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 Heaven’s 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.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s a director, Clay Tweel, and he has–I watched it last night, I watched all four hours of his documentary on HBO Max. And it was on a cult that committed mass suicide. But it’s a story about 50 years, really–well, 50 years ago it started, and Heaven’s Gate, you’ll probably remember. And I think it was 38 people who committed suicide, but that came in the mid-nineties. But the cult actually started in the mid-1970s. And some of the criticism–let me begin with that, to ask you–but for instance in this review in IndieWire and so forth, it says “a half-baked, hokey blend of pseudo-Christianity, New Age mysticism and Star Trek lore”–that’s describing the group; he’s not putting down your documentary.
But the only caveat here is, why four hours? Why all this attention? And this is something that started 50 years ago, and yes it had a tragic ending. Watching your film, let me just tell you where I’m coming from, 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? And so just lay it out: why this project, what you wanted to accomplish with it.
CT: Sure. Well, so the project was based off of a 10-part podcast that Stitcher did back in 2017. And I really loved that, and Ross Dinerstein, who I worked with at Campfire Productions, brought me the project, and he had just got the rights. And I really loved the podcast for the sense that it–you really got a sense of the former members and the family members of former members, their perspectives, which I thought was just really emotional and impactful. So for me, to jump back, like in 1997 when the mass suicides happened, 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. And so the podcast did a great job of delving deep into it, and I felt like, well, there’s all these video elements that they’re referencing, and I think just like the emotional impact could be leveled up even more if you’re able to see these people talking about it.
And for me personally, it connected because I think that there’s the longevity of the group was something that I did not know about. The fact that they existed for 22 years prior to the mass suicides. And so I really love the writings of Lawrence Wright; some of his books, The Looming Tower and Going Clear. And I think that they’re very similar, thematically, in what they’re laying out for the reader, which is you see the evolution of a basically benign set of ideas that get perverted by human ego over time, to become a dangerous set of beliefs and ideology. So I think that giving–like for me, that’s the reason why you need to really live and breathe in this evolution of ideas to understand how, you know, 20 years in people believed some things that on first blush sound really crazy. But you have to know that it started at a different place, and then little by little things change and get more strict. And so just giving that totality of the experience was something I was interested in.
RS: Yeah, but let me defend your movie more vigorously than you’re doing right now. I don’t think this is just a group of hokey, crazy people. Because first of all, they didn’t found some great religion, and they didn’t really get millions of people killed the way, say, Christianity–
RS: –with the Crusades, or the way the Muslim religion has done recently, or you know, you can go through every religion in the world, every established religion, and trace great tragedy to all of them. We even have–you know, people think of Buddhism as rather benign, but we have Buddhists killing people in Asia right now. And so you know, you look at India and you see struggles between every kind of religion–everywhere. And all of them began–I mean, you only have to go watch the “Life of Brian”–[Laughter] you know, Monty Python–they all began as crazy cults, and were dismissed by other religions and by state authorities as crazy cults.
And the interesting thing about this Heaven’s Gate group, as you point out in your documentary, they were well educated; they were intelligent people, and actually in your film–you’ve got this great documentary footage–they seem smart. And they seem like nice people. They seem like people you would want to hang out with. And the other thing I would throw in is as the documentary indicates, there have been other cults, lots of cults, and there were maybe more of them in the sort of, in the seventies and so forth. But the fact is, people are searching for meaning in life, and for an explanation of why are we here and what is it all about.
And frankly, you can take the scientific explanations and you can take the religious explanations–they don’t answer the question in any meaningful way. Sitting here in the middle of a pandemic, and I’m of the age where you think hey, this could end, you know, in a matter of days for me if I walk in the wrong crowd or eat in the wrong restaurant. And I’m sure lots of people have that thought. And I think your documentary raises a really profound question: who has–you know, this is called pseudo-Christianity; well, these people, I gather, all began as practicing Christians. And there’s a lot of sort of lyrical, you know, the music and the style evokes a lot of the early Christian Church. But what made them–why are they crazier than others? I mean, yes, mass suicide’s pretty dreadful. But you know, hey–we had the Crusades. Take it.
