If you’re a regular consumer of the horror and true crime genres, you’re more than likely familiar with cults. The subject is undeniably fascinating. The first-hand accounts by former cult members, the different ideologies, and the backgrounds of the founders and leaders all lend themselves to the almost-mythological status that these groups have in our culture. There are novels, films, memoirs, and podcasts about them. They’re studied by sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, criminologists, students writing graduate theses, and new parents on family leave. There are debates about what constitutes a cult. There are organizations dedicated to preventing vulnerable individuals from getting sucked in…and helping current members escape.
There are people who are so intensely and perversely interested that they willingly walk into a building clearly labeled [Worship Center of Name of Cult] and go on one of the free tours that the group offers. Others are satisfied with watching a docuseries featuring a high-profile defector of that very group from the safety of their own home.
Of the many cults that have existed throughout human history, a few stand out in modern times. One of which is Heaven’s Gate, which is mainly remembered for it’s focus on UFOs and aliens…and the mass suicide of their active members in 1997.
But Heaven’s Gate was so much more than its ending.
The new docuseries on HBO Max, HEAVEN’S GATE: THE CULT OF CULTS, explores the group’s beginnings, leadership, and ideology. Through original and archived footage and interviews with the surviving former members, the series tells the story of Heaven’s Gate without even a hint of judgment or derision. The series humanizes everyone involved and inspires empathy for those who survived as well as those who died.
I had the unmissable opportunity to interview the director of HEAVEN’S GATE: THE CULT OF CULTS, Clay Tweel. During our conversation, he provided valuable insight that goes way beyond the scope of the series:
Thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed.
Clay Tweel: Of course. Thanks for watching the show.
I’m midway through, and I’m just so enthralled and also…horrified by it.
Clay Tweel: Oh yeah. It only gets weirder and darker as you go.
I mean, yeah, it culminates in a mass suicide, so I guess there’s one way to go.
Clay Tweel: (laughs) Yup.
I guess my first question for you is, what is it about the Heaven’s Gate cult that initially attracted you?
Clay Tweel: Well, I remember the suicides in 1997 happening. I was about sixteen years old at the time, and I remember a lot of the things that everyone remembers: the shoes, the purple shrouds, and the crazy-looking leader, and the sort of month-long media cycle that it created. And I remember them being the butt of a lot of jokes, like the SNL skit, and so that was the lens through which I was learning about the cult.
I listened to the Heaven’s Gate podcast and what really drew me in was there was a series of big things that I didn’t know about the group. I didn’t know that there was a female co-leader, I didn’t know that the group existed for over twenty-two years before the suicides. And then for me, even more importantly as a storyteller, hearing the former members and some of the family members talk about the experience of what it was like for them really drew me in in an emotional way that I didn’t expect. I wanted to be able to explore that and try to bring that to a visual medium and try to understand how people could believe these things.
It’s mind-blowing. But also at the same time, at the start of it, I feel like a lot of people were looking for spiritual enlightenment and that time period was sort of that perfect storm for a cult like this.
Clay Tweel: Yeah, for sure. The ‘70s were the boom of the Eastern Guru movement as well as how popular UFOs were in general, which I had forgotten about. UFO sightings were becoming a regular thing. It’s in the series, but some of the books that were on the bestseller list at that time were having to do with the marrying of UFO mythology and religious ideology, and so it was a cult very much born of the moment. It was really fascinating seeing the parallels of even then and now.
Definitely. Were you interested in cults before you heard about Heaven’s Gate?
Clay Tweel: I’ve watched a lot of the big cult documentaries over the last several years and I really enjoyed them. I think that what brought me to this…I grew up in a religious household. I grew up in a Baptist church in Virginia—not Southern Baptist, but Baptist— and so I feel like my own sort of spiritual reckoning, and trying to understand how people come to certain sets of beliefs, is something that I’ve been interested in for a long time. I thought this was a good opportunity to explore some of that. And looking back at some of the other work that I’ve done, I can even see some of those concepts sneaking into those stories as well. Whether it’s the way in which a very hardcore religious town in Oklahoma sees the death penalty for the innocent man, or a movie that I did called Gleason about a guy who finds out he’s diagnosed with ALS right when his wife becomes pregnant with their first child, he sort of has a religious reckoning as well. So [those themes are] subtly there in a lot of work that I do.
What was the research process like before you started making this documentary?
Clay Tweel: We were able to use some of the research that the people at Stitcher who made the [Heaven’s Gate] podcast had compiled, but then we spent several months ourselves digging in and trying to gather up all we could. What was surprising to us was that there was a lot of press around the group in ‘75 and ‘76, so there are New York Times interviews, there are headlines from all over the country popping up from anywhere, from Oregon and all the way to Wisconsin and Oklahoma. [We were] really trying to read these articles and spend a couple of months to track down and get a sense of who we could talk to try to tell this story.
