Heaven’s Gate – A Near Death Experience at 6:22AM

“What a bunch of whackos,” we could be forgiven for thinking. We’ve had over 25 years of brainwashing, after all.

CW: Today’s post discusses mass suicides, cults, child harm, and other unsavory things. I will not be inserting any upsetting pictures. Please proceed with caution!

So, I joined a gym.

That’s not the purpose of this post – not fitspo, not weightloss or bragging about reps or gains or anything else. It is, however, necessary for setting the scene.

But let me back up.

So Wednesday the 22nd, I watched the new WACO documentary on Netflix. I had been looking forward to it for a while – I am old enough to remember when it happened, although at thirteen only recall the beginning and ending, while the weeks in between shootouts didn’t register. In the years since, I’ve become mildly interested in it and read or watch things when they come up. This documentary I found disappointing – it was a lot of sensationalism, some interviews with eye-witnesses, but no analysis or much expert commentary. I have watched other docs on Waco – Ask a Mortician’s examination of it was particularly compelling as she pointed out the failures of law enforcement and how they led to so many unnecessary deaths. The disappointment led me to want to revisit a pretty good one on a true crime show I saw on HBO last year, but I couldn’t remember the title or particulars so I just searched ‘documentaries.’

Which is how I found the Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults doc. I didn’t notice the release date and thought it was something from a while back, so I decided to watch.

In short: it is good.

VERY good.


Like most people of my generation I knew the name mostly from pop-culture references; 39 bodies were found in a California mansion, all dressed alike in drab uniforms and black Nike sneaks, lying prone on beds, bunkbeds, and even tables repurposed into makeshift beds, their faces and upper bodies covered by dark cloths. Back in 1997 when the story broke, we were largely still consuming broadcast and print media, which was carefully curated. Information was much harder to access – if you wanted more information, you had to know how to source it: make phone calls, request permission, fill out forms, drive places, or wait for someone to mail you a package. There were a lot of checks in place that ensured only controlled, curated narratives were released. Tabloids would release salacious details and disgusting pictures, but they were known even in the 80s and 90s to edit images so they weren’t credible. So newscasters and other ‘people in authority’ dismissed the Heavens Gate members as ‘crazy fanatics.’

“What a bunch of whackos,” we could be forgiven for thinking. We’ve had over 25 years of brainwashing, after all.

But what emerges during the documentary (which has some questionable music choices, for sure) is a very, very different picture. And I can honestly say that here, in the year of our lord 2023, while we are beset by the looming specter of another world war, environmental disasters, mass shootings, and the callous cruelty of the everyday person, I get what they were trying to do.

Now let me be clear – I’m not about to form a cult, and I’m not talking about intentionally hurting myself or anyone else. FAR from it. I’m in a very healthy mental place right now.

But consider this: how many memes or jokes have you heard in the last few years about people being overwhelmed? People wanting to run away to the woods to be a forest witch, to change their name and disappear from daily life forever? How about the current fascination with cottagecore, farmhouse core, witchcore (yes, the algorithm has me tagged, no apologies)? Consider this also: a segment on Sunday Morning last year explored the current fascination Boomers have with the Andy Griffith Show – they see it as a ‘return to the good old days,’ which of course were good for them because old White men had a wonderful time in the good old days – not so much for anyone else. In short, our current reality sucks and people want an escape from it. Of course there’s variation in what you’re escaping from: conservatives are escaping from a present where white people are the minority and are treated just as poorly as LGBTQ+ people and People of Color have been for centuries; liberals are escaping from school shootings, environmental catastrophe, war, and the crushing responsibility of living within broken institutions while being expected to fix them. But hey, potato potato. But still, what’s a sane, well-meaning person to do?

Sound familiar?

Join the Cult, We’ve Got Jackets

Why, join a cult! People joining cults, communes, or religious sects are looking for the exact same thing: answers. Although the answers may take different forms (giving up all earthly possessions; devoting your life to a good cause; matching outfits),  they are nothing new. To be clear, most cults are not up front about their end game, and might even start out as earnestly offering benign resolutions to the chaos of life. There is usually an evolution that takes people from Point A (Are you unsatisfied with your life?) to Point C (They’re trying to flank us, give the women and children the cyanide pills) with a whole lot of microsteps in between. Really, the only thing that differentiates a cult from a commune or a religion is numbers and the amount of gardening or guns involved.

The Heaven’s Gate premise was this: that a spacecraft was going to come and take away the believers to a better world. Sounds pretty absurd – but it’s really just a flavor update to that classic religious formula of ‘follow these rules and you get something better than the people who don’t.’ Just with aliens in place of giant flying eyeball wheels.

