I grew up in San Diego, and though I was young, Heaven’s Gate was one of the first big news stories I remember. Heaven’s Gate and OJ. That’s why when I saw Stitcher was joining the original content competition and producing their own true crime podcast, Heaven’s Gate. I had it on my to-do list immediately. If you’re unfamiliar with the Heaven’s Gate story, they were largely referred to as a cult promoted into the mainstream news after 39 people tragically took their lives in a San Diego mansion. Their eccentricities — mainly all wearing the same Nikes, purple shrouds, and having the same haircut — made them so interesting and allowed their story to become a media circus. Though, no one can really say I’m prompt in my listening habits. Heaven’s Gate premiered on October 18, 2017, I finished it January 12, 2018. Hey, at least I finished it!
Heaven’s Gate is a different type of true crime podcast though. We already know the ending, and it’s not so much about a pure crime (depending on your definition) as much as it is the mechanics and psychology of a cult.
What I Loved
Like any good audio documentary (typically good true crime podcasts), the level of access was great. They were able to get former Heaven’s Gate members on the record to discuss what they witnessed, their relationships with other members, and most interestingly: what they were thinking and how they allowed themselves to get so immersed into such a radical group.
Along with former cult members, they also extensively interviewed the other victims involved in a cult, the family members who lost loved ones. With most cults, as I learned throughout the podcast, one of the tactics used to isolate members is to quarantine them from their outside relationships including friends and family. Their new family is the other members of the group. The interviews with these family members are especially heartbreaking as they recount their limited conversations and in many circumstances, their final conversations.
A major aspect and a very intriguing point-of-view are that of Terrie Nettles, daughter of former Heaven’s Gate leader, Bonnie Lu Nettles. Terrie’s story is particularly difficult. Along with being basically abandoned by her mom and she embraced the cult (and thought of herself as a messiah figure), there was increasingly limited communication between the two, and she didn’t find out her mother had died after over a year — the cult repeated lied to her. She also remains steadfast in her thinking that her mom was growing apart from the group and she ultimately wanted to leave.
Lastly, I loved the story arc of the podcast. Prior to listening, I had figured the podcast would focus on the Hale-Bopp comet and the suicide. However, out of the 10 episodes, only the final two discuss the much-publicized events. It would have been the easy way to out to simply dramatize the Nikes, the haircuts, or the mass suicide, but I’m glad they went deeper into trying to understand Heaven’s Gates philosophies and the temptation to join.
What I Didn’t Love
For me, I couldn’t get behind the host, Glynn Washington, and I thought some of the writing was disingenuous. Washington, a former cult member himself, had interesting insight into how a cult can create tunnel-vision for their members letting them on to believe this way of life and thinking is the only normal thing. That said, I think some of the areas his emotion didn’t quite match the narrative — notably around the suicide and family grievances. Also, and I get this is extra nit-picky, but his overuse of the term “the end is nigh” seemed like archaic language, but I do get that’s likely the language he was taught from his former group.
As I mentioned earlier the podcast is only 10 episodes long. However, they devoted an entire episode to a Q&A with Glynn Washington about his prior experiences. I’m unsure if this was a stop-gap to continue the weekly publishing cadence when possibly the next episode wasn’t ready or what their reasoning was. In my opinion, having an internal Q&A is fine, but I wouldn’t break up the original story with it — especially given it’s a serialized cohesive story, not episodic (like Ear Hustle did with their Q&A). This should have been saved for after the original narrative or as a special one-off episode later down the road.
Another issue I had was with pacing. I get that if you slow-roll the story to the climactic, and already-known conclusion, it’ll likely improve the payoff, however, some of the areas felt drawn out and when we finally go to the mass suicide, it felt rushed.
Oh and maybe a very massive disclaimer. In episode nine, they go into detail about members castrations and subsequent complications, and it’s very very hard to listen to. The podcast does its best to warn listeners, but my curiosity won out and I had to tune in. Don’t be like me, don’t listen.
Look, Heaven’s Gate is excellent. Even my criticisms are minor, and probably in many cases only apply to me. If you remember the news from the late 1990s and want a more balanced, in-depth view into the cult and their members this is an excellent podcast. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Heaven’s Gate, but enjoy true crime podcasts in general (as many of you do), give it a shot.
As more of a macro-trend, I’m interested to see what other original podcasts Stitcher produces. It’ll be fascinating to see how they navigate the player/producer relationship, if they opt to give their shows the prime promotion areas, and if podcast creators start to migrate away from the platform as a result. Stay tuned, I guess.