Though he had no background in religious studies, sociology professor Rob Balch wanted to research the New Age, cult-like sects popping up in the Southwestern deserts.
It was 1975, when religious cults had seemingly grasped the world — the massive Jonestown massacre would occur three years later — and Balch found himself following a so-called “Jesus Freak” (a common term in the 1960s) named Gary in Sedona, Arizona. He had been studying alternative and fringe religions, though the “Jesus Freaks” denounced the fringe groups that were emerging at the time.
Balch — who was then on unpaid leave from the University of Montana — and Gary left the Christian coffeehouse they’d been hanging out at, when he noticed a poster on the wall. Before Gary could tear it up and throw it on the ground, calling it “the work of the devil in everyday life,” Balch grabbed the poster. It read:
DO YOU KNOW WHAT CHRIST REALLY CAME TO TELL US?
DO YOU BELIEVE IN FLYING SAUCERS?
ARE YOU READY TO TAKE YOUR PHYSICAL BODY TO THE NEXT EVOLUTIONARY KINGDOM?
THIS METAMORPHIC PROCESS WILL BE DISCUSSED AT A MEETING
This discovery came as Balch began noticing wealthy Southern Californians had moving to the area, and thus a growing presence of people interested in spiritual and New Age metaphysical ideas that had emerged in the small city.
“After my parents moved down there, a couple years went by and this big New Age bookstore springs up and I start to notice all of these other things, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is a community where something’s really happening,’” Balch said.
A week later, Balch drove 60 miles through brilliant red rock canyons to Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona, to attend the meeting of a nameless group of doomsdayers, eventually called Heaven’s Gate.
Little did Balch know that this group was one which reporters and curious internet sleuths would be contacting him about for almost 50 years to come. Balch’s work, which would lead sociological studies of Heaven’s Gate, has recently been featured in the 2020 HBO Max documentary, “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,” nearly 24 years after the group’s infamous mass suicide in 1997.
Balch’s work with the group fundamentally reoriented his sociology career. From going undercover in the cult in the mid 1970s, to later interviewing over 60 ex-members, Balch has become known as an expert in alternative religions and cults.
The unusual tale of Heaven’s Gate has captivated the public since the first reports of a 20-person group going missing from the coastal town of Waldport, Oregon, in 1975. They left after the cult’s first public recruitment meeting, on Sept. 14, 1975, starting a cycle of news coverage that would push Heaven’s Gate into the mainstream. People left family, friends and jobs behind after only two meetings.
“When something appeared on the Walter Cronkite show, you knew that it was going to be national news and that’s what happened,” Balch said. “They broke the story of all those people that had disappeared over in Waldport, Oregon, and so suddenly there’s all these articles appearing in the newspaper; Who are these people, where have they gone, what’s happening, is this a fraud?”
Fraud or not, Heaven’s Gate was one of many up-and-coming alternative religious groups, including the “Jesus Freaks” — “hippies who converted to Christianity,” as Balch calls them — that formed in the 1960s and ‘70s across the country.
The public quickly associated the workings of the group with the Manson Family, one of the best-known cults in popular culture at the time. However, the two leaders of Heaven’s Gate — then calling themselves Bo and Peep — didn’t seem dangerous, as Balch later concluded. They led their followers, some reported missing by their family and friends, at their own free will. Members could leave the group at any time and did over the years, as Balch observed as he tracked down more ex-members.
The New Age Movement was an international social movement that emerged mainly in Western culture in the late 1960s through the ‘80s.
“The New Age Movement can be defined by its primal experience of transformation,” J. Gordon Melton, author of the New-Age Encyclopedia writes. “New-Agers have either experienced or are diligently seeking a profound personal transformation from an old, unacceptable life to a new, exciting future.”
Heaven’s Gate didn’t subscribe, exactly, to the New Age definition, but that is not to say that the group wasn’t seeking profound personal transformation.
