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Spooky UFO cult lured away 20 Oregonians to follow “The Two”

Two decades later, the cult, now named “Heaven's Gate,” would make national headlines by committing mass suicide in hopes that a UFO hiding behind Comet Hale-Bopp would carry their spirits away to Planet Heaven.

A poster put up by the “Human Individual Metamorphosis” cult at the University of Oregon, encouraging people to attend the meeting in Waldport. (Image: Oregonian)

In the Fir Room at the Bayshore Inn in Waldport, some 200 people were waiting expectantly for something to happen.

None of them knew quite what that something would be — all they knew was that it was something about UFOs.

It was Sept. 14, 1975 — a quiet Sunday afternoon. The crowd — “mostly hippie types,” the hotel’s manager would later recall — had come to the hotel in response to the mysterious posters that had been plastered up all over Portland and the Willamette Valley.

“UFOs: Why they are here. Who they have come for. When they will leave,” the posters had proclaimed, with enticing crypticality. And they had invited all the curious to come and have their questions answered on that day at the Bayshore.

The conference room had been paid for by a man identifying himself as “Mr. Simons.” He’d laid down $50 in cash for the room, and no questions had been asked or answered.

Now it was 2 o’clock — the appointed hour — and a man appeared. He was dressed in a very ordinary fashion; but several witnesses later recalled there was something about his eyes, a “strange, shiny look, almost as if they were sightless,” as one woman later told the Portland Oregonian.

“When he went to the front of the room and began talking — no one introduced him, nor did he give his name — the eerie feeling became more pronounced,” the woman recalled. “His speech sounded as if it were being played on a machine and was turned on and off automatically.”

“He didn’t seem to blink his eyes at any time except to tip his head back at regular intervals and half-close both eyes,” she added. “A robot was the only comparison I could make.”

Then a woman joined the strange man on stage. Witnesses said her eyes held the same strange, shiny, fixed look as his.

An initation tape for the Heaven's Gate cult, featuring the earnest-but-creepy Marshall Applewhite talking directly to the camera. Applewhite gave a similar performance live at a hotel ballroom in Waldport in 1975, inspiring 20 Oregonians to sell or give away their stuff and follow him. (JayDowns/YouTube)

The couple told the members of the audience that they were actually millions of years old, and had come to Earth in the footsteps of their fellow cosmic traveler, Jesus Christ. The opportunity to follow them, as had been the opportunity to follow Jesus, would likely not knock again for a millennium or more.

They were, they assured the riveted audience, the two witnesses foretold of in the Book of Revelation (11:3). They would be upon the Earth for 1,260 days gathering together ambitious souls who were ready to be transformed into “children of the Next Level.”

To reach the Next Level, and enjoy deliverance from human suffering and the spiritual corruption of a fallen world through the beings who were visiting the Earth in UFOs, the audience members were invited to abandon or give away all their worldly possessions and follow The Two. As aspirants to the Next Level, they would be expected to live a life of near-heroic asceticism, abstaining from all tasty or intoxicating food and drink and sleeping as little as possible and strictly avoiding sex — in other words, following the old Gnostic doctrine of turning away from all worldly pleasures so as to open oneself up to celestial ones. Those who were interested were asked to come to a second meeting, a private affair for initiates only, to be held about a week later.

The Waldport meeting, although large, went mostly unnoticed by media outlets. But that all changed shortly after that second, private meeting, when people started disappearing.

It started with a newspaper article that sounded straight out of an H.P. Lovecraft story:

“NEWPORT — Reports in Lincoln County of at least 20 local residents disappearing at the bidding of occult beings are supported by no hard evidence, law officials said Saturday.”

But it was true. Reports started pouring in. People who had been in that audience were quitting their jobs, giving all their things away, and leaving town with nothing. They would follow The Two to a special camp in Colorado from which, through the intercession of the beings who fly UFOs, they anticipated being carried to the Next Level. One of them, Robert Rubin of Newport, had given away four houses and a 10-acre farm to follow The Two. Others had handed off small children to family members before leaving.

These new UFO apostles were specifically instructed that they could have no two-way conversations with the family members they’d left behind — the best they could do was send postcards. Naturally, there was considerable concern about this, especially because many of the postcards were almost identically worded, as if the writer were taking dictation. Reports from the Waldport meeting, after many retellings, started metastasizing into rumors that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Lovecraft novella. People remembered seeing a weird, lambent nimbus of light playing about the heads of the glassy-eyed man and woman, whom no one seemed to be able to identify or even fully describe. One audience member claimed he sensed “an aura of death” in the meeting. Others reported that The Two had prophesied that they were “marked for death” and would soon be “returning to the Next Level” — that they would die after delivering their message, as had John the Baptist and Jesus Christ before them. People started wondering if this all might be leading up to some sort of brainwashing-fueled ritual mass suicide. (Keep in mind that this was several years before the notorious Jonestown incident, so the “creepy cult committing mass suicide” narrative was a considerably bigger leap for people to make in 1976 than it is for us today.)

But then, a few weeks later, the first of the vanished “apostles” reappeared and began the long and arduous task of putting his life back together. More appeared soon after, including Rubin, who managed to get some of his real estate back.

And shortly afterward, authorities finally figured out who the strange couple were. They were Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, the founders and leaders of a vaguely New Age movement called “Human Individual Metamorphosis,” or HIM.

For all the mysterious overtones of Lovecraftian Cosmicism that the Waldport meeting had developed in the public imagination, the reality of HIM was turning out to be less sinister. Applewhite and Nettles were leading a group that essentially followed Gnostic Christian doctrine, filtered through a belief in UFOs and heavily influenced by Star Trek. They believed Heaven was an actual planet (like Yuggoth in Lovecraft’s classic The Whisperer in Darkness); that Jesus was a resident there, and that when he had come to Earth 2,000 years ago he had found Earth’s population not yet ready to “level up”; and that the UFOs were the conveyance that would take them when they were. Evolving to the “next level above human” would leave them capable of leaving their bodies (which they sometimes actually called “vehicles”) and traveling through interstellar space in the company of the “next-level” beings in the UFOs. (Again, the parallels to The Whisperer in Darkness are kind of chilling.)

Of the 20 Oregonians who had left, 18 dropped out of the HIM movement and reprised their interrupted lives. The other two disappeared entirely — most likely having established themselves elsewhere, unable to face the humiliation of coming back. And residents of Waldport got back to their normal lives.

In 1985, Nettles died. Applewhite carried on without her, claiming she had left her Earthly “vehicle” to move to Planet Heaven in a UFO. He later renamed his cult Heaven’s Gate.

The end came in 1996, when the comet Hale-Bopp flew by the Earth. Convinced that a UFO lurked just behind the comet, waiting to take the Heaven’s Gate members away to Planet Heaven, Applewhite and 38 of his 39 followers rented a mansion near San Diego, dressed in matching Nike running shoes and black shirts with “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” arm patches, and “liberated” themselves from their Earthly “vehicles” via an overdose of barbiturates mixed with vodka.

(Sources: Portland Oregonian, 5-9 Oct 1975; Wright, Mic. “The Strange Online Afterlife of a 20th Century Suicide Cult,” thenextweb.com; “Heaven’s Gate Timeline,” watchman.org; Zeller, Benjamin. Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion. New York: NYU Press, 2014)