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Arts in Review

Open Heaven’s Gate without crossing it



Most podcasts focus around a topic that many people can relate to. They’re either comedic in nature (because who doesn’t like to laugh?), or we’re presented with a specific interaction between several people. Maybe they’re playing a game, or there’s a common theme.

The theme that holds Heaven’s Gate together is its focus on one organization: Heaven’s Gate. Heaven’s Gate was run by two people, Marshall Applewhite, and Bonnie Lou Nettles, who would later come to be known as Do and Ti.

There’s a lot of information given to us throughout episodes, so much so that this could have very easily been a boring history lesson, if it weren’t for two reasons. The first reason is Heaven’s Gate’s host, Glynn Washington, a surviving member of the Worldwide Church of God, an evangelical Christian organization that he himself refers to as a cult. Washington starts off by describing what is at first a friendship between two unlikely outcasts: Nettles, a middle-aged nurse with a penchant for theology and interpreting the mysteries of life through occultist readings of biblical scripture, and Applewhite, a former university professor and science fiction fan. The second reason is the incredible result of Applewhite and Nettles’ friendship.

Here’s the long and short of it, Nettles and Applewhite met in a psychiatric hospital and immediately bonded, felt innately drawn to each other. Nettles had a story: she could see the future, and the skill was given to her by the real deity of the world: aliens. The two drew followers in with a story blending religion and science fiction, explaining to their followers that their bodies were, in reality, “vehicles” which limited their true ascension to a higher plane of existence. At some point, argued Ti and Do, aliens would come to the world in a flying saucer, and free the cultists from their bodies, allowing them access to “the next level.”

On March 26, 1997, 39 members of the cult were found dead. They’d been convinced to commit suicide.

Heaven’s Gate features interviews with surviving members of the cult, as well as archival audio recordings of Applewhite (attempting to find leadership in himself after an early departure of a major figure in the cult shakes his faith), as well as interviews with relatives of the deceased, and members of the San Diego community left rocked by the apparently senseless mass suicide in their hometown.

If it doesn’t sound straightforward, it’s because the story behind the rise and fall of Heaven’s Gate is a complicated, but deeply engaging one. Washington’s storytelling abilities are uniquely suited to making this grim, grisly tale stand out as one of the best examples of documentary storytelling in the podcast format I’ve come across to date.

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