How to Become a Cult Leader (2023) s01e04 Episode Script

Promise Eternity

[narrator] You've seen how leading a cult
can provide some serious benefits.
[narrator] Sex,
even a little rock and roll.
But sadly,
the honeymoon doesn't always last.
When people join a cult, it's so exciting,
but once you're in
and everything starts to stabilize,
that's the time when you maybe
start to see, "Something's off here."
[narrator] When you feel the odds
shifting against you,
there is one proven way
to turn the game around
raise the stakes.
That's where the apocalypse comes in.
It is much easier to control people
when there's some kind of imminent danger.
They're not gonna question you
when they think the world's about to end.
[narrator] Take it
from Marshall Applewhite,
known to his followers as "Do."
He and his partner Bonnie Nettles,
known as "Ti,"
earned decades of devotion
by promising to lead
members of their group
Heaven's Gate off planet Earth
and towards eternal life
at the edge of the galaxy.
We are now so programmed
to so easily accept death,
but there are alternatives.
[narrator] Climb aboard their spacecraft
and let Do reveal how to stop worrying
about the end of the world
and make it work for you.
Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles,
better known as Ti and Do,
combined Christianity, New Age mysticism,
and a healthy dose of science fiction
to convince their followers
to drop out of society
and prepare for a one-way
interstellar trip to eternity.
They got to the point
where they convinced the members
that they were not human beings,
that they were originally
from this other world.
[narrator] It didn't happen overnight.
When we think about Heaven's Gate,
we think about the ending in '97
with the mass suicides,
but they began back in the '70s.
They have about 20 years of history.
[narrator] Let's take it back
even further.
[Benjamin] Marshall Herff Applewhite
was born in 1932 in Texas.
His father was a very successful
Presbyterian minister.
Much of the focus was on redemption,
getting saved, salvation, and so forth.
Herff grew up
wanting to be like his father,
wanting to live a meaningful life
and see meaning in his life.
[narrator] At first, he thought
that meaning was musical theater.
He was a performer,
he was a music teacher.
He was quite handsome.
[Janja] He had a great head of hair
and blue eyes.
[narrator] But it turned out
he was fated for even greater pursuits.
In the early 1970s,
he began to experience
a series of disconcerting
religious spiritual experiences.
[Benjamin] He thought he heard voices,
he thought he felt some sort of calling.
He had this sense
that he had something to do
and had a purpose beyond
just merely teaching music in Texas.
[Janja] Bonnie was a die-hard New Ager.
She already had a practice
of leading seances
and doing astrology charts.
She read his chart,
and she determined that Herff's fate
was intertwined with hers.
From the beginning,
they saw themselves as destined
to create something new, special, radical.
They drove around the country
trying to figure out
what the meaning of life was,
what their purpose in life was.
[narrator] They discovered
they shared a destiny
to witness the end of days
described in the Bible.
But instead of Jesus
coming to save the righteous,
Marshall and Bonnie envisioned
a different form of salvation.
They believed salvation
was on board a UFO,
and the elect would be lifted up
and sail off into the literal heavens,
into outer space,
while the rest of us
would be left behind to be recycled,
for our planet to be destroyed.
[narrator] And when you discover
a truth this powerful,
you can't keep it to yourself.
They have this sense of personal destiny
and vision to carry out the mission.
[David] "We have the key."
[narrator] Love the confidence,
but how do you convince people
you're for real?
Being a visionary
means seeing things others can't.
Embrace that gift.
Cult leaders say, in some ways,
"I or we are the prophet.
We know the truth."
It's hard for the mere mortal
to really understand God's plan,
but the cult leader
understands God's plan.
Everyone else is living in the dark.
[narrator] It's up to you
to light up the darkness,
which is exactly what Bonnie and Marshall,
Ti and Do, set out to do.
We have the most potent truth
that could be conveyed to any mind.
[narrator] When the pair started out,
their intergalactic predictions
should've been catnip
for the sci-fi crowd.
[Benjamin] In the 1970s,
there were lots of folks
interested in UFOs, ufology, sightings,
questions about crashes of flying saucers.
There were real scientists,
real government leaders,
military leaders, who did think
UFOs were not fringe, were very real.