A giant flying eyeball wheel
BE NOT AFRAID says the giant flying eyeball wheel

So as I watched the HBOMAX Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults documentary, I underwent a fascinating evolution myself; I went from skeptical (pff, why would anyone listen to these people/cut off ties with their families/get that haircut) to open (wow, they were able to hold it together successfully for over 25 years; all the members are high-functioning people), to compassionate (these people were weird, and their beliefs are weird, but they were gentle nerds in search of the best of humanity and do not deserve the scorn heaped upon them). My heart went out to the survivors – especially the ones who made the painful decision to cut ties with the group and leave before the mass suicide, but then took their own lives later.

As is evident from the documentary, there were no threats, no violence that kept the members from leaving the cult. Nobody was forced to stay because their spouse was involved. Everyone who was there was there because they were a believer. Most interesting to me of all – there were no children in Heaven’s Gate. After Ti, the female half the founding pair, died of cancer and the group’s foundational belief was shaken to its core, Do retconned their founding principles and claimed their bodies were vehicles, which they would shed when the spaceship came for them. And because he was a gentle speaker with a mellifluous voice and a kind way, almost like Mr. Rogers, people believed him and couldn’t see the harm. He turned love into a leash. Right up to the end. Even when some admitted doubts about their ways and said they wanted to leave, he didn’t prevent them – even giving some money for plane tickets and travel. They went – and then they came back, as he hoped they would. This is a form of psychological manipulation, but it’s no less effective than ruling by fear, and from a moral perspective is even worse because it turns some of the best parts of humanity into a means for exploiting others. If  you have trouble doing the mental math, I propose a thought experiment: imagine Bob Ross or Dolly Parton beating a child and then explaining to the child why they are at fault.

The Numbers Game

Now, ‘cult of cults’ sounds a bit like an overstatement; if you want to be callous about it and use the metric of bodycount, more people died at Waco, and HELLA more died at Jonestown. And if you’re looking at history, forget it – cruise the List of Mass Suicides on Wikipedia and you’ll see some truly soul-crushing numbers over the centuries, as well as want some antidepressants handy. But I think the filmmakers could be forgiven for using such a grandiose title; although HG wasn’t totally harmless (members were required to cut off contact with their families and eventually, to prevent sexual ‘thoughts,’ a few men underwent voluntary castration, including leader Do, [although how voluntary could it have been given peer pressure, but I digress]), they didn’t stockpile guns; they paid their taxes and some members maintained jobs in order to support the group; the matching styles were weird but it’s not unusual for some aspect of the self to be surrendered in cults, monasteries, nunneries, etc.

I think the title is deserved because it is accurate: HG was the largest mass suicide of the modern age on U.S. soil; Waco was probably going to self-destruct at some point, but so long as Koresh had a free ride to rape women and molest children while proclaiming himself the Son of God, he more than likely would have made that last as long as possible. It was the actions of the the ATF and FBI that ignited that powder keg, but it would have gone off eventually as Koresh wasn’t cooperating and knew he was likely to die from his gunshot wound. HG’s entire premise was built on the idea of ‘what comes next,’ so it could be argued that people joining up had at least an idea of what to expect, if not when or how. Even the method by which they performed ‘the Exit’ was largely painless: an overdose of phenobarbital while wearing a plastic bag over their heads. I’m no expert but that does sound better than cyanide-laced Kool-Aid (as at Jonestown). And once again – no children accompanied the Heaven’s Gate members. There were over 200 at Jonestown, murdered by their own families.

To close, I’m not sure what I’m trying to say with this post (other than to again reassure you I’m not joining a cult or heading toward self-harm). Heaven’s Gate was a god damn tragedy, to be sure – what haunts me most is the footage of these people on their little excursions, hiking or spending time outdoors. Once you get past their odd fashion choices, they look like any church group: they’re smiling, laughing, enjoying one another’s company. One member pretends to plug her laptop into a tree as a joke and the other members find that to be the funniest shit they’ve ever seen, which is both sweet and utterly, utterly bizarre.

My Own Near-Exit Experience

Last of all, I’ll say once again: I get that desire to find a community of shared values, a safe space in which to be among like-minded others. Having moved to a new city and state after uprooting my life almost a year ago, I can see the appeal. I realized one day I had only been going to the grocery store, Target, and the pet store. I work from home and had dug myself a little self-isolating groove, so I decided to join a gym.

Last Thursday morning, the 30th, I was on the elliptical at 6:22AM. I looked up at the bank of wall-mounted TVs to check the news, and nearly fell off when I saw Do’s face. Talking.

Shit. It finally happened, I thought. I’ve lost my fucking mind after all these years. But happily, it was just an advertisement for the documentary I had watched, nothing more. Although the elliptical heart monitor thought I had died because of the pulse rate spike.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults. Please remember to like, share, and subscribe, although today’s post was pretty dark. And as always, thanks for taking the time to read this entry, I know it was rough. There’s better stuff on the horizon, I promise.

Be seeing you.

Author: jennnanigans

Orlando-area writerly person.

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