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Unraveling the Mysteries of Heaven's Gate

Twenty-one years on, a new podcast reveals a cult gone mad — and speaks to our present moment of fact-free dialogue.

The Hale-Bopp comet in 1997

Comet Hale–Bopp in 1997 / Image via Shutterstock

They marveled at the animals at SeaWorld and the Wild Animal Park. They ate a meal at the Marie Callender’s restaurant in Carlsbad. And they stocked up on clothes to die in: Black sweat pants, purple shrouds, black Nike shoes.

Nearly 21 years ago, more than three dozen followers of the Heaven’s Gate cult left it all behind when they abandoned their human “vehicles” for a new home above. Together, they committed mass suicide in a Rancho Santa Fe mansion.

As a captivated nation looked on, county officials scrambled to handle a sudden influx of 39 bodies and figure out what happened.

Then the world moved on from one of the most infamous mass suicides in history. The mansion was demolished, and the county auctioned off the cult’s belongings (a museum devoted to death landed a bunk bed and the space-obsessed cult’s supply of Comet cleanser). Anniversaries passed without any flurry of books or documentaries.

One of the only reminders is the Heaven’s Gate website, an online time capsule that looks just as it did on that 1997 doomsday with a flashing RED ALERT at the top and text announcing that Hale-Bopp comet marks “the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to ‘Their World’ — in the literal Heavens.”

Now, a new 10-part podcast has brought the deadly cult back to life. In the tradition of “Serial” and “S-Town,” the podcast, which just aired its last episode, is a captivating piece of narrative journalism.

There are plenty of surprising revelations about topics like co-founder Marshall Applewhite’s scandal-tinged career as a singer or the huge role played by cult co-founder Bonnie Nettles, an ex-nurse who died before the mass suicide. (They were known to followers as “Ti” and “Do.”)

Listeners also hear about a Heaven’s Gate castration that went graphically wrong, the world of 1970s-style cult brainwashing and “deprogramming,” the desperate efforts by family members to reach out to their loved ones, and more.

In an interview with VOSD, podcast host Glynn Washington, who also hosts public radio’s “Snap Judgment” show, talks about the decline of Heaven’s Gate in its final days and its hold on its most fervent members. He also ponders the link between the cult’s fake science and today’s war on facts.

The Heaven’s Gate cult had been around since the 1970s at various locations. How did they end up in Southern California and San Diego County?

They’d been traveling up and down the West Coast and switching it up. Some of them weren’t in San Diego and were brought in right before the end. I honestly don’t know why they decided this would be their final stop. But it’s clear that at this point in the organization’s history, they were losing members.

Over the course of years, hundreds of people had cycled through the cult, and there were points where they couldn’t have gotten everybody into a single home.

But at this point, when they were nearing the end, they were pretty explicit internally about what was going on. They’d gotten down to the hard-core followers. A lot of people probably decided this was not something they wanted to be part of.

As the podcast explains, cult co-founder Marshall Applewhite broached the idea of mass suicide in San Clemente, where members were living in a warehouse. What happened there?

The idea came up as: What do you think about this, ending our existence as a way to go to that next level?

Some people left. But it wasn’t rejected out of hand by the group, at least by certain members. They didn’t do it immediately, but it certainly wasn’t something that the group said it would not do.

How did Heaven’s Gate stay so cohesive? What made people stay?

There was no physical coercion that they used to keep them in line. That aspect has been so fascinating to me: We’re not going to threaten you, we’re not going to beat you up. Instead, we’re going to say you can’t come here anymore.

You’re going to be cut off from your life, and you don’t even know how to live in the world absent from this group.

There’s some idea that there are dungeons with whips and chains that make people stay in cults. In fact, the lash can be a feather.

What surprised you as you learned about Heaven’s Gate?

I might have started this project as a search for monsters. I’m not sure I found any.

Even the leader, the pied piper who led people to commit this ghastly act of self-destruction, may have believed his own nonsense, believed his own rhetoric. Or at least I don’t know that he had some powerful animus against the people he was leading to destruction.

Marshall Applewhite was genuine?

To an extent, yeah.

I think there’s something about the relationship between Ti and Do. After her passing, he was left lost, searching for a way back to a communion with her, with this relationship, this spark, this partnership. He led his followers back the only way he knew how.

That’s revelatory for me. I’d always assumed that these cult leaders are purposefully preying on people they can lure into their circle.

You talk about growing up in the Worldwide Church of God, which has been described as a doomsday cult. How did that background affect your understanding of Heaven’s Gate?

It just gave me a perspective to not assume that these people are insane.

That’s not to say that this is a wise choice or a smart thing to do. But people make unorthodox choices all the time. I don’t think a wild belief system makes you a crazy person.

What I really think is that this cult shows the pervasiveness of our willingness to follow a cult-like belief system, to get swept away in an organization that doesn’t make sense.

In an age of fake news, we have leaders lying to us on a regular basis. When there doesn’t seem to be any anchoring to facts at all, it seems from a political perspective that half the country has joined a Heaven’s Gate cult.

Uh-oh.

I will leave you to decide which half that is.

It’s important for a country, a society and a community to have a dialogue that’s based around rationality. This is an example about what happens when that type of dialogue is foreign.

The idea that there was this craft behind the Hale-Bopp comet was nuts. It’s a faith-based thing, and they didn’t look for proof of it. They weren’t obsessed with the truth. Even when the truth might be out there, they weren’t trying to look for it.

You can see the parents of the followers couldn’t speak that language or understand the beliefs. They couldn’t touch their kids or pull them out.

What happened is illustrative of what’s going on on a larger scale right now — the complete absence of fact-based dialogue and the complete acceptance of faith and belief to guide the biggest decisions ever. We can’t speak to each other, understand the belief systems from one side of the aisle to the other.

It was shocking and sad that these parents who loved their kids and knew them in a different way just didn’t have the language to be able to be able to talk them out of this catastrophic decision.

What if that catastrophic decision wasn’t a personal one, what if they were making a rational one in an absence of facts or understanding or dialogue?

We have a lot to learn about what happened to Heaven’s Gate.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. He is also immediate past president of the 1,200-member American Society of Journalists and Authors (asja.org). Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.

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