The group’s founders, former music professor Marshall “Herff” Applewhite and registered nurse Bonnie Nettles, would go on to refer to themselves as Do and Ti or Bo and Peep, respectively. As Do (Applewhite) wrote in 1988, the two met in Houston, Texas, in the early ‘70s, after their bodies were incarnated by souls from what they called the “Next Level.”
“The only relationship they shared, certainly having no physical attraction toward each other, was the compulsion to discover what had brought them together and what might be their purpose,” he wrote. “They had little in common other than strong personal relationships with their Heavenly Father.”
The first public meetings of the cult were held in 1975, after Do and Ti (Nettles) left Houston and spent several months developing their connection to the Next Level. Balch guessed there were 60 to 70 people at the meeting he attended in October 1975. Sawyer, a former member, later estimated almost 200 people at the first meeting in Waldport.
They asserted they were representatives from the “Kingdom of Heaven.” According to them, God determined there was a group of people (“vehicles”) who were fit to become hosts for reincarnated souls. These souls recognized Do and Ti as the two who would lead them, and teach them what was required to leave the world behind and enter a literal and physical Heaven, called the Level Above Human, or the Next Level. This message still exists on the Heaven’s Gate website: “What Our Purpose Is — The Simple ‘Bottom Line.’”
“Leaving behind this world included: family, sensuality, selfish desires, your own mind, and even your human body if it be required of you — all mammalian ways, thinking, and behavior,” Do wrote on May 9, 1996.
Do and Ti told their followers that a physical spacecraft would arrive to take them to the Level Above Human, where the training they received to overcome their human traits on Earth would allow them to become productive members of the Next Level.
Members followed strict guidelines, including a set of rules enacted a year or two after Balch had infiltrated the group, called the 17 Steps, which were supposed to help them overcome their humanness. They learned to identify solely with their “awakened” mind and not with their body, also called a “vehicle” or “suit of clothes.”
“When I heard about that, I recognized it as something I seemed to know, it was almost like a smelling salt,” said Sawyer when the cult came to hold a recruitment meeting in Missoula in 1994. “It was, in a sense, an awakening that I knew that already and I was waiting for someone to come and tell me about it.”
After attending the initial meeting in Sedona and talking to the nearly 20 members who were there, Balch’s interest was piqued, and he decided to attend the optional follow-up meeting, beginning a lifelong sociological project.
“We all sat down and this woman in the group went around the circle and asked each person, ‘Are you ready?’ And when they came to me I wasn’t ready at all, but I wanted to find out what was going on here, so I said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready,’” Balch said.
After the new members and Balch, who decided to infiltrate the group, affirmed that they were ready to join, they arranged cars and camping gear and got ready to head to the site of the next meeting: Oakland, California.
They mostly traveled nomadically from city to city, presenting their message to recruit prospective members and sitting quietly in campgrounds together, ideally “tuning in” to the Next Level. No talking was allowed among the members as they began to separate from their human lives before the group, so Balch blended in easily.
“Nobody was going to ask me about my past, nobody was going to question my motives for being there, I was not expected to speak about anything, you weren’t supposed to become friends with people, so it was a very weird group situation,” he said. “Basically, all I had to do to be a good member was keep my mouth shut and do what other people were doing.”
Balch eventually stayed with the group for six weeks along with his research partner David Taylor, then a graduate student at UM.
When Balch returned from his sabbatical infiltrating the cult, Kaimin reporter Barry Noreen covered a talk he gave on Jan. 27, 1976, in a Kaimin article titled, “Religious cultists search nation for lost, heavenly Bo and Peep.”
“Once it was all over, I had no idea what to do with all of this information, but it was just so intriguing I couldn’t let it go,” Balch said. “It seemed like the group was probably going to disintegrate, and it turned out it didn’t.”
During his time undercover, Balch took copious notes that he scribbled on any scrap of paper he could find. At one point, his assigned partner in the cult thought he was having stomach issues because of how often he would leave to go to the bathroom to copy down his notes in private.
