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‘Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cult’ review: A humanizing look at the infamous group

A close examination.

Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults is an HBOMax docuseries that looks at one of the most infamous groups in American history. The series begins at the end by mentioning how everything culminated in the largest mass suicide on American soil. It then goes back to 1975, and traces what brought the group together and who they were.

The series explains why things ended so tragically about midway through the first episode. Marshall Applewhite, who would go on to be known as Do, convinced his group they were on their way to becoming “next level” individuals. In other words, he knew how to get them to Heaven. And as interviews and footage show, there were those who believed him completely.

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Unexpectedly, Cult of Cults is more interested in giving identities to the people who have died. Almost immediately after the mass suicide, Heaven’s Gate became a source of comedy fodder. For whatever reason, the group was treated as a joke. Documentarian Clay Tweel goes to pains to give a voice to the members of Heaven’s Gate. Cult of Cults immediately dismisses the notion that people in cults were strange loners without any prospects. There were members of the group who were highly educated and respected members of society.

Cult of Cults sheds insight on just how different Heaven’s Gate was. The normal warning signs are there: contact with family members is not allowed and couples were separated. Unlike other cults, members were free to leave as they pleased. Ti (the co-leader of the cult) would ask people thinking of leaving if they were sure if they were making the right decision, but otherwise, there was no effort to stop them. It adds to the mystery of the cult.

There are a number of interviews throughout the series. These add more insight into Heaven’s Gate and its members. There are also videos from former members that further add a human element to Cult of Cults. It is a side of cults that is seen a lot but not portrayed in this light. Tweel does not try to justify what was done or explain things away. Instead, he successfully gives purpose – no matter how misgiven – to the cult members.

Cults are a fascinating subject. Who are the people who join and why would they do it? Most documentaries tend to focus on the heads of cults and relegate the members to merely instruments. Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults provides more humanity than is normally seen. Viewers are given the who and there are strong theories as to why. The end result will be the main draw but the story leading up is just as interesting.

Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults premieres on HBOMax on December 3.

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