Heaven’s Gate : The Cult of Cults is a 4-part HBO documentary about the religious cult that committed mass suicide in 1997. Heaven’s Gate as a cult documentary is bound to be compared to The Vow, which was about the NXIVM sex slavery cult. Which I guess is an appropriate starting point in discussing Heaven’s Gate : The Cult of Cults.
In my review of The Vow, I had expressed disappointment in how the documentary series was not self-contained but held back information in order to facilitate a second season. This was utterly untenable, in my opinion. Fortunately, there is no second season of Heaven’s Gate : The Cult of Cults. There is a beginning, middle and end – like all effective stories.
Heaven’s Gate – the cult – was established by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles calling themselves “Do” and “Ti” respectively. Applewhite and Nettle taught their followers that the planet Earth would be “recycled” before 2027 and the only way to survive this was for their consciousness to be leave their bodies at an appointed time. Initially, the cult believed that a spacecraft would physically bring their ‘souls’ to heaven (or the “Next Level”) but this was refined to a spiritual transformation in the wake of Nettles’ death by cancer.
In 1997, Applegate believed that the sign of the Hale-Bopp comet signalled that the time was right for the “exit” (i.e. mass suicide) and 39 members – including Applegate killed themselves accordingly. There would be more suicides of ex-members following this event.
The documentary recounts the history of the cult in matter of fact terms. The usual testimonies are utilised – former members provide direct testimonies while experts pontificate as to the reason behind such aberrant behaviour. The overwhelming emotion is that of sadness. The members of Heaven’s Gate come across like extreme nerds – there was a strong Star Trek connection in their UFO-based beliefs – and there appears to be none of the predatory behaviour that was prevalent in the NXIVM cult.
Though severely deluded Applegate and Nettle seemed quite benign and while their intentions seem genuine, there were certain elements of mental insanity in the conclusions they arrived at. What is frightening is that much of the belief system is derived from mainstream Christianity but when mixed with the extreme science fiction trappings totally abandoned all logic and sense of reality.
So, at the end of the day, Heaven’s Gate : The Cult of Cults made me feel very sad. There has always been escapist tendencies in all religions but when reality itself is something to be delivered from then, suicide becomes the only viable option. While some may argue that – at least in America – the members were consenting adults – the family and friends left behind have been traumatised by the unnecessary loss of life and that is a tragedy.
Thus, the key lesson is to be careful of the dangerous paths wrong thinking may lead you down. It’s easy to judge the Heaven’s Gate members as deluded fools but seriously, this could happen to anyone. The documentary does a good job in conveying that lesson succinctly.
… still there’s more …