Science and Chill

The psychological reason why people joined a UFO cult

Heaven’s Gate director Clay Tweel talks psychology of cult membership.

Cautionary tales of cults are everywhere in this new age of media. Content devoted to the topic has increased steadily in recent years, especially on streaming services: Shows like HBO’s The Vow and Netflix’s Wild Wild Country gripped viewers and dominated the discourse.

The concept of cults seems to be fascinating no matter what context it’s in — and perhaps part of the viewing appeal is wondering how people become entangled in these groups. You can imagine whether you’d be as easily convinced in the same situation.

The cult mindset took center stage after the 1997 mass suicide of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate group, a UFO-based religious cult who believed they were destined for extraterrestrial travel. News coverage following the event was a mix of horror and puzzlement: Were they brainwashed? Were they victims? How do rational people go from living a supposedly normal life to believing they are aliens in a human body “vehicle?”

“I think a lot of the members of Heaven's Gate were just searching to belong and to be a part of something,” director Clay Tweel told Inverse. Tweel directed the HBO docu-series Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults, examining the group from its 1970s origins and founding by two leaders known as Ti and Do to the mass suicide and its aftermath.

The docuseries was released on December 3, 2020, and is still streaming on HBO Max.

Why do people join cults?

Steven Hassan in Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults.HBO Max

One of the experts interviewed for the series was Steve Hassan, a licensed mental health counselor and one of the foremost authorities on cults and mind control. Hassan advised Tweel on what makes people susceptible to high control groups like Heaven’s Gate.

“Steve likes to talk about how most people join groups like these in a moment of transition in their life,” Tweel says. “So moving to a new city or state, a loss of a loved one, divorce, some big shift in their life that leaves you feeling disconnected.”

“If that disconnection gets married with the synchronicity of coming across a message that makes you feel safe in some way, shape, or form, or explain something that you feel like is missing in your life, then that's what hooks you in.”

Sociologist David Taylor with a shirt given to him by member Chuck Humphrey. Humphrey died of suicide in February 1998, after the Heaven's Gate mass suicide. HBO Max

Those looking for meaning during high-stress moments in life are willing to accept it no matter the form, Tweel explains — even a cult. This jibes with a finding from a 2017 study on cults published in Psychiatry Research: Initial psychological relief is often linked to membership.

In Hassan’s seminal 1988 book Combating Cult Mind Control, he expands on this topic:

“Surveys of present and former cult members indicate that the majority of people recruited into destructive cults were approached at a vulnerable time of stress in their lives ... People in such situations tend to have defense mechanisms that are overloaded or weakened. If they don’t know how to spot and avoid destructive cults, they are easy prey.”

Sometimes these mindsets are caused by events of transition in life, but on occasion, this stress is exacerbated by personality. Tweel points out Ti, the alias of Heaven’s Gate co-leader Bonnie Nettles, never felt like she fit in and, in turn, was always in this kind of vulnerable transition mindset. Nettles died of cancer in 1985, but her legacy loomed large in the group for the rest of its existence.

Do (Marshall Herff Applewhite) and Ti (Bonnie Nettles) in 1974.Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images

“Part of the Heaven's Gate philosophy came a lot from Ti,” Tweel says. “She felt like she was an alien on this planet, to begin with. She was an outsider. She didn't fit in and she just felt like she did not connect with a lot of other people.”

This allowed her to connect so deeply with Do, Tweel explains. Otherwise known as Marshall Applewhite, Do bonded with Ti over biblical prophecy. In 1975 they revealed they considered themselves the witnesses foretold in the Book of Revelation, and they and their followers disappeared from the public eye to form what came to be known as Heaven’s Gate.

Recruitment tools and the role of the internet — In Combating Cult Mind Control, Hassan explains once people are in this vulnerable mindset, they can be brought under undue influence through one of four ways:

  • By a friend or relative who is already a member
  • By a stranger who befriends them, through a cult-sponsored event, such as a lecture, symposium
  • By a movie
  • Through social media

This fourth method didn’t contribute to Heaven’s Gate because of the time period, but as life moves increasingly online, evidence of those radicalized to extreme ways of thinking through social media is accumulating. In a time where many feel like they’re in an uneasy transition point in life thanks to uncertain social circumstances, social media appears to be contributing to new heights of cult recruitment.

That’s not to say the internet didn’t play a role in Heaven’s Gate: After Ti’s death in 1985, Heaven’s Gate turned more and more to the web as a way of introducing possible recruits to its teachings. In the mid-90s they spread their message on a very basic site under the name “Higher Source.” By using a website, they didn’t need to target those in transitory periods of their life — those looking for meaning would find them.

The Heaven's Gate website, still active after decades. heavensgate.com

Hassan notes in the 2018 addendum to Combating Cult Mind Control that just as the internet serves as a tool for recruitment, it can also be a life-saving tool in recognizing these groups. While the internet was too new for the members of Heaven’s Gate to find the facts about these groups, modern access to the internet allows for unrestricted research before making any commitments, or even during control by an influential group.

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults is a fascinating watch because, like the members of Heaven’s Gate, many people are looking for some proof of greater meaning to their existence. If you feel like you don’t belong, either physically or mentally, it could be easy to believe aliens are coming to bring you where you’ll truly fit in. Watching Heaven’s Gate is an experience that sucks you into this mentality — but luckily for the viewer, it’s an experience you can walk away from.

Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults is now streaming on HBO Max.