quarantine stream heaven's gate

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Series: Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: A docuseries that examines Heaven’s Gate, a UFO cult with 39 members who died by mass suicide in 1997.

Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance going on right now. Based on various polls, nearly half the country can’t agree with the other half. The post-election situation we find ourselves in have people fully convinced of full-blown, completely debunked conspiracy theories. How does that happen? How do people succumb to this kind of thinking? Heaven’s Gate has some answers, and some sympathy.

The Heaven’s Gate incident, where 39 follows of the cult took their own lives, became a kind of morbid punchline. Saturday Night Live did multiple jokes about the event, and the undeniably tragic loss of life became little more than a sick joke. “Look at these nuts!” everyone seemed to be saying. The suicide was accompanied by unforgettable imagery: footage of the dead cult members, all of them dressed the same, all of them covered with blankets, were burned across the 24-hour news cycle. Even if you weren’t alive when Heaven’s Gate happened you’re likely aware of it.

But how did it happen? How could 39 adults believe that by dying by suicide they would be whisked away to another planet via a spaceship? Go ahead and read that back – that’s what these people believed. Sounds ludicrous, right? Well, ludicrous or not, these things happen. They happen all the time. They’re happening right now. And what makes Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults so fascinating is how it tries to both explain and sympathize.

To be clear: Heaven’s Gate isn’t out here claiming that the members did a good thing, or anything wonky like that. Instead, it presents the facts of the case in an empathetic way – yes, these people were, in the end, damaged. But we’re all a little damaged. We’re all searching for something, and some of us find that “something” in fringe groups like this. Director Clay Tweel is not judging these people. The filmmaker is also not downplaying the loss of life – survivors of the cult, and relatives of those who didn’t survive, are all interviewed here. And these interviews make the Saturday Night Live jokes (which show up here via archival footage) seem extra cruel. Even if, in the end, we can’t entirely understand why the Heaven’s Gate people did what they did, they, and their loved ones, still deserve at least a modicum of sympathy.

Tweel is able to cut in lots of home video footage the cult took themselves as well as juxtaposing it against stock footage, footage from movies, and more, weaving a rich tapestry that tells a complete story – a story that’s often quite shocking. Best of all, HBO Max released the entire docuseries – four episodes – at once, so you can binge through. But fair warning: don’t expect to come away from the series feeling upbeat.

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