” Two persons say that they were sent from the plane above the human and will return to this plane within the next few months with a spaceship (UFO). This line from a 1975 information poster distributed in San Francisco triggered one of America’s most infamous cults: Heaven’s Gate. You’ve probably heard of the group’s wild beliefs, but HBO is here to introduce you to former members and the wild inner life of the West Coast, the new age group.
Historically, HBO is known for creating riveting series about true crime, 2020 with I’ll Be Gone In The Dark and The Vow, to name a few. But Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults combines like no other a fascination for otherworldly beings, cult manipulation and total devastation.
The documentaries take a look inside the Heaven’s Gate cult, which operated on the American West Coast for around 22 years until its members participated in the largest mass suicide in American history. Led by the founders Ti and Do (pronounced Tee and Doe and inspired by The Sound of Music), the members of Heaven’s Gate tried to reach a higher level of mindfulness by discarding their earthly possessions. Ti and Do apparently preached that a UFO would come to collect them when they reached their target level of being. Oh, and the leaders claimed to really believe that they were aliens sent to imprison a handful of people and prepare them for the next level of intelligence.
Since its founding in 1975, the number of Heaven’s Gate agents has fluctuated. Unlike some sects, Heaven’s Gate allowed people to leave the mission because they showed less interest in the mission without intimidating them to stay. For a while, the cult served only as a group of people with similar desires. They left their families, friends and human possessions behind to become nomads, with the intention of reaching a higher level of humanity. Media across the country claimed that the UFO-inspired group “abducted” participants.
Over time, the group evolved to put more control methods into practice. All members were renamed and had to abstain from any form of sex, one of the many strict rules. When the cult began to focus on a classroom format for teaching the teachings, some members left the group.
The people who stayed were the most dedicated followers of Heaven’s Gate. In 1997, the cult imploded with a tragic mass suicide that killed 39 people, including leader Do (real name Marshall Applewhite. Leader Ti, real name Bonnie Nettles, died of cancer 12 years before the group suicide). The members killed themselves by ingesting poison as comet Hale-Bopp approached Earth. The reasoning seemed to be that the comet would bring with it the UFO heavenly gate that the sky had been waiting for, and the death of each one would allow them to enter a new kind of consciousness.
Some of the details the public remembers after the mass suicide is the strange nature of the deaths. Each member was dressed exactly the same and wore only black and black Nike tennis shoes with a white swoosh. Placed on a twin mattress, each member was also covered with a purple sheet. Photos of the funeral tactics are widely available online and are often associated with cult history.
While Heaven’s Gate was certainly mentioned by the American media and citizens from the beginning as a joke and disbelief, Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cult serves to erase how the cult talk humiliated the death of each member. Discussions about the manipulation of cult members come to the fore, rather than simply revealing the details of the cult members’ beliefs and deaths. It serves as an opportunity to reflect on why religious organizations around the world have such power over people and how the search for salvation can lead people to try truly unique things under a charismatic leader or idea.