Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults (2020)

heavens gate the cult of cults poster 2020 documentary hbo max
8.0 Overall Score

Nice linear telling of the story


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Up, up, and away in my beautiful spaceship

On March 26, 1997, thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult were found dead in a group suicide.  The coming of the Hale-Bopp Comet was seen as the sign of everything and all of their dreams to that point.  The story of Marshall Applewhite aka Do and Bonnie Nettles aka Ti and their founding of the Heaven’s Gate group is revealed…and the events leading up to “the Exit” is explored through former members, family members, and experts that look out how the worship of alien transcendence could lead to death.

Heaven’s Gate:  The Cult of Cults is a documentary series about the Heaven’s Gate cult which committed suicide on March 26, 1997.  The four part series premiered on HBO Max on December 3, 2020.

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These images were everywhere in 1997

I completely remember Heaven’s Gate and recall trying to find a lot about the event.  It was a “freak show” at the time with castrated, crazy-eyed Do wearing tennis shoes and talking about alien abductions.  It was crazy.  Much of the attention was on the weird factor of the story.  Heaven’s Gate:  The Cult of Cults is an attempt to find a happy medium of balancing the insane “logic” of the Heaven’s Gate with the reality of how a cult works and grooms its members…even if it doesn’t necessarily start out doing that.

The interesting thing about Heaven’s Gate is how long the cult was around.  The beginning of the cult feels less cult and more hippie logic.  The structural set-up of the cult with Marshall “Do” Applewhite and Bonnie “Ti” Nettles were more organizers rather than leaders at the point.  The cult seemed to change after the death of Ti…and the things really begin to spiral into classic cult mentality.  The development and origin of the cult-like actions is rather textbook (of course the revelation of Ti’s actions after everything indicates knowledge of the criminal aspect at least on her part).

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Transcend the world!

Despite the attempts to look at how Heaven’s Gate was essentially a normal cult, their beliefs were really out there.  It seems like often the people who join a cult are searching for something they can’t find in their everyday life…like peace, understanding, or acceptance.  Science fiction and the hope of something better is a natural appeal when the world feels like it is falling apart…and the belief that there is something bigger in the sky above us that will take us away isn’t unique to Heaven’s Gate, but the Heaven’s Gate storyline isn’t as normalized as other major religions.

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Early Space Force?

Though they objected to Jim Jones and Jonesville comparisons, there is a power play involved in the suicides.  Unlike Jonesville which forced many of the members to kill themselves despite objections, the Heaven’s Gate people all went (as far as we know) willingly and were even followed by other members after the discovery of the suicide and media coverage.  The bottom line is however that Do and Ti’s base “teachings” had no basis an anything but what they decided (a good example is the death of Ti and the castration…both of which caused problems in the teachings).  It feels like Applewhite could have called it off anytime because he had such power with the group…but he chose not to.  The debate is whether he believed his own “Kool-Aid” or if the group mentality had just taken him as well.

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The 39 “vehicles”

Structurally, I do like Heaven’s Gate:  The Cult of Cults in that it doesn’t try to be extremely clever.  Often, these documentary series jump all over the place in the timeline of events.  Generally, those jumps have reasons (with focusing on certain aspects of the story), but it often feels like it is artistic license to spice up the documentary.  This documentary relatively maintains the timeline and it helps you see how the group developed into what they became…and how the suicide occurred.

Though cults have been around forever (and the definition of a cult can be debated), Heaven’s Gate:  The Cult of Cults is a good exploration into a “recent” event that might still be fresh in a lot of people’s minds.  It demonstrates how the way of talking about cults and the members have changed over the years.  It is a good look at how broken people become once they are touched by a cult and how their lives (even if they “escape”) will never be the same.  The families and the former members’ way of thinking has been forever changed by what happened to them…and seeing it as weird or bizarre isn’t an option for them…and as a viewer, you try not to think it as well.

Heaven’s Gate:  The Cult of Cults—Complete Episode Guide

heavens gate the cult of cults episode 1 the awakening

“The Awakening”

Episode 1:  The Awakening Release Date:  12/03/20

In 1975, a new group rose in Oregon led by enigmatic leaders “the Two” aka Marshall “Do” Applewhite also called Bo and Bonnie “Ti” Nettles also called Peep.  With a belief that they are aliens living on Earth, transcending the planet could be the only way to rise to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Exploring the past of Applewhite and Nettles the people who knew them, how Applewhite and Nettles met at a mental hospital is revealed.  Former members and the family of members talk about how the cult joined the organization.  Robert W. Balch and David Taylor go undercover with the group to research a paper.

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“The Chrysalis”

Episode 2:  The Chrysalis Release Date:  12/03/20

Ti and Do turn to recording their lessons to teach their followers how to transcend, and the intense rule and check partner system is set-up.  The renaming of the members, the haircuts, and the clothing style also are changed to fit an androgynous look.  When Ti is given a cancer diagnosis, the dynamic of the group changes.

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“The Second Harvest”

Episode 3:  The Second Harvest Release Date:  12/03/20

The message of the group begins to change and losing identity and group mentality is pushed.  With more lockdowns and rules, longtime members of the group begin to question or leave.  With no sex permitted with members, Dick Joslyn’s membership in the cult poses problem for Do…leading to a new request for the group.  With dwindling numbers, the group needs a new boost of membership…the Exit begins to be discussed as the Hale-Bopp Comet approaches.

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“The Exit”

Episode 4:  The Exit Release Date:  12/03/20

The Hale-Bopp Comet is passing Earth and rumors of a mysterious object following the comet could mean the sign that the Heaven’s Gate community could be looking for.  With plans for the Exit, the group members begin saying goodbye to the world.  In the aftermath of the suicides, the world and the surviving former followers react.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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