I think the most amazing part of our research process was when we had gotten into editorial, one of our editors was reading a letter from a former member to their family in 1976 and the letter said “I just wish you guys could have been there during these tapings, these filmings that we just did in Oklahoma because the message that was presented was so clear and laid out our mission so well” and “I wish you could have been there and met this filmmaker” and said his name, and the editor was like “who is this guy?” and just started going down this rabbit hole on the internet of trying to look him up and seeing if he still lived in the same area as where they filmed in Oklahoma. And sure enough, he did exist. We called his place of business. He had passed away but his son still ran the business and he was like “oh yeah, I’ve got these seven hours worth of tapes of this group from ‘75 and ‘76.” It was just sitting in a storage unit. And so we were able to unearth footage that had never been seen before of the group, which was really exciting for us.
Wow. That’s really cool.
Clay Tweel: There were all these little rabbit holes you needed to go down (laughs).
Yeah! Was it difficult to pitch this documentary to HBO or anyone else?
Clay Tweel: We did pitch it to several places, but I think one of the things that I’ll always remember about the meeting with CNN and HBOMax was that they immediately got the tone of it and that they understood that the goal of the show was to humanize these people and to empathize with everyone. And they said that before I could even say it in the room. We just sort of looked at each other and were like “yeah, that’s exactly what this should be.” Even in terms of our thinking about the animations we used—instead of recreations, we used animations throughout the series— we were trying to find a way that it wasn’t going to look hokey or cartoony, and HBOMax just got it from the start.
What’s the takeaway that you hope that viewers will get from this docuseries?
Clay Tweel: You know, I think that the series can be a bit of a cautionary tale in a couple ways. [Don’t be] judgmental over people who might have ideas and belief systems different than your own. But also be wary and be cautious of surrendering your power and being a one-hundred percent true believer in anyone, in any one person. Surrendering that over is a very dangerous thing. And so in an age where things are becoming even more black and white, I think it’s a pretty important message to maintain critical analysis in how you see the world and interact with other people.
Absolutely. Do you think that something like Heaven’s Gate could happen today?
Clay Tweel: Yes. A hundred percent. I think that Heaven’s Gate could happen today. I think that several years from now it could happen. I think that’s the very eerie and creepy part about the show: understanding that most people are susceptible to becoming involved in a group that could become dangerous. It’s just a matter of whatever group you’re subscribing to, having their beliefs evolve and using some manipulation techniques. And it doesn’t happen with every group obviously, like there’s not a ton of groups that are committing mass suicide; Heaven’s Gate is special in that way. But I do think that the vast majority of people, dare I say all people, are susceptible in some way to falling in the trap of groupthink.
Have you ever been involved in any sort of cult or has any cult member tried to recruit you?
Clay Tweel: No, I’ve never been involved in any cults. But I do think that working on the series has made me think about the types of ways of thinking that I’ve been indoctrinated in my whole life as well. It makes you think about what you’re taught and what the sources of that information were and reflect on it a little bit. But no, I’ve never been asked to be part of any group. Not that I’m aware of! (laughs)
I notice that you’re saying “group” a lot rather than the term cult. Is there any reason for that, or just personal preference?
Clay Tweel: I oscillate back and forth. I think all of the sociologists we talked to called them cults, called Heaven’s Gate a cult, and all of the religious scholars we talked to called them groups and so I just go back and forth between those two. It gets to the subtle message of the whole show: what’s a cult and what’s a religion? And where does Heaven’s Gate fit into that? I think they were a cult. But every religion starts as a cult, so there’s a lot of grey areas.
That’s a good point. Are there any groups or cults that are on your radar right now?
Clay Tweel: No, not particularly. I’ve been so focused on this group and putting a lot of thought into the show. I watched some of the other stuff that’s come out recently, like The Vow and Seduced and those were great, but I don’t have any others that are like a side hobby-project. Are there any groups you’re focused on?
Recently, I watched The Vow and I’m about to start Seduced. Actually my grad school thesis was about cults in literature and real life, so I’m pretty much obsessed with cults.
Clay Tweel: (laughs)
Not quite to an unhealthy extent! When I was doing my grad school research, I kept getting targeted ads for Scientology which was…super fun.
Clay Tweel: Oh yeah.
I have one more question to wrap up this interview: have you ever seen a UFO?
Clay Tweel: When I was little I thought I saw one. I was like ten years old. But I have not had any UFO experiences since then. It was some light in the sky that was moving quicker than I’d ever seen before. It was sort of hovering and moving in random directions. I remember it and it didn’t impact my life, you know I didn’t really think about it. I still remember it to this day. I’ve long believed that we are not alone in this universe so I’m open to the idea of there being UFOs and aliens. I think it would be an egotistical view to think that we’re the only ones.
HEAVEN’S GATE THE CULT OF CULTS is now available to watch on HBOMax.