CT: Yeah. I mean, I think that some of the sociologists and professors of religion that we talked to all circle around this idea that what a lot of these new religious movements do is they take concepts and beliefs that you already are familiar with or believe in already, and they tweak them, and you know, reinterpret them to their own design. So for Heaven’s Gate, you’re taking what is basic Christianity and you’re doing an updated revision of what Revelation means, and then you’re marrying that with the, you know, the impact of UFOs coming into the public consciousness around the sixties and seventies. And this idea–I think that, like, the science fiction or romanticism around, you know, well, are we alone in this universe, marries very well with religion. You know, you’re looking for a place in this cosmos, and you see the idea that well, actually, we belong in outer space. And for someone that doesn’t feel like they fit in to quote unquote normal society, that can be very appealing. And you marry that with religion, and you immediately have a doctrine that I think is trying to answer some of these big, existential questions.
RS: Yeah, but you’re being too kind to what you’re calling religion, and too unkind to these people, who everybody’s thinking about now, if they’ve watched your film, as kooks. They don’t present as kooks. And I’m just asking you–you know, I know it’s a controversial way of framing this. But the people who gave us Christianity or gave us the Hebraic religion or gave us Buddhism or Confucianism, whatever the movement out there–their view of the world was no less bizarre, as it turns out, than these people. These people thought, well, they’re out there in space, and spaceships will land, and you know.
So what is the whole notion of heaven, for example, or of the afterlife? Isn’t it, as Gore Vidal would refer to, the “sky-god”? Isn’t it that somewhere out there, there’s power, there’s the almighty, there’s the creator? Where is that somewhere out there? It certainly was physically located as somewhere in the heavens. The world that we were inhabiting was supposed to be flat, was supposed to be limited. It had been created as, what, a playpen for the gods, or for a god, if you want to go to monotheism? So you’re really not–I don’t want to say you want to give them their due. I’m perfectly willing to accept these people went nuts and killed themselves; that’s not a good outcome. But the fact is, what makes it more bizarre than what we call conventional religion of any kind in its inception?
CT: Yeah. There isn’t much. And I’m trying to be careful in how I talk about it, Bob, because I feel like I personally, my personal beliefs here are that, you know, I don’t want to prescribe to anybody to know these answers to these big questions. And I think religion in any, you know, in any extreme, and most religions, can turn to–tip their toe into dangerous pretty quickly.
RS: Or start as–that’s what I’m pushing back here–I’m not holding you accountable, you’re not the great philosopher of all time who’s going to tell us what life is all about. And I don’t expect that from anybody, actually, and certainly not from somebody who made a film. And I think it’s a very important film precisely because it begs the question of why are these people really different. After all, first of all, let’s just talk about the carnage–yes, it’s terrible. What was it, 38 people committed–
CT: Thirty-nine. Thirty-nine people committed suicide–
RS: OK, and they are people, thanks to your skill in filmmaking, that you care about. You come to know these people, you kind of like–I’ll just speak for myself. You know, I didn’t even want to watch your film, frankly. I thought, what is this all about, and why do I need this, and how important was it really? And I really found it interesting, and that’s why I’m doing this podcast. Because I couldn’t dismiss these people. They were people that I would maybe run into on the campus, or when I go to Whole Foods or something. And they were smart, and they presented as sensible. Including the two people who sort of were at the center of this. And you know, in terms of dismissing it–you know, like this IndieWire–well, it’s pseudo-Christianity because these people get killed. Well, how many people have been killed in the name of Jesus or Muhammad or Moses or anybody, right?
RS: I mean, most of the mayhem in this world has come about by invoking some religious figure supported by some religious cult. And you know, the brilliance of the “Life of Brian” was to point out that there were thousands of these. And I just want to throw in one little footnote on that. One reason I have some strong feeling, I actually wrote about a cult–I can’t even remember all the details–in the seventies, but I think it was the Maharaji something-or-other, and he was 13 years old, or he started when he was 9. And Rennie Davis of the Chicago Seven–another documentary by Sorkin, or a docudrama that’s getting a lot of attention–he had joined this group. And a number of people that I knew.
And I went to the Houston Astrodome or wherever it was, and at one point one of these folks–and I thought the whole place had gone crazy, but there were thousands of them. And they were people I recognized, and some who I knew personally. And one of them came up to me and said–I think I was writing this for Playboy, actually–and one of them came up to me and said, you know, Bob, you seem like an honest reporter as opposed to the others. Why don’t you go to the parking lot E-7 out there, the Venusians are landing this afternoon. And I gathered my equipment, sure, that’s a great tip. I go running out there to go meet the Venusians.
