Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults

TV review by
Marty Brown, Common Sense Media
Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults TV Poster Image
UFO cult documentary has violence, sex, and insight.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

Mostly looks at the cult's history and context, but the documentary also looks at how to cope with inexplicable loss and tragedy.

Positive Role Models

Many of the interview subjects are survivors of trauma and tragedy. Many also seek to genuinely understand the complex motivations of cult members.


The reason Heaven's Gate is a subject of interest is that its members died in a mass suicide. The mass suicide is spoken about and news footage of the site of the event is shown. At one point, a forced castration is described in detail.


Heaven's Gate talks about sex mostly in that sex and sensual thoughts were not allowed within the cult. At one point, a forced castration is described in detail.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some subjects' histories of drug use or alcoholism are talked about.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults is a documentary series about a well known UFO religious cult whose members died in a mass suicide in 1997. The series traces the cult's origin and history leading up to the tragic events of 1997 using archival footage, including crime scene footage of the site of the mass suicide, and new interviews with surviving Heaven's Gate members and members' families. No violence or sexual content is shown, but the forced asexuality of the cult members is a topic of detailed discussion, and at one point a castration is described in detail. A theory is put forward that one of the cult leaders' repressed homosexuality motivated his actions within the cult, which may be interpreted as a homophobic line of thinking by some viewers. In general, the documentary paints a complex and sympathetic picture of the cult and what attracted and motivated its members. Younger viewers may have trouble parsing the complexity of the subject, but for older teens and young adults it can be extremely informative, as cults and cult-like organizations tend to target that demographic.

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What's the story?

Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults tells the story of the infamous UFO religious cult whose members died in a mass suicide in 1997. The series traces the origins of the cult and its founders, and why the members believed they might be able to become alien beings. Archival footage and new interviews with former members, family member, and historians explain how the cult grew and evolved throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The documentary seeks to understand the events that lead up to the mass suicide and the trauma the cult inflicted on the survivors and their families.

Is it any good?

UFO cults and other fringe organizations are often treated like tabloid material or weird human interest stories -- Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults, by contrast, begins by taking the cult, its members, and their beliefs as seriously as they do. This allows the documentary to do many things at once. It seeks to understand the members, the leaders, and their seemingly bizarre and erratic behavior. It gives insight on how cults and cult-like organizations operate and their methods of manipulation and control. It places Heaven's Gate into historical context, alongside tragedies such as the Jonestown Massacre. Finally, it explores how the actions of the Heaven's Gate cult and its leaders traumatized everyone that came into their orbit, with a focus on how the survivors cope with their trauma. The series is not always easy to watch, but it is consistently fascinating and informative. Even those who might just want to gawk at people who believe they're aliens should find something of value here. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Heaven's Gate. Did you know anything about the cult before watching the series? What was your perception of Heaven's Gate? How did that change over the course of the episode or series?

  • What techniques do the cult leaders use to manipulate its members? Why are those techniques effective? What other organizations have cult-like qualities or use similar manipulation techniques?

  • What are the lasting effects that Heaven's Gate has had on its former members and their families? How do the interview subjects cope with the trauma and loss caused by Heaven's Gate?

TV details

  • Premiere date: December 3, 2020
  • Network: HBO Max
  • Genre: Educational
  • TV rating: TV-MA
  • Available on: Streaming
  • Last updated: December 15, 2020

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