Nike & The Most Infamous Normcore Cult Suicide Of All Time
Is any part of this wild story true?
All summer long, Refinery29 will be examining cults from every angle: pop culture, fashion, food, beauty, and their controversial origins. Let’s dig into the fascination behind this fervor with "Cult Fridays."
Recently, a two-year-old Reddit post resurfaced, written by someone who claimed to have met the man who sold 39 matching pairs of Nikes to the infamous Heaven’s Gate cult the day before their mass suicide in March 1997.
According to the post, a young man had just started his very first job at a San Diego Nike store when Heaven’s Gate’s cult leader Marshall Applewhite walked in, decided he liked the black Nike Cortez model, and presented the salesman with a list of sizes. In the OP’s (“original poster” in internet forum parlance) own words:
“Nike dude asks him, ‘Oh, is this for a basketball team or something?’ Cult guy’s actual reply, ‘Something…like that.’ They have all the shoes there but one last size, and he calls another store and finds them for him because he’s so such a great employee, and even delivers them to his address. Cut to the next day and he sees the news and he sees that the address is the exact same address he delivered the shoes to.”
On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 men and women in a San Diego mansion. The Heaven's Gate members, dressed in matching all-black tracksuits, had taken a combination of phenobarbital and alcohol and then suffocated themselves with plastic bags. In the photographs and videos of the scene that circulated around the world, the Nike swoosh was clear on the sneakers poking out from underneath purple shrouds.
According to the OP, this Nike employee, who had been so proud of his large sale after just a few days on the job, felt guilty for his role in the tragedy. Should he have known? Should he have asked more questions? “Through the chaos of all of this and the court stuff,” the post claims, he came in contact with the waitress who served the cult their last meal, and the man who supposedly sold them alien abduction insurance policies. (Yes, really.) The post concludes by alleging that the regretful trio (Nike salesman, waitress, and insurance man) joined together and ended up creating the now-iconic slogan: “If you see something, say something.”
Is any part of this wild story true?
The Truth About The Fashion Of Heaven’s Gate
Applewhite, a former music professor, founded Heaven’s Gate in the early 1970s with Bonnie Nettles, a nurse he met in a psychiatric institution while trying to cure himself of his homosexuality. Applewhite had apparently been fired by the University of St. Thomas in Houston following his relationship with a male student, and his lingering self-hatred ended up informing both the ideology and the style choices of Heaven’s Gate.
As developed by Applewhite and Nettles, the cult married End Times Christian ideology with science fiction. Members believed that they would be beamed up by aliens and ascend to the next evolutionary level above human, while the rest of humanity faced extinction as the earth was “recycled.”
After Nettles passed away of cancer in 1985, Applewhite kept the group together, and, in the 1990s, started taking advantage of the nascent internet to spread the group’s message; the cult, which moved around various sites across the country over the decades, survived by offering web design services and performing odd jobs locally. Applewhite also pivoted away from the idea that their bodies would be retrieved by alien deities (in a sci-fi take on The Rapture). Instead, they would have to “leave” their bodies, or commit suicide.
Part of the ideology that Applewhite promulgated to his followers, according to Rolling Stone’s 20-year anniversary coverage, was that The Next Level was a place without gender. The cult had a strict, “no sex, no human-level relationships, no socializing” rule. Applewhite, who apparently still found himself attracted to at least one male member of his congregation, said in his farewell video that “this body...has desires and impulses that are hideous to us, and we have to get control of that.” Some male members even agreed to be castrated.
But their fashion was also apparently used to suppress sexual desire. Male and female members were all required to dress exactly the same, to banish their individuality and gender associations. They wore androgynous clothing: long-sleeved shirts buttoned up to the collar and black pants, and all shaved their heads.
When the cult chose a date for their ascension-suicide, believing that the Hale-Bopp comet was being trailed by the alien spacecraft they'd long awaited, they set about preparing their final outfits. The uniform for the occasion could be categorized as early athleisure: black long-sleeved button-up shirts, black pants, black sneakers, and custom Heaven’s Gate Away Team patches.
Here’s where the gaping holes in our OP’s story first appear, with credit due to the diligent reporting of the sneakerhead website Sole Collector and Nathan Jolly for News.com.au, who both emailed the surviving members of the Heaven’s Gate cult to ask about the sneakers. (Yes, there are surviving members who still believe in the Heaven’s Gate ideology, run the startlingly dated website and will answer respectful questions by email.)