And I get out there with a bunch of other people rushing out there, and you know, I’ve been given this tip. And I said, the Venusians are landing. Oh! And I had entered their world. I mean, somehow when you’re locked in the Houston Astrodome with thousands of people who believe that this 13-year-old from India is the new god, or the old god, you know–that’s the power of your documentary. Why intelligent people would fall for it. But they fall for it in much more respected brand names of religion as well. And political ideologies, too.
CT: Sure. I mean, yeah, I think that for me, one of my favorite parts of the series is striking upon exactly what you’re talking about. So the idea of the sort of cognitive dissonance of once you’re in this group and a believer, that it’s very hard to sort of unwind, and you can rationalize events that happen. So for just the example you just gave, going out to meet the Venusians–like, there are very famous papers about cognitive dissonance as a concept. A lot came from studying these groups that believed in these prophecies, these end-of-the-world prophecies, or you know, aliens coming down. And then sociologists would be with them and be like, OK, well, they didn’t show up. Now what? What happened? And they would have to, the leaders would have to explain it away. And I think that that’s, you know, drawing parallels to how over the years, these mainstream religions have had to do the same thing.
RS: Well, and then the fact is that we reinterpret religion for the convenience of increasing the flock. You know, or the believers. And so you have megachurches, or you have–well, for instance if you’re Jewish, which I happen to be raised in that tradition originally; I was not religious, but culturally. And yet, you know, you can have a harsh, Hebraic, original view where you stress all the sins you can commit, which is about most of the things you’ll end up doing–or you end up on the other extreme with the reform variety that’s quite comfortable to a more secular existence, and is actually not even recognized in Israel as a traditional religion, and so forth. And this is true of Christianity; it’s true of all religions.
And so it’s an ongoing process: to what degree to you change the product to do marketing? And your cult group, this Heaven’s Gate group, actually goes into that kind of discussion. Because they’re constantly dwindling in numbers. I mean, I have to stress for people listening to this, this thing starts, it goes over a 20-year period. It starts half a century ago, goes over a 20-year period–and by the way, it starts in a time when people are questioning a lot. The sixties have happened, now it’s the mid-seventies, there’s a lot of despair about what’s going on in the world, what does it all represent. You know, Nixon had been president and so forth; we’re involved in a, we had gone through a lot of different kinds of experiences. And you know, so the question really is, why were they failed? They failed because they were lousy at marketing.
CT: Yeah. I mean–
RS: It wasn’t that their idea was unappealing. They didn’t know how to market it. [Laughs] And they’d ride around in these–I don’t want to laugh meaning that I’m indifferent to the loss of life; I’m not. But there’s something comical about it. They’re riding around endlessly in these vans, looking for safety. They start out in Oregon, they end up in San Diego of all places, and instead of being on the beach and having a good time, which is what you’re supposed to do in San Diego–or be a military contractor, that’s another reason for San Diego, big defense industry, and figure out how to put weapons up in space, that’s what the other people were doing in San Diego. No–these people didn’t know how to market. So they dwindled. And at one point they were down to, what, 12 people or something?
CT: Yeah, something around there. I mean, what–
RS: They had a marketing crisis, not a theological crisis.
CT: What I heard from a lot of former members and other people who studied the group was that the–it was actually really hard to join. Some people said it was harder to join than it was to leave; that’s coming from Sawyer, who is, you know, still a believer in the ideology. But the fact that they would give this message, they would put up these, like, weird-looking flyers, and try to recruit people. But they really said, you know, if you believe these things you have to leave your family, divorce yourself from all your humanness, and then the process that they were trying to teach people–this sort of Human Individual Metamorphosis, is what they called it–a lot of it was just living this very hard, nomadic lifestyle. Where you, as you mentioned, were just on the road constantly, all the time. I heard from one person that essentially they moved every six months to stay away from the IRS, so they could never establish a permanent residency, so they could never be tracked by any government agency.
So it was a really, just, it was a hard life to be in the group, and that did not help their numbers. And so I think, you know, that was a problem for them later on, when they needed to have some more support system when they did get down to about 12 people. They went back on the road after 18 years in hiding, and started going around to college campuses again in the early nineties to preach their message. They started one of the early satellite TV shows that they called “Beyond Human,” back in ’91 and ’92, to also get their message out. So yeah, they needed some more revenue to keep the group going, and they needed, like, just, you know, hands to help the group.
