We share stories to understand one another. People recount experiences, create fiction, share mythology and fables in order to connect with others, to find common ground and allow strangers a glimpse into their world. Stories are our ticket into the storyteller’s mind; they give us a chance to understand some of the strangest, most unimaginable things.
“Heaven’s Gate” is one of those stories.
The new podcast, produced by Stitcher and Pineapple Street Media, began on Oct. 18 and endeavors to understand, or at least tell the story of, Heaven’s Gate, a religious cult that believes in an elevated plane of existence accessible through alien technology.
Leaders Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite preached such principles and recruited many followers. They believed in the doctrine so much that Applewhite and 38 followers were found dead in a California mansion on March 26, 1997, from a mass suicide they believed would allow them to ascend to what they called the “Next Level.”
It’s a lot to take in, and host Glynn Washington knows that. He takes listeners through the story slowly, holding their hands while weaving an incredibly intriguing and chilling narrative.
“We’re going to try to understand what happened inside Heaven’s Gate,” said Washington at the beginning of episode one. “What lead them to commit the largest mass suicide in American history? Were they brainwashed? Did they go crazy? What twisted, what turned and who were these people?”
The topics are as delicate as they come — cults, suicide, extreme religion — and for a less adept host it would be easy to lose listeners for a myriad of reasons.
Washington has some experience in this territory, however. He is the host and executive producer of “Snap Judgment,” a popular podcast that has aired on NPR radio stations for years, so he knows how to tell a story.
Of course, “Heaven’s Gate” is not your run-of-the-mill story, which is why Washington’s past also allows him to be a particularly adept host: Washington grew up in a cult.
As he mentions several times throughout the show, Washington was raised as a member of the Worldwide Church of God. Led by Herbert W. Armstrong, the church preached an apocalyptic message that Washington wholeheartedly believed until his late teens. It wasn’t until Armstrong’s death that Washington left the cult, and he reflects upon his experiences regularly.
Most people are on the outside looking in when it comes to religious cults like Heaven’s Gate. There’s a natural separation because the general public doesn’t understand the cultist mindset or doesn’t have the experience of being entirely devoted to a belief system and a leader.
Washington does, and he uses his childhood experiences and reflections upon them to break down the barrier between the listener and the Heaven’s Gate victims. This story is also personal to Washington, as he often wonders what would have become of him if Armstrong had promised safety and happiness in a cup of phenobarbital.
Washington recounts first hearing about the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide when the news report came on in a bar.
“After a few moments, the other people in the bar … started shaking their heads, talking about the crazies, but I couldn’t move,” Washington said in episode one. “It didn’t seem so other to me. Later I felt certain that if Herbie [Armstrong] had given us a potion to meet Jesus, a lot of us in his Worldwide Church of God would’ve guzzled it down without a thought.”
This is one of Washington’s reasons behind recounting the story of Heaven’s Gate: to understand the victims rather than write them off as crazy. He is not trying to advocate for their beliefs or rationalize the teachings of Nettles and Applewhite; he is telling the story of the victims with dignity and thoughtfulness in the hopes that listeners understand that it could happen to anyone.
“Heaven’s Gate” is not a conventional mystery. It is not a who-done-it or an unsolved case or a scary story like other podcasts we’ve reviewed on “An Earful.” It is a genuine look into a tragedy: the blind faith that inspired it, the people that were forever changed by it and the chilling psychology it exemplifies.
The answer Washington is looking for is not a who or when or how; it is a why. Why did these people do this? Why do we want to understand? What is it in the human mind that makes us simultaneously intrigued and terrified of stories like Heaven’s Gate?
Episode six of “Heaven’s Gate” will be released on Wednesday, Nov. 22. Maybe by the end of this 10-episode series Washington will lead us to some sort of an answer, or maybe not. We may never know precisely why the Heaven’s Gate suicide occurred, but at the least, we can hear the story.
Episodes: 5 released with 5 more promised
Episode length: about 45 minutes
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