[narrator] Yet in their first year,
Applewhite and Nettles' recruiting efforts
brought them a whopping
one follower.
But if at first
your truth doesn't catch on,
you might just need more pizzazz.
[upbeat music playing]
[narrator] In spring of 1975,
Ti and Do arrive
in the San Fernando Valley
to give a talk
to a group of New Age enthusiasts.
Over 80 people attend the meeting.
But the two don't make
much of an impression
until Do shares his newest revelation.
In fact,
Do is not Marshall Herff Applewhite,
[Benjamin] Do is a Next Level alien
from outer space.
[narrator] The Next Level
is a heavenly dimension
that's run by highly evolved
and immortal alien beings,
and by following Ti and Do's teachings,
reaching this paradise
is within anybody's grasp.
[Benjamin] You too could become
a perfected space alien,
and you too could be lifted up
onto this UFO
and sail off into outer space.
[narrator] It's a lot to take in,
but the audience eats it up.
After flailing for over a year,
their Next Level pitch
puts Ti and Do on the map.
[indistinct chatting]
From those in attendance,
two, three, even four dozen people
took it seriously enough to join.
[narrator] As the dynamic space duo's
recruiting efforts continued,
they found even more people
who connected to their message,
like Sawyer,
who stayed with the group for 18 years.
[Sawyer] I was a seeker.
I was interested
in exploring different ideas.
I wasn't really feeling that good
about any one pathway
until I came across
Ti and Do's information.
And that made a lot of sense to me.
I believed everything they were saying.
[narrator] Surprised? Don't be.
Eternal mysteries of the universe
are a cult leader's sweet spot.
There's something about human nature
that makes us wanna understand things
that don't make sense.
We wanna put the puzzle together.
The thing that brings it all together
is believing that the leader
knows more than you do
and knows better than you do
and is making sense.
[narrator] Ti and Do had established
themselves as the real deal
and started building up their squad.
But before your disciples
can follow your path to salvation,
you have to know they're up to the task
and won't ask too many questions.
So make sure they shape up
before they ship out.
Nothing paves the way to eternal life
like a rigorous set of standards.
Demanding purity from one's followers
is the ultimate tool of control
because purity is impossible,
and that keeps the members
constantly feeling shame
knowing that they're not perfect yet,
they're not there yet.
It really is a way
to keep people loyal to the group.
[narrator] That's why the top cult leaders
knew to set a high bar.
[cheering and clapping]
[narrator] Sun Myung Moon
had his newlywed followers
perform a three-day sex ritual,
making love in various positions
under his portrait
so they could be reborn 100% sin-free.
Shoko Asahara ordered
some of his disciples
to swallow bandages to induce vomiting
as a way of purifying
their digestive tract.
While diet guru Mario Pianesi
made his acolytes follow a strict
macrobiotic eating regimen
that promised to cure all disease.
The group was eventually shut down
after followers began suffering
from malnutrition and other ailments.
As Ti and Do
continued building their group,
they had even loftier goals in mind.
They saw themselves
as training for outer space
with clear, strict rules
in everything from how to exercise
and what to eat and not to eat.
Those who stay
are gonna have to live in a way
that they think the Next Level lives.
The metaphor that Do and Ti used
was the butterfly.
If you wanna become a butterfly,
you have to give up your caterpillar ways,
the ways of humanity.
Attachment to family, to parents,
to siblings, to your children.
You had to give up
your attachments to the pleasures of life.
[narrator] Saying "I do" to Heaven's Gate
meant saying "I don't"
to almost everything else,
like alcohol,
junk food, facial hair,
and anything categorized as recreation.
That's not all.
Followers also gave up media,
personal preferences,
and any job that might interfere
with their duties to the crew.
But not everyone was into
the new and improved
Heaven's Gate lifestyle.
They had people who decided,
"We know we're supposed
to evolve beyond our human level,
but a joint now and then
isn't going to do much harm."
[narrator] When demanding perfection,
you can't let anybody slip,
so Ti and Do
tightened the reins even further.
They gather in Wyoming,
and those who are gonna stay
have to follow the rules.
[narrator] Once the group assembles,
Ti and Do lay down the law.
Followers must shave their heads
and live permanently at the campground.
