Ben Zeller was a college sophomore studying messianic religions in 1997 when news broke of a strange and unfathomable tragedy: 39 men and women took their own lives in a Southern California mansion, believing they were shedding their earthly forms to be reborn as space-traveling aliens.
The horror of the mass suicide was swiftly replaced with mockery as the peculiar beliefs of the cult, known as Heaven’s Gate, became clear, but the incident haunted Zeller. He wrote his final paper on the group, and after years of further research, produced a book on its evolution and beliefs.
Now, his work is getting a new audience on the popular podcast “Heaven’s Gate,” which recently hit No. 1 on Apple’s podcast chart. Zeller, a religion professor at Lake Forest College, served as an on-air and behind-the-scenes expert whose empathetic approach helped to guide the project.
“So much about Heaven’s Gate had treated them as freaks and lemmings,” said Ann Heppermann of Pineapple Street Media, which co-produced the podcast. “From the beginning we wanted to understand the people and their loved ones as humans. That was one of the reasons we turned to Zeller as our academic consultant. We shared a similar viewpoint.”
Heaven’s Gate began when two misfit spiritual seekers, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles, met in Houston in 1972. They bonded over shared interests in astrology, mysticism and other New Age pursuits, and within a few years, were seeking disciples for a religion that meshed apocalyptic Christianity with a belief in UFOs.
“The heart of the group’s idea was that they were going to move beyond the human level and achieve immortality by becoming perfected space aliens, which effectively were angels,” Zeller said.
At first, Applewhite and Nettles thought their bodies would evolve to become extraterrestrials, but after Nettles died in 1985, the theology changed: People moving to the Next Level had to leave their human “vehicles” behind and transfer their consciousness into the bodies of aliens, which would be waiting for them aboard a spaceship.
Applewhite saw the coming of the Hale-Bopp Comet as a signal that the time of transformation had arrived. He and almost all of his followers donned identical black shirts, pants and Nikes, consumed a mixture of phenobarbital and applesauce followed by a vodka chaser, lay down on neatly arranged mattresses and died.
The group left behind a still-active website, Heavensgate.com, that outlines its belief system, as well as “exit videos” in which members happily talked about going to the Next Level. Their odd appearance and strange creed spawned plenty of jokes — David Letterman even did a Top 10 list — but Zeller saw the deaths as a tragic and compelling mystery.
As part of his initial research, he spoke with a former member named Chuck Humphrey, or, in the group’s nomenclature, Rkkody. Humphrey wasn’t there for the mass suicide, but not long after Zeller spoke with him, he killed himself, too.
Zeller said the shock of Humphrey’s death changed how he thought about Heaven’s Gate.
“This isn’t just a puzzle to be understood,” he said. “This is a group which had living people who had families, feelings, lives, jobs, interests, pets and everything else. They’re the human beings who joined this group and ended their human lives. That’s what really hit me when Chuck died — exited, as he would say.”
Empathy imbues Zeller’s 2014 book, “Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion,” in which he tries to understand — but not validate — the cult’s attraction for people who felt alienated from a world they saw as irredeemably corrupt.
The podcast producers said that quality drew them to Zeller.
“He’s tremendously good at telling the stories of the cult, the religion, with excitement and compassion, which a story needs,” said executive editor Peter Clowney of Midroll / Stitcher. “His idea was really moving to all of us as we started.”
Zeller served as the podcast’s academic consultant, giving feedback on scripts and lending his voice to explain Heaven’s Gate. He said he was pleased with how the project’s 10 episodes, available at www.heavensgate.show, turned out.
“It was, as a work of public scholarship, something I’m really proud of,” he said. “I realize most people won’t read the book, but people will listen to podcasts, so getting the story of this group out there in podcast form has been really rewarding.”
Heaven’s Gate might seem like a relic of the late 20th century, and Zeller said when he introduces it in a class on cults and sects at Lake Forest College, few of his students have heard of the group. Its strangeness doesn’t throw them, though, something Zeller attributes to the internet’s endless cornucopia of the bizarre.
“Certainly, students are shocked by the suicides, but the extraterrestrial, space alien stuff is much less shocking than I would have thought,” he said. “Conspiratorial thinking has become so much more mainstream that perhaps it’s less out there than it was for us.”