HBOMax | Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults Documentary Review
I remember seeing the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult in the news back in the 90s. So when I saw the documentary was added to HBOMax I was intrigued to learn more. I wanted to know how to people get so deep into a cult that they were willing to commit suicide as a group.
Heaven’s Gate Recruitment
The documentary covers the history of the cult which began on the 1970s. Founder Ti and Do had an epiphany in the woods of Oregon, perhaps induced by LSD, that they were the 2 witnesses in the Book of Revelations. From there they went into the recruitment phase, posting flyers and holding public meetings to pitch their message.
The angle of UFOs and aliens seduced a group of about 22 people to ditch their families and follow the nomadic leaders around the country. The group ended up in the news as a UFO cult after these initial 20 members “disappeared” from their everyday lives.
Much to my surprise, at the time of the cult’s “exit” in 1997, many members had been with the cult for over 20 years.
Rules of the Cult
The documentary also focuses on the bizarre beliefs and rules of the cult. Including forbidding contact with family members, no sexual activity, an assigned partner to monitor all your activity, new names, and of course – castrations. An estimated 7-9 members cut off their johnsons including their leader Marshall Applewhite better known as Do.
A lot of the teaching of Marshall Applewhite is a perversion of Christianity. As the son of a preacher, the “Cult of Cults” producers make the case that he was trying to escape his father’s shadow and become a leader of his own.
Interviews with former members are sprinkled throughout. It’s obvious even after leaving the cult these individuals have been permanently damaged from the control devices they were subject to. In the case of one former member, Sawyer, he still believes in the Heaven’s Gate rule book of life.
“Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cult’s” features sociologists providing expert opinions and timelines of events, and insight into the type of behavioral control devices that Ti and Do commonly use. Unfortunately, some of these experts seem to normalize cult membership casually asserting that it can happen to anyone. Going as far as saying that a lot of us are in cults and don’t even know it. They point out though that cults form during times of societal stress as people search not for the truth a truth that works for them (Hmm, MAGA anyone?).
After the unexpected death of Ti, Do seems to go off the rails. Ramps up his self-deification. And some of the more hardcore members of the group ramp up their influence in setting the group’s agenda.
Oh and their website!
As the group moved into the 90s the trust fund money provided from an original member started to dwindle. So like many, they got into online activities to raise funds at the dawn of the internet. Much to my shock the 90s-born website is still active today and run by former members. So insert your AOL CD-ROM and boot up the dial-up modem and take a look.
Heaven’s Gate Surviving Members
Following the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate, at least three members of the group committed suicide themselves. The group’s suicide attempts in a hotel on May 6, 1997, were similar to those carried out by Wayne Cooke and Chuck Humphrey. However, Cooke did not survive the attempt while Humphrey did. The 11th of May saw the suicide of another former member, James Pirkey Jr. He suffered a gunshot wound that he is self-inflicted. Having survived his first attempt at suicide, Humphrey ultimately committed suicide in Arizona in February 1998.
Heaven’s Gate Uniform
The group wore identical black shirts, sweat pants, black-and-white Nike Decades sneakers, and armband patches that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” (one of many references the group makes to the fictional Star Trek universe).
One of the survivors said that the identical clothes were used as a uniform for the mass suicide in order to symbolize unity, and the Nike Decades was chosen because the group “got a good deal on the shoes.”
Is Heaven’s Gate a true story?
A dispute between land barons and European immigrants in Wyoming in the 1890s is the backdrop of this loose adaptation of the Johnson County War. The sequel to Cimino’s critically acclaimed film The Deer Hunter (1978), Heaven’s Gate was filmed on location in Montana and Idaho.
Overall, the multi-part Heaven’s Gate documentary was captivating and saddening. Seeing family members who were abandoned speak about their lost loved ones was tough, so make sure you’re in the right mood for this.
However, I do need to scream bull-shit at the producers for not going deeper into the control devices which make Heaven’s Gate cult possible. And why it’s differentiated from what is normal participation in social groups. The take that this group who believed in abstinence, castration, UFOs, and ultimately mass suicide is just over the fringe of normalcy is completely bat shit.
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