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New 'Heaven's Gate' series looks to Christianity to explain the method to the cult's madness

December 5, 2020 in Blogs

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Many people first became aware of the Heaven’s Gate cult in 1997, when — after an anonymous tip was called into the San Diego Police Department — the bodies of 39 men and women were found in a rented seven bedroom mansion. Each of the bodies were dressed in androgynous outfits with matching haircuts and Nike sneakers. On their arms were “Star Trek”-inspired bands that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team,” and in their pockets were $5.75.

The discovery caused an inevitable media frenzy, especially after law enforcement authorities reported it as the largest mass suicide on American soil ( The “Jonestown Massacre,” during which more than 900 Americans died, took place in Guyana in 1978). The group believed that once they shedded their physical “vehicles,” they would ascend to heaven in a spaceship where they would reach the “Next Level. There, they would be transformed from their human shell into an alien form.

According to group documents, members had taken phenobarbital mixed with applesauce or pudding, followed by vodka, then asphyxiated themselves with plastic bags. The suicides occurred in shifts over three days, with cult founder Marshall Applewhite — known as “Do” — being among the final shift.

The scene was horrifying, but had enough of an aura of oddity to eventually become fodder for late-night television shows and comedy sketches. For example, in its first live show following the discovery of the bodies, “Saturday Night Live” aired a sketch in which the Heaven’s Gate members actually make it to space, followed by a fake advertisement for Keds, with the tagline, “Worn by level-headed Christians.”

Inherent to all jokes was a question that tends to underlie many mainstream discussions of cults: “How could someone be so easily taken?” The more fringe the group, the more blunt the question — but one that HBO Max’s new docuseries “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,” spearheaded by documentarian Clay Tweel, carefully attempts to dismantle and subvert over four hour-long episodes. It’s a thoughtfully paced series, rich in original source material and striking watercolor animations in place of reenactments.

The first two episodes aren’t the most salacious (if that’s what you’re looking for, skip ahead to the last two episodes), but they are the most illuminating when it comes to identifying where the tenets of Heaven’s …read more


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