RS: Yeah, so they actually had not a religious crisis or a moral crisis, or even an ethical crisis until the mass suicide. They had a marketing problem. And had some PR people come in–I guess they didn’t recruit enough PR people–they would have come in and said, look, soften the edges here and go with, OK, you’re going to be brought up to have Star Trek–but you know, Star Trek wasn’t on that long on television, right? That was–I mean, I have great respect for the people who did Star Trek; I’m not a Trekkie, but I got to know Leonard Nimoy, who I think was a terrific human being in many ways, and a great actor. But the fact is the cult around Star Trek, which informed this group, really, their problem was they promised a physical way out, the same as the people I interviewed in Texas who said the Venusians are landing.
That’s the problem, you get trapped–did the Venusians land? You know, they had the same thing with Halley’s Comet, right? There was supposed to be a ship following Halley’s Comet–you can tell us about that. And they made a prediction about it, and it turned out there wasn’t a ship that had been sighted, that there was something following Halley’s Comet. So the problem, if you’re manufacturing a religion, or hyping a religion, you don’t want to have things that, you know, have to be proven. [Laughter] And in fact, that’s been an embarrassment for all of the main religions, because after all, their view of how long the Earth has been here, and how long humans have been on the Earth, and all sorts of factual things have not turned out to be accurate, right?
CT: Everything from the Earth being flat to, you know, the world’s going to end on this date.
RS: Yeah, and the world’s going to end with a battle of Armageddon on a mountain, and there is no mountain, there’s a plane. [Laughs] You could go through all this attempt to document it. But what keeps it going is that we don’t have an explanation of what is the meaning of life, other than what we can do on a secular basis is very difficult. You know, and for all the exploration of space and everything, we’re really no closer to an answer. So you say, OK, I have a vision of a god or gods–but then who created gods, or god? And they say well, you can’t answer that question; it’s beyond your perception. So you’re back at ground zero, right?
CT: Yeah, that’s it. It all circles back to, you have to eventually have a faith in something. Right? Even if it’s faith in science, or faith in the unanswerable. But I think that, like, for Heaven’s Gate–
RS: Or you can have faith in your own–there are plenty of ways, I don’t want to stress this too much, but there are other ways of having faith. You can have faith in food, you can have faith in your family, you can have faith in love, you can have faith in poetry and music. There’s lots of things you can find that give you–but none of it can answer the question of how, you know, basically, other than you have a very strict “this cell gave rise to this more complex” et cetera, et cetera–you know, you’re not going to have a grand scheme, right?
CT: Right. I mean, yeah, and I was going to say–
RS: So they’re no more stupid than anybody else who insists that they have this grand scheme.
RS: They just marketed it improperly, and they promised too much. And how can you–with Halley’s Comet–
CT: It’s Hale-Bopp comet.
CT: Hale-Bopp comet.
RS: Oh, sorry. [Laughs] So tell us about that, because that’s really the linchpin of their failure. When that failed, then they had to kill themselves, because there was no other answer. But go ahead.
CT: Yeah, I think it was actually a combination of things. They were looking up to the heavens for the entire existence of the group. They were always looking for some sort of celestial sign. And then you have this, two things coinciding–I think the idea that they did try to reach out and try to get new members, and they both went recruiting and went to college campuses and around the U.S. to, like, hold meetings. And then they also went online to try to solicit people. And they just, in both instances, really got laughed out of the room, or derided for what their message was.
And you pair that with the idea of the comet showing up, Hale-Bopp comet showing up in ’96, and it just was–it was the inevitable answer to their, you know, their prophecy that they had started from a long time ago. There’ll be some sign that comes, and we’ll know when that is, so that we can all exit, we can all leave. And so they felt rejected from society, and this comet provided them the sign. And so, you know, they felt like there was a spaceship on the backside of Hale-Bopp comet that was going to be the spaceship that was going to lead them to what they called the next level, which was like their heaven.
There’s an interesting anecdote from the series where they talk about the group went and bought a telescope in the final months, just to try to see the spaceship on the backside of Hale-Bopp themselves. And they actually returned it to the store where they bought it, because they were like, this telescope’s broken, I can’t see anything. That’s how strong their belief was. They refused to, you know, see what was in front of their own eyes sometimes.
