The world of podcasting is perpetually in a true crime phase, or so it seems since a little show called Serial changed the game for the medium. Check out the crime section of iTunes or any podcast site and you’ll find yourself bombarded with shows on everything from low-level incidents to mass murder, government conspiracies and the weirdest real-life events this side of Twin Peaks. As with any area of pop culture, the quality and integrity of these shows can differ wildly from series to series, and there’s no guarantee you won’t just end up spending hours listening to some dude in his basement rambling into a $25 microphone about a missing persons case, or find yourself on the receiving end of pseudo-snuff shows that barely tread the boundaries of decency. Such is the problem of loving true crime: You’re always a step away from crossing that line.
Pineapple Street Media have been making waves in the podcast world for the past year, with their impeccable technical quality and uncanny ability to make shows that will create buzz all across the internet. In an industry that’s still relatively green and one where anyone can start up their own enterprise for as little as a good quality microphone and a free download of Audacity editing software, they’ve managed to assert themselves as pioneers in the field. So far, I’ve had a complicated relationship with their shows: With Her, the campaign trail show they produced for the Clinton team, was a good idea confusingly executed; The New York Times’s Still Processing is an absolute must-listen; and Missing Richard Simmons was great until it became uncomfortable in its aims. Still, this is a team with a roster of interesting and diverse voices under their belt, the kind who usually get lost in the straight white dude shuffle of podcasting, and you’ll struggle to find shows that sound as sharp and tightly put together as these. This brings us to their latest show, and the one that’s been keeping me on tenterhooks for weeks.
Heaven’s Gate, hosted by Glynn Washington of Snap Judgment, is a deep dive into the eponymous doomsday cult who became front page news in 1997 after 39 of their members took their own lives in a mass suicide, one that is still the largest of its kind in American history. In a world where snake oil salesmen and questionable religious movements are ten a penny, Heaven’s Gate stood out as particularly curious thanks to their UFO-centred beliefs, matching clothes and laughably charisma-free leader, Marshall Applewhite (known to his followers as ‘Do’). They seemed like the kind of group who were totally harmless and okay to mock, right until they weren’t.
The show seeks to provide the cultural, historical and personal context behind the group, its leaders and the people who populated it. It could have been so easy for Washington and his team to add knowing winks or sardonic remarks throughout the show. After all, wouldn’t your instinctive response to hearing about a UFO cult be to laugh or start quoting the Movementarians episode of The Simpsons? Where Heaven’s Gate succeeds is in its utmost dedication to taking this story 100% seriously. The circumstances are bizarre, but the very real damage caused by the cult is no laughing matter. Washington is only too aware of the machinations of cult life and how easily one can be sucked into it: As a former member of the Worldwide Church of God, an evangelical church with a foot firmly in doomsday rhetoric, he is one of the best equipped people in the business to navigate the tricky waters of deciphering the incomprehensible.
Heaven’s Gate is not a show that can or will promise easy answers, but it does offer an insight into the human cost of such insidious absurdities. In one episode, we are invited to listen to the story of one member of the cult and how she went from a happy, vivacious, young woman with close ties to her family to a distant shell of a person spouting whatever Applewhite told her. Through recordings provided by her parents, we hear the early days of her life with her family, then a faded phone call back home after more than 9 months without contact. Even novices to this field will be able to hear the distance in her voice and vague responses to her family’s questions. When she responds to her grandmother’s query about when she’s coming back home with, ‘I don’t know, probably never’, the coldness of her response hits hard.
That combination of experience, empathy, and journalistic know-how is key to Heaven’s Gate, and makes it compulsive listening that never delves into seedy or self-indulgent. Through interviews with experts, former members, and the families and friends of those who died under the reign of Applewhite, Washington seeks to answer the question, ‘Who would do this and why’, in part because it’s something people have asked since cults became a thing, and also because he’s aware that the same thing could have happened to him at some point in his life. For one episode, Washington switches over from interviewer to subject and relates his own experiences to the audience, furthering how we even talk about such a phenomenon: As he and others on the show note, the most likely to be taken in by these kinds of groups are the people who repeatedly insist they’re too smart for such things.
Heaven’s Gate is available on iTunes, their website and wherever you get your podcasts from. There are currently seven episodes available, so if you need some festive listening material for those dark nights, give it a go.