Balch took his notes, and he and Taylor set out on the road once again during spring break of 1976 to interview ex-members, starting in Waldport, Oregon, where the first public meeting was held. They systematically tracked down former members across the country, driving to meet them at their homes and talking to them about their experiences.
Suddenly, in the summer of 1976, Balch lost track of the cult.
The group had stopped recruiting and gone underground, therefore eliminating points of contact with the outside world (recruiting and asking for donations during their travels).
“They just kind of vanished from the public eye,” he said.
Balch was contacting the ex-members by letter, and when he lost track of the group it was difficult to find them again. He also ran out of ex-members to talk to, especially ones who knew where the cult was. Concerned parents of current members didn’t know where their children were either.
“As we were trying to track down ex-members, the people that had stayed in the group the longest were all still believers. They hadn’t become disillusioned with the group or the leaders when they left,” he said. “They left because they believed it was true, but just didn’t have the strength to continue with the process and see it to the end. So this morphed into this intermittent, lifelong project, even though I had no idea where the group was.”
In the meantime, Balch continued to write about Heaven’s Gate, sending off papers and essays to be published in different books. His writing included a piece in Psychology Today (“Salvation in a UFO,” by him and Taylor) and an article in the American Behavioral Scientist (“Seekers and Saucers: The Role of Cultic Milieu in Joining a UFO Cult,” also authored by the pair).
Balch also continued teaching, building the curriculum for UM’s alternative religions class, which included field trips to cults in and around Montana.
In 1991, he first visited the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT) cult in Montana, and soon took students on field trips back to the group until their leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, died in 2009.
“The importance of taking students on field trips is you can go to someplace where you can get a feel for the members and their lifestyles,” he said. The students even toured through the apocalyptic group’s bomb shelters.
He and groups of students have visited a range of cults, from the CUT, to Aryan Nations and a community of the Tennessee-based Twelve Tribes group in Canada, among others.
Balch said a lot of groups he and his students have visited are well-read on the academic books and essays that have been written about them.
He said many groups are more open to observation by students because they come in with an open, non-judgmental perspective and are comfortable just listening to what’s going on around them.
“It was really the students that opened the door for me,” he said.
One day in 1994, Balch sat in his office having just sent off another essay about Heaven’s Gate for an anthology about UFO cults. It was the last thing he thought he would ever write about the group. Then, he heard someone enter his office behind him.
He turned around and saw a man and woman, identically dressed with short hair, long-sleeved shirts buttoned to the top, slacks and sneakers.
“These are cult people,” he thought.
Unbeknownst to Balch, though Heaven’s Gate had shrunk over the years after he left, a core group of members remained. Their lifestyle was more strict than it had been before, especially with the implementation of the 17 Steps. And the group had adopted the way of dress that they became known for.
But they believed the time was finally coming: The spaceships were going to come to take them to the Next Level. And several members had come to Missoula on their tour of the country to recruit any remaining people interested in joining.
“One of the reasons they came to Missoula is that they knew that there was this sociologist here at the University that had been writing articles about them and they wanted to find out who I was,” Balch said.
He gave the pair a copy of the article he’d just finished and asked them to give comments on it, so he didn’t misrepresent anything.
The next day, nine members showed up, all similarly dressed. Balch recognized several longtime members, including a woman he’d traveled with back in the ‘70s.
“It was pretty awkward because here I am, I’d been spying on these people and now they’re all in my office,” he said.
The members asked if they could interview Balch about his work and asked him for his opinions on them as a group. Balch thought his research had actually been some of the most positive coverage the group had gotten. He didn’t believe they were brainwashed, like other academics did, but he did tell them he thought they were a cult.
Balch has never seen the video the members took of the interview. The Kaimin corresponded with the current keepers of the Heaven’s Gate website and materials, who said they didn’t know the location of the tape.