RS: Well, it’s not just that their–belief can be very strong, but they were marketing the wrong thing. They said there’s actually a spaceship coming, and then no matter how big and accurate your telescope, it had been a false report. There’d been some report, right, that the comet had some extension or something behind it, and that turned out to be false. And they stupidly, from a marketing-PR point of view–which after all, we have to talk about marketing and PR, because that’s what this is all about, is how do you get mass attention, how do you make yourself credible. And if they had been better about it, and not made promises that–if you say the Earth is going to end next Thursday and it doesn’t end, you have a marketing problem, right? You have a brand identity problem. So that was their mistake, that’s why they had to kill themselves. That’s what I took away from your documentary. There was no exit, to play on that word, from their marketing disaster. If they were laughed out before, now, I mean, it was going to be totally absurd. You know, your comet has come and gone, and you’re still here. And so they did, you know, the ultimate; they ended themselves.
CT: Yeah, I mean, I think that one thing that I asked everybody when I was interviewing them, though, was for your–I asked them, like, why does Heaven’s Gate still come up in the public consciousness these days, why is it a story that everybody remembers? And because despite their, perhaps, poor marketing throughout the existence of the group, the fact is that, you know, that it was an international story for weeks, and is still written about and talked about as, like, one of the more famous cults of the last 50 years. Even though only, you know, it only affected–39 people killed themselves, and three people shortly thereafter killed themselves as well. But it’s not like Jonestown, it’s not like there’s as many members as Nxivm or a lot of these other groups. So why–it’s a very, in affected a very small amount of people, but made a really big splash. And so despite all their lacking in prowess of marketing throughout their 22 years in existence, going out the way that they did, and in a very coordinated way, just left a sort of chilling mark on a lot of people’s minds.
RS: Yeah, but you know, again, I don’t want to lose this thread here. When has it not been absurd? And I’m not mocking people who want to find meaning in life, and if religion, or one religion or another, is their vehicle, fine, go for it, lots of luck. What I am asking is whether you could not–whether their quest, their style–which became the subject of jokes. And one reason they are remembered to this day is because of late night comics and talk shows and so forth; they became sort of the metaphor for absurdity.
But what I’m challenging–and I think your documentary challenges, because I think it’s very effective–is really, was this so bizarre? Isn’t this what the desperation of meaning, finding meaning in life–and we’re in the middle of a worldwide pandemic now, where our most advanced science and society–here the United States and England have had the greatest tragedy with it. Our ability to grasp what this virus has done, and what we could have done about it, and all of our systems of governance and logic and everything, have largely been found to be inadequate. Would it be so surprising to have a cult of the virus? Is the virus the agent of the devil? Is the virus–what does the virus do? Was this a Biblical prophecy? Is there a text–you mentioned the Book of Revelation–could one not find something in Scripture of some religion, some text that would explain this virus, just as the [HIV] virus was used by conservatives, religious conservatives to justify their view about homosexuality, and so many people were dying and suffering because of it?
So what I’m asking is, you know, sort of–everybody wants to give traditional religion a pass on this. But–and again, I’ll throw in political movements: political cults, nationalism–there are a lot of sources of mischief, dangerous mischief in the world. Your film happens to deal with religion, or the pretense of religion. But the fact of the matter is, these religions and political movements and cults of one kind or another–there are secular cults, there are political and religious cults–have caused tens of millions of people to die, hundreds of millions to die. You know, and–
RS: –you’re right, it’s a small number, but the process–the process of convincing. And I want to end really by talking about this idea of isolation. Which can take place in many ways; it can take place at a Republican or Democratic convention hall, where suddenly everybody believes the same thing. It can take place in a big megachurch that’s very modern, has hip music and everything. But I remember when I was trying to write about this guru from India–for some reason I think he started when he was 8, but by this point he was 13. But there was a thing called satsang or whatever–I’m probably mispronouncing it–but every time you were sort of troubled, some other members of the group would sit by your cot where you were sleeping, and usually there was no privacy, as your film describes. And you really describe, the idea of brainwashing runs through the film.
But really what you’re talking about is isolating people so they only are surrounded by people who think in a similar way. so it’s very similar to what’s happened to our political system now; if you sit there watching MSNBC all the time, or you’re watching Fox, and you only hang out with people who watch Fox or MSNBC, you have a very simple, controlling, brainwashed view of what’s going on in the world, and what a cult can do by physically isolating people. Or in a prison they can do it by pounding and brainwashing prisoners, whether they’re political or otherwise. You know, you can change, totally distort reality.
