Hello Crispyverse! It's time once again for Chicken Wing Wednesday. The word "cult" is often thrown around to describe a group of people who hold beliefs that are widely outside the mainstream. While this word isn't always used correctly, it absolutely describes the group that this HBO original documentary describes: Heaven's Gate. The four-part series examined the cult's founding all the way up to the aftermath of March 20th, 1997, in which 39 members died by suicide together. Due to potential spoilers and the nature of the acts committed by the group, reader discretion is advised.
First, a bit about the group. Heaven's Gate is a group founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in the 1970's. They called themselves "The Two", "Do and Ti", and "Bo and Peep." Applewhite and Nettles preached a combination of Christianity, New Age beliefs, and science fiction. Essentially, they described Heaven as "The Next Level" and that they were the only two who knew how to get there. They purported to be extraterrestrial beings come to Earth to teach others how to achieve "The Next Level" by leaving their "human" behaviors behind. This included celibacy, abandoning loved ones and careers, and giving up all of your worldly possessions and staying with them as they prepared to "beam up".
Now, I'm sure you're probably thinking: who would be stupid enough to believe that? How could they be so gullible! Well, I'm going to go out on a limb here, but hear me out: the followers weren't stupid, nor gullible. Rather, they were victims of slow, systematic mental abuse. The vast majority of Applewhite and Nettles' followers were young people looking to "find themselves", whether it be through experimenting with different religious beliefs, magic mushrooms, or embracing the hippie counterculture. This was also around the time that we were just beginning to explore outer space. UFOs and the vast unknown of the universe were popular science fiction tropes of the time. Pair all of this with two very charismatic speakers, and you have a recipe for disaster. Now, religious belief isn't in itself inherently harmful. It provides a sense of community and purpose. The followers of the cult were initially looking for just that, a place to figure out the broader questions of the universe with like-minded individuals. But what is harmful is the conditioning by Applewhite and Nettles that slowly broke down the individuality of their followers and remade them into people they deemed worth saving.
Founders Marshall Applewhite (left) and Bonnie Nettles. The series also features interviews with former members talking about why they left, as well as the estranged loved ones that the group left behind, and this was the aspect I found the most fascinating about the series. To hear these individuals talk about rebuilding their lives after leaving is truly inspiring to watch. Abusive relationships are never easy to leave, and these people found a sense of normalcy again, even after all that they had been through. Coming out the other side a stronger, more self-aware individual is Crispy as fuck. I would have liked to have seen more about the psychology behind cults. They interview psychologist Steven Hassan and sociologist Janja Lalich, but I think a whole episode could have been devoted to how the mind functions when under the spell of a charismatic leader. They could have spent hours examining the psychology of both the members and the founders and still only scratched the surface. While cults can have harmful, bizarre beliefs, finding out what exactly drives people to adopt these ideologies is a question that continues to fascinate psychologists and sociologists everywhere. Overall, I give this series 4.5/5 Crispy Chicken Wings. It gave a comprehensive overview of the cult itself, its origins, and the aftermath of the leaders' actions. It also provided the social context necessary to understand how such a group came to be. As someone who wasn't very familiar with Heavens Gate prior to watching, I found this documentary insightful and informative.
*Make sure to tune into The Crispy Soul Podcast, where we go more into depth on this topic, available on all major streaming apps.