Just three years later, the story of the eccentric group that had drawn Balch’s ongoing curiosity took a tragic and irreversible turn that would vault it into notoriety.
On March 26, 1997, three years after the group visited Missoula, 39 members, including their remaining leader Do (Marshall Applewhite) died by suicide with the intention of boarding a UFO they believed was a companion to the Hale-Bopp comet.
Their bodies were found in a rented mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California, dressed in matching uniforms with black Nike sneakers and Heaven’s Gate Away Team patches on their sleeves. Most bodies were covered with purple shrouds.
“We didn’t come here to blow ourselves up. We are unblown while we’re in the human kingdom,” Do said in a video filmed one week earlier. “We could not be in a more modest circumstance than to have our human suit of clothes for the time that we are here. Now we’re about to step out of the human clothes that we are wearing.”
The group believed the act would result in boarding a spaceship to take them to the Level Above Human, where their souls would be returned to their original alien Next Level bodies from which they were reincarnated when they joined the group.
“If you can succeed at that and find no value of life here, and see it only as a training ground and as a stepping stone to move into that kingdom level, if that can occur to you, then you can go into that kingdom,” he said.
“I think Do viewed the suicide as their demonstration,” Balch said. “And clearly they knew that the world was going to sit up and take notice and knew that their bodies were going to be found, so everything was so dramatically staged.”
Balch’s phone started ringing off the hook after the event, as his ongoing research made him an expert on the cult. According to reporting by Kim Skornogoski, at one point he had 160 messages from news organizations including Newsweek, Time, Inside Edition, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Dateline.
After paying for all of his previous research out of his own pocket, Balch received a grant from the National Science Foundation for $50,000, took a sabbatical the summer after the suicides and set off on the road again, enlisting Taylor to interview more ex-members.
These days, Balch fields questions about his studies or inquiries from former students from his home office, surrounded by shelves full of tapes, floppy disks and memorabilia from his studies over the years.
Being able to see behind the scenes and infiltrate the group, for the first and last time in his research career, allowed him to observe the interactions between members, leading to the unexpectedly positive papers he wrote on them. No one was brainwashed, he believed — they were all there of their own volition and free to leave at any moment.
Since the suicides, Balch said he’s only written one paper on Heaven’s Gate, published in 2002. Looking back, he said, he doesn’t think the article is very good. He has a lot more information he’d like to get published.
“What that means is, I’ve got to get off my butt and start doing some serious writing,” Balch said. “I need to find some enterprising graduate student to do a lot of the grunt work because I’ve gotten lazy in my old age.”
Former Heaven’s Gate members are active online to this day, correcting what they see as misinformation about the group and spreading the message of Do and Ti, though none responded to requests for comment. Sawyer, a former member who stayed with the group for 19 years, posts regularly on a blog and supports the group’s ideology on Twitter and livestreams. He was also recently featured in the HBO Max documentary, as well as Balch. Sawyer did not respond to a request for an interview.
Two people, Mark and Sarah King, keep the original Heaven’s Gate website up and distribute materials through their email. The pair met while in the cult, after having been in for over a decade, and fell in love. Balch said they had to leave the group because it was against the rules of overcoming humanness. They left the group on good terms and are believers to this day.
Balch said if it weren’t for the way that the group ended — the mass suicide — the cult probably wouldn’t have the reputation that it does today.
“What’s amazing about this to me is that this is such a tiny little group in the grand scheme of things, so insignificant,” Balch said. “Today, the only people who would know anything at all about this group other than the ex-members are the handful of academics who read the few articles that I wrote about it.
“But now, because of the mass suicide, 20-something years later people are still talking about the group, it’s in all the books on cults, every encyclopedia of unconventional religions, they’re in there and they will be for who knows how long. In a weird sort of way they kind of ensured their own immortality by committing suicide.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Helpline, 1-800-273-8255, for after-hours emergencies. Curry Health Center is also offering telehealth and urgent counseling; set up an appointment at 406-243-4712.