CT: Yeah. I mean, I think that one of the reasons why we were telling this story as well is that Heaven’s Gate was born out of a time where there was a lot of social chaos. And that is what is needed for the rise of a lot of these fringe groups. And so, you know, in a way it was–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. And so, you know, I’m talking to these sociologists and they’re breaking down what, some of the parameters of how people define cults these days. And some of those are lined up very well with what’s happening politically in America in particular, where you have somebody who claims that they have, you know, sole access to the truth, and that they are under attack from outside forces, and you need to isolate yourself.
So, you know, here we have Donald Trump or QAnon, take your pick, saying that there are these theories where only one person–like, you need to believe solely in that person, and that everything else is fake news, and some sort of conspiracy. And that you need to, like, give your power, essentially, over to them. And I think that’s–for me, that sort of is encompassed in the last line of the whole series, saying–[one of] our sociologists we interviewed saying the takeaways are to not be judgmental of these people, but also be aware of giving your power over to somebody. Because losing that critical thinking is the first step into a very dangerous situation.
RS: Right. And so as my own editorial input to counter that, the danger doesn’t only come from small, crackpot groups, or right-wing television stations. Because it comes in mass culture. And actually, your movie is really, in a way, about mass culture. And the failure of this group was they were not able to break through to mass culture. Maybe now, with the internet and so forth, they would be more successful. You know, basically it’s a failed cult. So then–and this is a good way to sort of conclude it–the lesson is, why did it fail? Because the ingredients were really no more absurd than many–well, I would say almost every other religion, in a way. You know, OK–so where is god? [Laughs]
CT: OK. [Laughs]
RS: If he’s not, you know, sending around spaceships, you know–and in fact, they don’t answer that question. They only know there’s another level. Well, isn’t that what all religion says, right? The whole thing of your documentary is we’re going to exit to a higher level. And we don’t really know what’s up there on the higher level, and these two people who are organizing this whole thing, they presumably have come from that higher level to bring us back–this whole Star Trek sort of thing. Go up, go down, and so forth. Well, isn’t that what all–well, much of religion has been about? There is a higher level of gods, or a god, and they send signals, they send instructions, they send commandments? And you can’t really question that, because that’s a different level.
And in a way, your documentary is kind of a “Life of Brian,” Monty Python movie. And actually, the thing that was so brilliant about “Life of Brian” was that they treated all the sects, including Christianity, but the Jewish religion as well, as just another crazy sect. And then some of these sects suddenly take off, and they endure. And yet when they’re examined, they don’t end up really having more of a realistic foundation than the crackpot ones. I know it’s a provocative idea, but that’s sort of what I thought after watching four hours of Heaven’s Gate. I thought, well, bunch of lunatics, why did I even do this–but then again, what is the big distinction between what they believed and advocated and other religions? There is a big distinction. Most religions that survive and succeed accommodate criticism.
CT: Evolve. Adapt.
CT: They evolve and adapt to–
RS: To some degree. But the end of times, which is really what your movie is all about, right–when is it ending? Well, that’s believed, probably by a very significant number of people in the United States who are college graduates, right? They believe in some variant of it. And then you’re going to a better place. Every president of the United States, you know, they refer to an almighty, they refer to religion, they refer, oh, when people die, they’re going off to a better place. Are they really? What do we mean by the better place? Why is that different than the second level discussed by this crazy group, you know, in your documentary?
CT: Yeah, it’s not any different. I mean, anybody who believes in the literal word of the Bible, which is most people who call themselves evangelicals, will believe in the end of times. And that it’s, you know, coming sooner or later. So, ah–
RS: Why just evangelicals? Why not–let’s take reform–you know, Episcopalians living on the Upper West Side of New York, or you know, Riverside Church, where Martin Luther King actually lectured. By the way, also comes out of a more fundamentalist tradition, but–or reform Rabbis on the Westside of L.A. or so forth. You know, what is the difference between–if you think there’s another level that we’re going to ascend to, somehow there’s another level, and we can’t comprehend it, but it should guide our behavior–that’s what this group believed. They believed there was another level, and that these two people were visitors from the other level–well, that’s kind of the Christ mythology, and the return and so forth. And that you can’t really question it, but there are signals from it. That’s what they believed. And you know, maybe you made a more radical documentary than you intended. And I don’t want to–
RS: –HBO, and getting a large audience [Laughs]. But it seems to me that’s the question that your documentary begs.
