true crime

The cult that said "no" to Louis Theroux, and what happened just two weeks later.

In March 1997, a young and relatively inexperienced documentary maker named Louis Theroux sent an email.

He was 27, and had worked on a program called TV Nation with a much more experienced documentary maker named Michael Moore. Theroux had been a correspondent, appearing in segments about unusual subcultures, like a branch of the Ku Klux Klan who were trying to rebrand themselves as civil rights activists, but for white people.

Theroux’s infectious curiosity and quirky style had caught the attention of the BBC, who signed him to a development deal with a show titled Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends; an opportunity that would change his life.

It was upon this backdrop that Theroux found himself sitting at a computer, pressing send on an email addressed to the Heaven’s Gate cult.

Watch Louis Theroux’s trailer for his series, Dark States. Post continues…

Heaven’s Gate was an American UFO cult created by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, who met during Applewhite’s stay in a psychiatric institution, where he was cared for by Nettles who was a nurse.

The pair were committed to contacting extraterrestrials, and travelled across the United States searching for followers. Applewhite told his acolytes he was the second coming of Jesus Christ, and they preached that God was an alien.

Both claimed they were from another planet named ‘the Next Level’, and purported that those who followed them would gain access to a higher evolutionary level.

Theroux, who had always been drawn to the unorthodox, asked if he could visit them.

The answer was no.

“At the present time,” the email read, “a project like this would be an interference with what we must focus on.”

What was it, in March 1997, that Heaven’s Gate were specifically focusing on?

Theroux was likely familiar with their characteristics, like carrying a five dollar note and a handful of quarters on them at all times, the note to cover any vagrancy fines, and the quarters to make urgent calls from pay phones.

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Otherwise, adherents “shed every attachment to the planet,” including sexuality, individuality, their homes, possessions, jobs and families. It had been reported that eight of the male members, including Applewhite, elected to be castrated as means of enforcing an ascetic lifestyle.

When Theroux received their email, politely declining his offer, he likely felt a pang of disappointment, before moving on to other projects.

But less than two weeks later, an image emerged in the news that would be burned into the eyes of a generation.

Black and white Nikes. Black tracksuit pants. Lifeless legs lying flat on the floor.

On a warm Spring day, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate ate apple sauce laced with barbiturates, and washed it down with gulps of vodka.

They wore Star Trek-inspired arm patches that read ‘Heaven’s Gate Away Team’, and had precisely $5.75 in their pockets.

It was, at the time, the largest mass suicide to ever take place on American soil.

The group had rented a mansion inside a gated community in San Diego. After poisoning themselves, they placed bags over their heads, and covered their bodies in purple cloth, believing they weren’t truly dying, but rather freeing their bodies from Earth, and finding a new home in space.

Since, Theroux has spoken to remaining members of the Heaven’s Gate cult, citing interviews in his book The Call of the Weird.

Theroux’s fascination with cults has persisted throughout his long and successful career, perhaps most notably with the 2016 release of his feature film, My Scientology Movie. 

His approach, ever since, has been simple: “When interviews are too cosy, I don’t enjoy them…”

And it’s that very discomfort that makes him on of the best documentarians of our time.

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