Applewhite, the 65-year-old leader of the Heaven’s Gate group. As his mental health deteriorated, he led his followers down a deadly path
However, it was Heaven’s Gate — a group led by a man who called himself ‘Do’ and believed he was a descendant of Jesus Christ — that brought the bizarre, delusional world of UFO-related cults to the attention of the outside world.
The founder of the cult, Marshall Applewhite, told his followers that the world was due to be ‘wiped clean’ by the alien founders and that they needed to leave the earth.
At first Applewhite taught that by denying themselves worldly comforts, sex and physical affection, individuality, money and jobs, they could ascend to the ‘Next Level’ and leave the earth before it was destroyed.
He controlled nearly every aspect of his followers lives. He and six other male members of the group even traveled to Mexico, where they volunteered to be castrated to reduce distractions.
Unfortunately, Applewhite was crazy and even he knew it. He had a history of checking himself into mental institutions.
Isolated: The members of the cult lived together in this upscale home in San Diego, California
His mental health declined rapidly in the weeks following the group’s mass suicide, cult expert Rick Ross told Mail Online.
When a photo emerged of a spot trailing the Hale-Bopp comet, which was nearing Earth, Applewhite taught his his group that the mark was evidence that the Heaven’s Gate co-founder, who died of cancer in the 1980s, was following in the comet in a spaceship — waiting to beam the souls of departed members aboard.
Atrocity: The members of the group believed their souls would be beamed up to a spaceship that was following the Hale-Bopp comet
The photo was later determined to be a forgery; there was no unexplained body following the comet.
As the comet neared earth and Applewhite’s mental health deteriorated, he prepared his clan for a mass suicide in the isolated house they shared in a wealthy San Diego, California, suburb.
Applewhite recorded several video messages explaining his actions, which were later found by authorities or left with Rio DiAngelo — the group’s sole survivor.
On March 26, 1997, DiAngelo — who had been chosen to ‘stay on Earth’ and continue preaching the group’s message — went to the Heaven’s Gate House and found 39 dead bodies.
Each of the followers were dressed black shirts and sweat pants, brand new black-and-white Nike Decades athletic shoes and armbands reading ‘Heaven’s Gate Away Team.’
All but three of the bodies were arranged neatly on their beds with their faces and torsos covered with a purple cloth. Each body had a five dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets and along with packed luggage at their sides.
They mixed phenobarbital poison into applesauce or pudding and then washed it down with vodka. They then tied plastic bags on their heads to asphyxiate themselves and speed their deaths.
The followers, age 26 to 72, killed themselves in three waves March 24, 25 and 26. The survivors always neatly arranged their dead comrades’ bodies before committing suicide themselves.
The mass suicide, the worst ever on American soil, was a wake-up call to authorities that cults are dangerous, even when left to their own devices, Ross, who has studied cults for decades and worked to ‘deprogram’ survivors, told Mail Online.
New threat? Some 200 people have gathered in a commune near Pic de Bugarach in France, where they believe a space ship will save them from the end of the world December 21
Before the Heaven’s Gate case, academics who studied cults were beginning to advocate that outside intervention, not internal pressure, caused violence in cults. The People’s Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana, killed themselves, 909 in all, after Congress began investigating the group. A siege by federal agents resulted in the deaths of 76 follows of David Koresh in Waco, Texas.
Common believe was that cults ‘exploded’ because of outside forces.
‘What we’ve seen since is that they implode. It isn’t because of external pressure,’ Ross said.
It’s unclear whether the same risks are present for the 200 ‘hippies’ occupying a camp outside the tiny French village of Bugarach in the Pyrenees Mountains.
According to the London Independent, the group doesn’t seem to have a strong leader or a cohesive structure of rituals.
Merely, the group is waiting for the end of the world — as supposedly (but not really) predicted by the ancient Mayan calendar.
The group has gathered around Pic de Bugarach waiting the date, believing they will be taken aboard a star ship hidden inside the mountain.