In this season of deep anxiety about the human condition, “Scheer Intelligence” host Robert Scheer speaks with director Clay Tweel about his four-hour HBO Max documentary, Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults, about the bizarre religious cult that led to the largest mass suicide in U.S. history. In a wide-ranging conversation, Tweel and Scheer exchange thoughts on the American cult, which began in the socially chaotic mid-1970s and ended in collective suicide two decades later.. They also delve into how other religious movements that at one point were derided as bizarre cults have managed to thrive despite their own questionable histories. For example, Scheer highlights that the Crusades took place between 1095 and 1492 and killed not 39 people, as Heaven’s Gate did, but three million. Yet unlike the Crusades, the 1997 cult suicide by Heavens’ Gate members remains a powerful symbol in the American imagination about the dangers of extremism.
“Watching your film,” Scheer tells Tweel, “I thought it really raised some very basic points. What do we mean by religion? Who gets the authority? Who defines it? Isn't all religion, in some sense, kooky, cultish, and so forth? So let me just throw that back to you: why this project, why all these hours, and exhaustive research on a phenomenon that actually affected a small number of people?”
“In 1997 when the mass suicides happened,” Tweel responds, “I was in high school, and I come from a household that's like watching the nightly news every night. So I remember it very well, and I remember seeing the Nike shoes and the purple shrouds and the, you know, the crazy-eyed leader. But I always wondered if there was something deeper to that story.”
Tweel talks about the Stitcher podcast on the cult as well as The Looming Tower and Going Clear by Lawrence Wright, all of which not only inspired but informed his documentary. One scholar referred to Heaven’s Gate as a UFO version of the Rapture. In response to Scheer’s provocative questions about other religions, the director explains that part of his motivation for making Heaven’s Gate was to explore how humans can fall prey to seemingly outrageous ideas precisely when they’re at their most vulnerable.
“I think that one of the reasons why we were telling this story is that Heaven's Gate was born out of a time where there was a lot of social chaos,” says Tweel. “That is what is needed for the rise of a lot of these fringe groups. In a way, the series functions as a bit of a cautionary tale, because we are in a time right now of a lot of cultural and societal anxiety.”
Listen to the full conversation between Tweel and Scheer as they explore how the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the increasingly divisive and economically devastating political situation in the United States today have left Americans open to groups as far-fetched as QAnon, but also to more mainstream ideologies that can, in some ways, be just as damaging.