CT: Well, look, I–for me, that’s a success, then. If it’s making you think about the story in this way, and question the sort of nature of religion–that’s what I’m trying to do. And I, you know, again, I’m not trying to–one thing that I’m very sensitive to is just not–like, I personally, Bob, really don’t like, you know, proselytizing and telling people what to believe. And so I tried to set up the series in a way that makes you think about these deeper questions, and it sounds like it’s striking a chord for you, and that’s–to me, that’s, then it’s a success.
RS: Well, and that’s a good way to end this, because I think people should watch this documentary. And I watched it with my wife, who started out in life as a Catholic, and I started out, I had a Protestant father and a Jewish mother. And I’ve tried to expose myself to different religions. But also, I want to throw in political movements, because one of your people in there, she belonged to some sort of Marxist group, a sociologist, and talked about that as a cult. And you know, we find our cults–there are vegetarian cults, there are lifestyle cults, that’s what the whole New Age movement was. There were cults by the thousands that you could join, there were exercise gurus and yoga gurus. So I’m not trying to, in this discussion, single out religion. I’m only saying that this group, pathetic and destructive as it was–sad as it was–the guy you mentioned, what’s his name, Sawyer? He started out as a musician?
CT: Yeah, Sawyer joined in one of the first meetings in ’75, and–
RS: Yeah, and he stuck with it and he’s loyal to it. Well, I came away respecting him, and respecting his viewpoint. Because he wasn’t–you know, he said well wait a minute, but isn’t this what we were raising, and isn’t this what we were talking about? And you know, and after all, are we the only ones who believe in an afterlife or another life, and are we the only ones that would consider ending this life, this–what did they call the human experience, the–oh, come on, the–no, what is the body?
CT: Oh, the vehicle.
RS: The vehicle. So this life, your body is just a vehicle, and you’re getting to a higher place–well, isn’t that what a majority of Americans claim to believe? Right? That we’re going to a better world, another world, or he’s thinking about us now, my mother’s thinking about us, my angry neighbor, he’s not thinking up there because he’s in hell somewhere, or you know, suffering. So I think the absurdity of this organization, the Heaven’s Gate group, only underscores the difficulty of comprehending human existence. And we dignify every other attempt to do it only when they are numerically successful, when they raise a lot of money, when they become institutions. And we don’t really ask tough questions about–really? Aren’t they cults?
And again, I’m throwing in the political and the secular [Laughs] and the academic and everywhere, scientific. I’m not just hanging this on religion. I’m saying in the midst of a pandemic, we know figuring out what life’s all about, and does it just end, because of some virus we can’t even imagine, in terms of what it physically is like–what, a thousandth part of a hair or something–can destroy everything, the whole edifice of civilization that we’ve created. It raises very fundamental questions. I want to commend and end this by commending Clay Tweel for making, and really putting a lot of effort into this, maybe it was the work done for that radio program.
CT: It came out in 2017, or late 2016, maybe. And yeah, they–that was the inspiration for us, but we tried to, I think, make something that is a good companion piece to that as well.
RS: I think viewers will be really impressed with the amount of footage and the insight that could be obtained from, yes, a pathetic group that ends tragically, but I think–I agree with you, I think the lessons–you should not dismiss it as what IndieWire said–well, they said it’s “more than just a pop-culture joke.” Well, it wasn’t a joke, any more than Jonestown was a joke, any more than religious war that has killed hundreds of millions of people in this world. So let me end on that. And go check it out, it’s on HBO Max, and I think you can even watch it for free.
CT: Yeah, you can watch the first episode for free on HBO Max on their website, and then you have to sign up to watch the other three.
RS: OK. And it’s really worth doing. I thought so, and as I say, I watched it in one sitting last night, and I really found it raised a lot of questions. So thanks again, Clay Tweel, the director. And the movie is called Heaven’s Gate, and it’s HBO Max. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW, who week after week gets these things posted I want to thank the station for having us. I want to thank Natasha Hakimi for writing the introduction, who’s now suffering in London with this pandemic. Lucy Berbeo, who does the transcription. Joshua Scheer, who is our producer. And I want to thank the JWK Foundation for keeping the memory of Jean Stein, a great journalist who cut through a lot of cant and political arrogance, Jean Stein, for giving us a grant to help do this. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.