It turns out that it wasn’t Applewhite who showed up to Nike to buy the shoes, but two cult members who purchased the sneakers in bulk on March 1 from a store in the San Diego area. Applewhite was involved in the decision – he liked the look of them and, because they were a very basic sneaker with no fancy new technology, they were the most budget-friendly option.
“The shoe store manager indicated he could come up with about 40 pairs of those shoes for us at a good price. We shopped around and found his deal to be the best in relation to the kind of shoe we wanted,” the surviving cult members said in an email to Jolly.
So, it wasn’t a new Nike employee, the shoes were not personally delivered to the group's mansion, and the suicide didn’t happen until at least a couple weeks later, over the course of three days.
Another obvious error: the incident’s connection to the slogan “If you see something, say something.” Because it was a clear suicide, there were no court proceedings except for a legal case the surviving members pursued against the local authorities to regain seized property. This means the Nike employee likely wouldn’t have met the waitress or the insurance salesman in court. In any case, the slogan “If you see something, say something,” is very clearly attributed to an ad executive, Allen Kay, in New York City who had the Metropolitan Transport Authority as one of his ad agency’s clients. He jotted it down as an idea the day after another American tragedy, one with exponentially more casualties and global ramifications, on September 12, 2001.
“Maybe this guy worked along with Allen Kay,” the OP said when confronted by other Redditers with this particular discrepancy. “I don't know. He still told a damn good story.”
An even better telling of the Heaven's Gate story now comes from the 10-episode podcast Heaven’s Gate by Glynn Washington, host of WNYC’s Snap Judgment, which was released last year. Washington was actually a teenage member of another End Times organization, and thoughtfully interviews surviving members and probes his own feelings and memories to shed new light on the psychology behind cults and mass suicides. (While the podcast includes chilling audio footage and retellings of the group's final hours, it does not delve into the details of the sneaker purchase.)
One thing the OP got (almost) right, amazingly, was the alien abduction insurance. I went looking to find out if this is a real thing, and it is. According to a 1997 article in The Chicago Tribune, the company that sold the 39 insurance policies to the Heaven’s Gate members, with the Heaven’s Gate organization as the beneficiary, stated afterwards that it was withdrawing from the alien abduction insurance business. But then again, these policies were sold over the internet, not in the office of an insurance salesman in San Diego. (This further debunks the tale of a meeting between the OP, waitress and an insurance salesman.) The next year, the same company started selling the policy again, with the managing partner saying, "I've never been afraid of parsing the feeble-minded from their cash."
Copyrighted Cult Collector’s Item
“It has been turned into something bigger than it really was,” the surviving cult members told Jolly of the Nike sneaker’s infamy. “They were to demonstrate uniformity. We were all in the same attire, like team unity... Any shoe that would have been selected would have done this. If it would have been Adidas or Converse or New Balance, they all would have been supported or received publicity. We thought that it actually hurt Nike more than helped, anyway.”
Financially, they’re probably right. According to Sole Collector, while most assumed the sneakers selected were Nike Cortezes, they were eventually pegged by sneaker aficionados as Nike Decades. Nike knew immediately, of course, and quickly discontinued the style. They haven’t brought them back since. (When Refinery29 reached out, Nike declined to comment on the situation.)
In 1997, Nike representative Jim Small told Adweek, “We’ve heard all the jokes. The Heaven’s Gate incident was a tragedy. It had nothing to do with Nike.”
In 2008, when Nike-sponsored skateboarder Todd Jordan, said that he "designed a pair of Nike SB Dunk Highs in a black/white/purple colorway as an homage to the uniforms of the cult members and the purple sheets they covered themselves with during the suicides,” Nike canceled the release.
The fashion choices Applewhite put in place for his congregation weren’t about freedom and self-expression, as modern androgynous style is. Instead, it was about control in various forms. It was depressingly traditional and puritanical ideology hidden behind a seemingly modern, egalitarian look and logo. (The cult’s remaining stewards are still vigilant and litigious about this aesthetic: In early August, they threatened a rapper with a lawsuit when he tried to use a version of their logo for album artwork).
Nevertheless, the Nike shoes have become a collector’s item. And while it’s disturbing anyone would seek to profit off of a group suicide — one driven in part by the internalized homophobia of one man — an unworn black pair apparently discovered in a storage unit in Arizona went up for auction on eBay for the asking price of $6,660. Or, you can get a white pair (with Heaven’s Gate right in the title) for $2,500.