HBO Max’s latest docuseries about cults explores the people left behind by the infamous mass suicide.
Content Warning for sensitive readers: this post contains talk of suicide and emotional manipulation.
You may know Clay Tweel’s work best from his 2015 documentary Finders Keepers, a bizarre and winding true story of a man searching for his missing leg, which he’d preserved post-amputation and lost in a storage unit auction. It’s a story that, on the surface, might seem like a comedy of errors but becomes a deeply emotional journey about grief, obsession, and catharsis.
Much like the story of John Wood’s elaborate odyssey to find that missing piece of himself, Tweel’s new series for HBO Max takes a surprisingly emotional dive into the Heaven’s Gate cult’s mass suicide in March of 1997 with Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults. It was an event that’s been more punchline than tragedy in the American cultural gestalt. The four-part miniseries manages to sidestep the sensational and put real human faces on the Heaven’s Gate “Cult of Cults,” using unreleased footage, interviews with friends, family members, former members, and experts.
Following hot on the heels of HBO’s NXIVM series The Vow, Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults seems tailor-made for fans of true crime and deep dives into New Age sects. It’s undeniably riveting to watch, to see intelligent, wildly unique people become swallowed by this idea of ascending to a higher plane, of transforming in body and spirit, of becoming more than what they are.
America has always been an exceptionally ripe breeding ground for cults, conmen, and fire-and-brimstone charlatans. Branch Davidians, The Manson Family, and Jim Jones’ People’s Temple movement all gained national attention through violence and death. While not being an exception to the rule, the Heavens Gate cult was unique in its pragmatic non-structure, its leaders Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite (commonly referred to ‘Ti’ and ‘Do’ throughout) and its well-educated adherents.
These followers were grad students, teachers, computer programmers, journalists, real estate developers. They were people who were curious about the world and what lay beyond it, people who felt as though they were living a lie in a place they don’t belong. Through home video footage, you can see these followers laughing, joking, living, and enjoying their lives. They don’t seem brainwashed. Apart from the shapeless clothing and androgynous haircuts, they seem normal, happy, and hopeful.
Of the two founders, Nettles makes for a fascinating subject. On the surface, she was a true believer who never held herself to the same standards she expected from her followers. After Nettles died in 1985, Heaven’s Gate’s focus shifts from a cerebral concept of spiritual evolution to the Milleristic beliefs of an unbalanced—and all too human—man in Applewhite.
The human toll isn’t lost among the kooky, UFO-centric beliefs of Ti and Do’s followers.
Tweel’s light touch comes through particularly well in interviews with former members who are still profoundly affected by their time with “the class.” There’s a hollowness, regret that hangs over them, as though they’ve been abandoned by the people who knew them best. Some consider themselves to be archivists of a sort, keepers of a flame that went out with the passage of the Hale-Bopp comet. The human toll isn’t lost among the kooky, UFO-centric beliefs of Ti and Do’s followers. The testimony of Kelly Cooke, who was handed off to her grandparents as a child when both of her parents decided to follow Heaven’s Gate in their monastic wanderings, is particularly gutting. Cooke’s mother was one of the twenty-one women who died with the group, her father and two other members would kill themselves in the months after the mass suicide. When that’s held up against an SNL sketch lampooning the group, it feels more than a little uncomfortable.
There’s a dignity to the people left behind, to those who knew there was nothing they could have done to prevent these adults from doing what they believed is right. They only want their mothers, sons, sisters, fathers to be remembered as intelligent people, not the faceless shapes hidden under purple cloth. Tweel takes the media to task for their sensationalist handling of the story. Would it be possible not to sensationalize what remains the largest mass suicide on American soil? Where do you draw the line between respecting the wishes of a loved one and trying to convince them how bonkers their beliefs seem? Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults leaves that question to the viewer.
Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults is currently streaming on HBO Max.