39 people died in a mass suicide in 1997. They were part of a group called Heaven’s Gate. Was it a cult? Was it just a religion? Who defines what unorthodox or spurious is? What led people to follow the leaders into certain death?
Heaven’s Gate (Stitcher/Pineapple Street Media) investigates the leaders and followers of this infamous group. The group was formed with two leaders, known as Ti (Bonnie Nettles) and Do, (Marshall Applewhite) and became known as “Heaven’s Gate” after Ti’s death in 1985 from liver cancer. From 1985 until 1997, the group, under Do’s leadership, began planning for their ascension to the Kingdom of God, which they called the Next Level. They believed the earth was going to be destroyed by the Hale-Bopp comet and that they could leave to travel to the Next Level via an extraterrestrial spacecraft. Members were required to eschew all existing connections to family, friends, and jobs in order to shed any human-like characteristics.
Host Glynn Washington (of Snap Judgment fame) does a tremendous job of storytelling, carefully weaving an ongoing thread about his personal history with religion and cults. His background helps explain why he’s hosting the show; it almost feels as though he is on a personal mission to find out what made these cult members tick and how close he personally was to ending up with the same fate.
The members of Heaven’s Gate seemed so docile as profiled in the podcast, so peaceful and calm, yet steadfastly committed to their cause. I’d have loved to hear from more families about the turning point that led their loved ones to leave them all behind forever.
I also would have liked even more investigation into what exactly a cult is, as host Washington tried to draw a parallel to a group he was involved with in his youth that some would say is a religion. So who draws the line? When does it become a cult? This could have been a great episode in the midst of the character studies. How did they acquire so much poison? And what is the legacy of Heaven’s Gate, did it have an influence on other such groups, either positive or negative? There’s more to discuss and I was left wanting a bit more.
At around 40 minutes per episode, occasionally I lost focus and had to try to figure out where the episode fit in to the greater story arc. (I got particularly confused during the episode about the Hale-Bopp comet.) I actually like Washington reading ads, I’m used to it from Snap Judgment and I enjoy his style, so they didn’t bother me, but there were quite a few midroll ads throughout.
The subject is certainly compelling and a piece of history I didn’t know much about; I was a teenager when it happened so I am sure I was sheltered from the details and like many people, probably dismissed these deaths as something completely unimaginable in my world. But this podcast extracted a lot of empathy for the families of those who died and made the group seem more realistic, more possible to me. In large part that is because of Washington’s empathetic and understanding treatment of the members, including the leaders.
Overall, there are a few things missing in the podcast that could have made it a home run, so I am giving it a three-star rating, but I did tune in every week and was really drawn to find out how the cult ended (in suicide). It is a fascinating piece of recent U.S. history that I’m glad I know more about after listening to the show.
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Audible Feast Ratings
Educational Value (5 / 5)
Pop Culture Value (4 / 5)
Host Listen-ability (5 / 5)
Glynn Washington is a pro, and I love how he narrated this series, his voice is like butter.
Flow & Production Value (4 / 5)
The production value is great, but I think the overall story arc had a few holes, which led to a bit of a disjointed flow.
Humor (1 / 5)
Investigation (3 / 5)
I guess we can’t really know what it was like inside Heaven’s Gate; there were few defectors and to this day, the two survivors from the cult profess to still connect with those who died. However, I felt confused by some of the timelines and I don’t think I can say even after listening to all 10 episodes what it was that really drew people to Heaven’s Gate. Maybe if I binge listened it would have been more cohesive for me.
Storytelling (3 / 5)
Makes Me a Better Person (3 / 5)
Overall Audible Feast Rating: (3 / 5)
I struggled with whether this was a 3-star or 4-star podcast, but in the end, I feel like there were too many questions unanswered. However-I enjoyed the storytelling style and it was, of course, fascinating to hear how a group like this was formed and what its belief system was.
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Lore, Missing Richard Simmons, Cults, Stranglers, Young Charlie
See all my reviews at this fancy index, dating back to 2015!