Heaven’s Gate is best known as the UFO group that ended with the mass suicides in San Diego in 1997 at the time of the Hale-Bopp comet. It made the news after the movement’s 39 active members committed mass suicide, and there was a bit of a media frenzy. The group is now defunct, though ex-members maintain their website and there are still a few believers out there. I am frequently interviewed about the group. You can read about my involvement in the HBO documentary, ABC's 20/20, and the Stitcher podcast.
My book considers Heaven’s Gate’s history, social structure, practices, beliefs, and worldview. It argues that major American religious forces such as Evangelical Christianity, the New Age movement, and spiritual seeking shaped Heaven’s Gate, and that the suicides must be read within the context of American religion. The book analyzes the historical origin of the movement, the backgrounds of its founders, social contexts of those who joined and left, the specific forms of Biblical interpretation or hermeneutics that members employed, religious practices developed by adherents, and the reasons that Heaven’s Gate ended as it did. Finally, it argues that for all its seemingly oddness, Heaven’s Gate reflects American society by revealing some of the same forces at play in bigger, more recognizable, more publicly accepted religions.
The book is grounded in two decades of research, and offers my analysis of the group’s origins, history, beliefs, practices, and the reasons for its demise. I based the research on both archival materials and interviews with ex-members. It is the first academic monograph published on Heaven’s Gate.
You can read an except of my book on Salon.
The Spanish language version of Heaven's Gate: America's UFO Religion has a condensed bibliography. A full version of the book's bibliography is available here.
"A dramatic and engaging story. The writing is crisp and clear, and the argument, particularly about the indebtedness of Heaven’s Gate to the Bible and Christianity, as well as to New Age and UFO milieux, is well-articulated and persuasive. Zeller effectively captures the particularity of the members of Heaven’s Gate, why they thought and acted as they did, and what led them to the fateful decisions to take their own lives. In the process he rescues them from being dismissed as mindless 'cult members' and makes understanding them both more challenging and more rewarding. This volume should become the standard reference on Heaven’s Gate."
—Eugene V. Gallagher, author of Why Waco?: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America
"Despite the extensive media coverage of the Heaven’s Gate suicides in 1997, no single-authored academic book has yet been written about this group. This volume thus fills an important gap. This is an extremely valuable book, which should be of interest not merely in academic circles, but more widely. Anyone who has an interest in new religions and wonders how a charismatic leader can persuade 39 people to commit collective suicide will find it a highly readable account of Marshall Herff Applewhite and his followers."
—George Chryssides, University of Birmingham
"The glare of media attention has long since passed from Heaven’s Gate and its group suicide in 1997, but Benjamin Zeller now brings a far more discerning light to the movement’s history, beliefs, and practices. He carefully situates the group within the broader religious culture of the late twentieth century, including its substantial engagement with both Protestant Christianity and New Age currents. In the process, he turns Heaven’s Gate, an idiosyncratic UFO religion, into one richly emblematic of America’s questing, apocalyptic cultural landscape."
—Leigh E. Schmidt, Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities, Washington University in St. Louis
Open access book reviews
Interviews about the book