Do you think cults are scary? I think cults are terrifying! Concluding our roundup of spooky podcasts, we have this new show HEAVEN’S GATE, about the infamous cult which lead 39 of its members to commit mass suicide in a rented San Diego mansion. Heaven’s Gate has lurked in popular consciousness right alongside Jonestown and the Manson family, a specter that feels too alien and macabre to even attempt to relate to. There may be some perverse schadenfreude in learning about the kooky things these people convinced themselves of, but in terms of really trying to empathize and relate to cult members, sympathies generally seem to run pretty scarce.
Luckily, this show isn’t hosted by just anybody, it’s hosted by Glenn Washington, a man who was involved in a cult himself. He managed to avoid getting in so deep that he killed himself in order to join the great spaceship in the sky, obviously, but he certainly has a personal connection to this story as he tells it. At the conclusion of the first episode, Washington stresses “this could happen to anyone,” and tries to remind his audience that people who join cults are not somehow inherently stupid or defective. Mostly, they’re people who really wanted to improve themselves, to transform into more spiritually pure people, to grant themselves a purpose beyond the dull lives they were born into. When framed this way, cults don’t seem so ludicrous, they seem like something anyone in a vulnerable moment might fall into.
That’s really what this show has done so well, at least in its initial first two episodes. Glenn Washington needs you to believe that there’s an explanation for Heaven’s Gate. If this cult were purely an aberration, we could write it off and ignore it, but the show does an excellent job laying out how the wider culture in the United States during the ‘70s created the perfect incubator for a cult such as Heaven’s Gate to form. To this end, the show functions as a sociological survey, an exploration of the ways so many of us attempt to create meaning in seemingly meaningless lives. But it’s also personal, the most touching moments being interviews with the family members and survivors of Heaven’s Gate. There is a painfully human face to the show, and that’s what makes it so unnerving. This show is still very much in its infancy, and it could slide off the rails into the minutia of how Heaven’s Gate came to be what it was, but for now it’s a grim and fascinating dive, an excellent way to relate to people you might otherwise look down on.