Societies get the apocalyptic cult movements that they deserve. In the 1970s and ’80s in the United States, that cult was Heaven’s Gate. Many remember the cult from jokes about loonies with strange haircuts wearing matching black Nikes and purple shrouds, but their idiosyncratic funeral outfits obscure a uniquely American eschatology. In a new Heaven’s Gate podcast, the origin and legacy of this easily maligned group is revealed.
During the podcast’s first episode, Ben Zeller, a professor of religion and American Culture at Lake Forest College, describes the cultural forces that may have birthed the Heaven’s Gate group:
One of the best selling books at the time was a book called Chariots of the Gods, by Erich von Däniken, who claimed in this book that he had evidence that the world’s ancient religions were actually founded by extraterrestrial visitors who passed themselves off as gods because that’s how the ancients could understand them. This is one of the bestsellers in the 1970s. People gobbled it up.
The other bestseller, which we forget about, is Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, which is about the end of the world. It’s an interpretation of the bible. Lindsey goes through the Bible, book by book, chapter by chapter, foretelling the end of the world. Heaven’s Gate is these two bestsellers put together. It’s Chariots of the Gods and Late Great Planet Earth combined. It’s the Christianity of the end of the world and it’s the ufology of looking to ancient astronauts and ancient aliens and putting them together, and that’s how you get to Heaven’s Gate. And that’s why, when people encountered Heaven’s Gate way back in the ’70s, people didn’t say, “Woah, this is weird,” they said, “Woah, this is what I’ve been looking for.”
The Heaven’s Gate podcast draws on archival recordings, never-before-heard audio, and candid interviews with the loved ones of the members to tell the fascinating story leading up to the cult’s infamous mass suicide in 1997. Find the podcast here or on all of the podcast subscription services. It’s definitely worth a listen.