Title: Heaven’s Gate
By: Stitcher and Pineapple Street Media
Hosted by: Glynn Washington
On 26th March 1997, 39 members of the US-based religious group Heaven’s Gate took their own lives, believing that they would awaken on a spaceship. This podcast investigates everything about Heaven’s Gate; from before its conception right up to its tragic end, exploring the founders, ex-members and the families left behind.
What I loved
This podcast is really accessible. Heaven’s Gate was founded in 1974 and continued its activities until its dramatic end in 1997. In order to give the listener a solid backdrop, the podcast takes great care in giving ample information about what life in the USA was like at the time of the group’s conception. For example, in Episode 1, researcher and teacher of religion Benjamin E. Zeller is brought in to give us some context.
In the 1970s this is so much closer to the birth of ufology and belief in […] flying saucers. […] One of the bestselling books at the time was a book called “Chariots of the Gods” by Erich von Däniken, who claimed in this book that he had evidence that the world’s ancient religions were actually founded by extra-terrestrial visitors, who passed themselves off as gods because that’s how the ancients could understand them.Benjamin E. Zeller in episode 1, “The Seekers”
The way the podcast drip-feeds this kind of background info makes it really easy to follow. I myself am British and was born in 1996, and knew very little about Heaven’s Gate before putting the first episode on, so I can assure you – you can listen to this podcast with no prior knowledge of Heaven’s Gate and without much knowledge of 1970s USA.
Not only this, but what was especially good about this series was that they interviewed not only family members of those who died, but also ex members who are still alive today. There are also extensive conversations with one of the founder’s daughters. Hearing from these multitudes of perspectives was really beneficial to understanding Heaven’s Gate and the overall picture.
In addition, the choice of host was truly inspired. Glynn Washington is in a unique position, having been raised in an apocalyptic religious cult, the Worldwide Church of God. Due to his own experiences, he was able to offer valuable insight and sympathy for current and ex members of Heaven’s Gate, and I think this helped his interviewees feel safe opening up to him. I really appreciated how respectful he was; never making light of the members’ deaths, never ridiculing their beliefs.
All of this – the attention to detail, the kindness Glynn showed his guests as well as the number of people were were generous with their time, information and memories – all makes for an emotional, gripping listen.
What I didn’t love
In spite of this series’ greatness, I do have a couple, small grievances.
The first is to do with a choice they made that I found a bit jarring. Episode 4, “The Host”, is essentially a Q&A with Glynn, about his upbringing in the Worldwide Church of God. It’s a really interesting episode and Glynn is generous with his answers; it’s a worthy listen. However, Heaven’s Gate is an episodic podcast, so this sudden Q&A session disrupted the narrative flow for me. I think it would have made more sense to release it as a special, rather than as a continuation of the series.
Similarly, I think that sometimes Glynn’s own narrative being weaved into the podcast actually hampered the storytelling. I don’t mean that the information being told wasn’t interesting – because it was. Rather, I think that some fine-tuning was needed. For instance, in Episode 1, Glynn recalls how he first heard of the mass suicide, and about how his heart ached for those members because he knew firsthand what it is like to be swept into a strict religion. This insight is exactly why Glynn makes such a good host for the series, but the memory is recounted in such a way that it sounded like Glynn’s experiences were going to be more linked to Heaven’s Gate than they actually were, which caused a little confusion for me.
It is easy to forgive my grievances with the series, as they really are minor and did not hamper my enjoyment of the series in any real way. The examples I pulled made the listening more clunky rather than disappointing, and as said, I think just a bit of editing would have fixed those problems for me.
Truthfully, this is podcasting at its finest. Glynn is a kind and warm host who is able to extract stories from his interviewees without pressuring them and, along with the experts he talks to, such as Zeller, he is able to paint an incredibly detailed and emotional picture of the events that took place, all while staying respectful.
I first listened to this podcast about a month ago now, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it and recommending it to friends and colleagues since. It really is something special and I can’t recommend it highly enough.