In 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult were found dead by suicide in their Rancho Santa Fe, California, home, which they dubbed “The Monastery.” Central to the group’s belief was that they would go to heaven on a UFO. On March 11, a two-hour 20/20 special looks to unravel the mysteries surrounding the chilling, ritualistic mass suicide and what would lead people to follow its bizarre principles.
During The Cult Next Door: The Mystery and Madness of Heaven’s Gate special, Diane Sawyer interviews two survivors who share their stories for the first time. She also speaks with Rio DiAngelo, a member who left the group before the tragedy to serve as a messenger. She first spoke with DiAngelo in an exclusive interview in 1997. Family members who were left behind also share their stories.
In a trailer for the special, interviewees discuss some of the rules of the cult, which included how members were to dress, brush their teeth, and even use the toilet. “They didn’t have any free will,” one person says. They also practiced celibacy, and castration was employed.
The members who died in the largest mass suicide in America came from all walks of life and ranged in age from 26 to 72. They were drawn in by Marshall Applewhite, the compelling leader who co-founded the group with Bonnie Nettles (Nettles died of cancer in 1985). Known as Do and Ti, the two bonded over religious beliefs which soon morphed into a belief that they were of a higher level than others and that they could reach the “Next Level” by rejecting their human forms and becoming extraterrestrial beings who would ascend to heaven via UFO, and they recruited followers.
The Cult Next Door: The Mystery and Madness of Heaven’s Gate features never-before-seen footage including home movies, as well as newly released audiotapes. It airs on 20/20 March 11 from 9:01–11:00 p.m. ET on ABC and will stream the next day via Hulu.