Heaven’s Gate, and 5 more history podcasts

The Heaven's Gate podcast takes a deep dive into the story of the California-based cult; we take a look at the show, and five more historical pods

Feature by Brian Cloughley | 19 Feb 2018

Deep dive: that’s a pretty buzzy phrase in American podcasting right now. “We take a deep dive into the hot takes... when our show continues [insert advert for Audible, Squarespace or Mailchimp].” The 10-part Heaven’s Gate podcast definitely fancies itself as a deep dive. It’s about the cult of the same name which, 20 years ago, ended with the suicide of 39 members.

Of course, according to the followers they didn’t really die. Rather, they abandoned their corporeal vehicles and were scooped up by an alien spacecraft hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet. They’d been building up to this moment for close to a quarter-century, through a history involving voluntary castration, website design and musical theatre, so there’s plenty to dive into.

For obvious reasons, talking to the participants of a mass suicide is difficult, but the show does an excellent job of rounding up relatives, ex-members and historians and giving them space to tell their stories. These testimonials are the best bits of the podcast. You’ve got the heart-breakingly noble Nancy Brown who lost her son to the cult, and who tempers her grief by noting that, despite it all, he found friendship and happiness there. Then there’s Frank Lyford, who spent 18 years inside the cult before escaping with a speech impediment and a palpable aura of sadness.

The thing is, though, as emotionally involving as the podcast is, it could do a bit more with its eight-hour running time. Like an essay by an undergraduate destined for a 2:2, it’s descriptive, not analytical. A case in point is the sixth episode (The Choice), about a time in the mid-80s when the leader temporarily disbanded the group and sent his followers back to their former homes. The significance of this event isn’t really apparent: they go home, then a week later they come back again. There’s an emotional kick because this would be the last time that some of the cult members would see their families, but not much else.

Maybe if the whole show was rooted in, say, American politics or the psychology of cults or the history of charismatic leaders, then it would be a bit more enlightening. These things are touched upon but there isn’t an overarching theme or subtext to really get your teeth into. It’s hard to shake the feeling that This American Life could probably tell the story better in a tight 55 minutes.

The deepest dive actually comes in episode four (The Host) when the podcast steps away from Heaven’s Gate and interviews the show's host Glynn Washington about his background growing up in a cult. The interviewer is sharp, Washington is engaging and it gets closer than the rest of the series to answering the big questions. It also works as a fine stand-alone episode so it’s the perfect place to test the waters before you dive in. Sorry, that was unnecessary. Listen to Episode Four – The Host – via Stitcher in the player below.

American History V – Five more podcasts from a foreign country

1) Uncivil – This smart, timely series isn’t about the American Civil War as much as it’s about how its legacy still shapes the US today.

2) You Must Remember This – Written and hosted by the formidable Karina Longworth, this podcast digs up shady stories from the Hollywood’s past. Start with the Charles Manson episodes if you want to keep with the apocalyptic cult tip.

3) More Perfect – 'Landmark decisions by the US Supreme Court' sounds like an unbearably dry subject for a podcast, but the Radiolab team manage to make it fascinating. The first season’s significantly better than the second.

4) BackStory – These can get pretty dense at times, but they really come into their own when they mash-up history with current affairs (head for the History for the Headlines section on the website).

5) The Memory Palace – There’s something very calming about these short episodes set to music. Just don’t listen to them while operating heavy machinery.