A little more than two weeks after 39 bodies were discovered in a Rancho Santa Fe, California, mansion in 1997, the dead were being mocked on Saturday Night Live. Will Ferrell played Marshall Applewhite, the leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult, transmitting from outer space as if he and his followers had successfully boarded the alien spacecraft they believed trailed the Hale-Bopp comet—and had tried to reach by ingesting phenobarbital, then wrapping plastic bags around their heads.
A clip from the sketch appears in the fourth and final episode of Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults, a new documentary series on HBO Max. While researching the cult and its grisly conclusion, director Clay Tweel was surprised by the glut of punch lines. “This is suicide. This is dark. Within days, they were the butt of so many jokes,” he said in an interview.
For years, the members of Heaven’s Gate were discounted as kooks. The HBO Max series, and the 2018 podcast by Glynn Washington on which it’s based, push back against that assessment with an in-depth, empathetic investigation into the group’s 22-year journey from innocuous New Age movement to isolated doomsday cult.
Through interviews with scholars, former cult members, and children of the deceased, viewers gain an understanding of how these 39 people came to believe a UFO was swinging by to take them to heaven, and why they needed to shed their earthly vehicles in order to hitch the ride. The series also contextualizes Heaven’s Gate as an offshoot of a far more familiar phenomenon: Christian apocalypticism.
Applewhite, the son of a Presbyterian minister, founded the group with Bonnie Nettles. They believed they were the two witnesses mentioned in the Book of Revelation, and that their bodies would literally transform into ascended beings when they were picked up by the UFO. Later, Applewhite determined he was the second coming of Jesus—and that the turn of the millennium was the time to take his group to the “next level,” as they called it.
Heaven’s Gate developed in the mid 1970s, around the time of the end of the Vietnam War and Nixon impeachment. Times of turmoil, transition, and uncertainty are often accompanied by increases in apocalyptic movements, said Lorne Dawson, professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Waterloo. “People lose their sense of bearing in the world, and then the apocalyptic scenario provides a clean, simple answer.” For example: God has a plan; there’s a clear demarcation between who’s good and evil; following a specific set of behaviors will ensure that good triumphs; and since it’s God’s plan, extreme actions are justified.
The public clings to its own beliefs that doomsday cult members are outliers—that getting suckered into one would never happen to me. In truth, though, most of us are much closer to embracing those beliefs than we think. The Pilgrims and Puritans, for instance, were apocalyptic thinkers themselves. Overt doomsday groups have proliferated in America since at least as far back as Johannes Kelpius’s Society of the Woman in the Wilderness—which believed the world would end in 1694. “Part of the vision was to go to the new promised land,” Dawson said. “It’s all in the early discourse: the destiny of America to be a special nation that will save the world.”
Tweel started making Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults in 2018, smack in the middle of another time of turmoil, transition, and uncertainty. While watching the news, he heard echoes of the scholars he was interviewing for the film: the scenario of one leader claiming to have sole access to truth, that everything else is fake news and only he knows what’s really going on, and that he’s the only person who can fix anything. “As the cult of personality around Donald Trump has grown, the parallels become stronger,” he said.
Although the series does not address current events, the present social and political division were part of what motivated Tweel to clarify the group’s extreme beliefs. “Seeing other people’s ideas broken down to something [viewers] can relate to is important,” he said. Recent phenomena like QAnon share disturbing similarities with the doomsday groups that have preceded them, including Heaven’s Gate. “The same language is there,” Dawson said. “‘Trust the plan. Enjoy the show.’ The idea that it’s all about to wrap up and the bad guys will be punished. Trump is a Messiah figure here to drain the swamp.”
These groups have rarely ended in violence; often, when a predicted end date passes without consequence, followers simply disperse. But sometimes they dig in their heels. In Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults, religion scholar Reza Aslan explains the theory of cognitive dissonance as it applies to failed prophecies. Basically, since the brain doesn’t like holding contradictory beliefs, it will bring divergent ideas back into consonance—either by accepting that a prophecy was false, or by creating an explanation for why the end will come later instead or in a different way. The latter happened in the case of Heaven’s Gate.
In 1985 Nettles succumbed to cancer. How can a body turn into an alien if the body no longer exists? “When Nettles dies, it undermines the entire point of the bodily transformation,” Aslan says in the series. “And now it’s a spiritual transformation. We are going to leave our bodies behind.” He speculates that the group would not have ended in mass suicide if she’d lived. Just as the members of Heaven’s Gate looked to Applewhite for direction, so Applewhite looked to Nettles. Once he stopped receiving her guidance, the group changed in fundamental, extreme ways.
Such cognitive dissonance is happening now in the QAnon community. Its leader, the anonymous Q, had predicted a red wave—but then Trump lost the election. And QAnon went silent for 11 days. “People were freaking out,” Dawson said, “like, ‘We need our prophetic leader to explain this disconcerting stuff.’” Now it’s been 26 days and counting since a Q drop. Will followers accept the prophecy as false—or dig in their heels? Q, though silent, appears not to have backed down yet. Two of its last three posts include this ominous prediction: “Nothing can stop what is coming.”
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