The two institute a rigorous routine
of fasting, prayer, astrology,
and meditation designed to transform
the members' flawed human minds
into superior alien ones.
They banished human thoughts
by tapping tuning forks on their heads
and focusing on the tone for hours.
To keep tabs on any slackers,
Ti and Do create a buddy system
called "Check Partners" to make sure
they keep their behavior
and emotions under control.
This routine continues all summer long.
[Sawyer] What we were doing was
getting rid of our human, mammalian mind
because there is no
mammalian mind in the Next Level.
[narrator] Some give up and leave,
but those who stay move one step closer
to their eternal destiny.
When you're in a closed system
like a cult, there are no reality checks.
[Janja] Everything's to be done
a certain way,
and everybody around you
is reinforcing that all the time.
[narrator] But for even your
most dedicated acolytes,
there's one imperfection
that's tough to repress.
Sexual encounters or sexual thoughts
were completely taboo.
Human sexuality would make you feel human,
and that's what they didn't want.
[narrator] Also, there's no point.
There is no sexuality in the Next Level.
[Sawyer] On their spacecrafts,
they don't reproduce,
they don't have sex.
We need all our energy
directed towards the difficult task
of becoming a member of the Next Level.
[narrator] Of course, enforcing celibacy
can be easier said than done,
but where there's a will, there's a way.
The solution they came to was castration.
Several men within Heaven's Gate
decided it was easier
to simply seek out castration
as opposed to deal
with the hormonal requirements
of living within a human body.
[narrator] Problem solved.
That preemptive snip
helped Do's followers inch
that much closer to perfection
while also setting
an inspiring new standard for loyalty.
Everybody wants to be
in the cult leader's inner circle.
That can lead to competition
to prove that you are the most loyal
and you will do whatever it takes.
[narrator] But even
the most dedicated followers
can occasionally go wobbly.
You need a plan to keep them in line.
Cult beliefs are often a house of cards.
[Asha] If you were to discredit
one piece of it,
the whole thing will come down.
Therefore, it's really important
to shut down any critical thinking.
[narrator] Here's one way to do it.
[Amanda] A thought terminating cliché
is a hallmark cult leader technique.
It describes a stock expression
aimed at shutting down
independent thinking or questioning.
[narrator] Not familiar with the term?
You'll probably recognize some examples.
"That's the media's fault.
You can't trust them."
"You're being attached."
"Don't let yourself be ruled by fear."
"If you are questioning this,
you need to do more work."
"Maybe you're not serious
about enlightenment."
And so you'll need a roster
of these catchy, semantic stop signs
to encourage that sense of conformity,
to create that echo chamber.
[narrator] But when rhetorical tricks
aren't enough to shut down questions,
you may need
to rewrite the entire dictionary.
Ti and Do created
their own unique language for the group
that reinforced
their extraterrestrial ideology.
They referred to their houses as "crafts."
They said that food was
They wanted us to use the word fuel.
[narrator] They called the kitchen
the Nutri-lab
and renamed the laundry the Fiber-lab.
You didn't leave your house
to have to go to a job to earn some money,
you engaged in an out-of-craft task
to earn some sticks.
[narrator] Their human bodies
were now called "vehicles,"
sexual organs became "plumbing,"
and underwear was renamed "seat covers."
[Benjamin] Having their own language
created a subculture.
For members of Heaven's Gate,
the words they used,
the way they thought of themselves,
made sense
only with reference to the group.
Everyone that you come in contact
that vibrates still on the human world
will say, "Man, you're crazy."
[narrator] But despite all you do
to reframe reality for your followers,
new reasons for doubt can always creep in.
After the group
had been together for about ten years,
Bonnie Lou Nettles got cancer.
[David] Eventually it would spread
to other parts of her body,
and after a few months, she died.
[Janja] Bonnie's death
had a big effect on the group.
First of all, she died.
[laughs] She wasn't supposed to be human,
so why would she die?
Yet she gets
this very human disease of cancer.
[Benjamin] Do locked himself away
for a while.
Members said, "Is the group
gonna dissolve? What's gonna happen?"
[narrator] What do you do
when your road to eternity hits a pothole?
We've been hit.
[narrator] If every cult leader prophecy
came true,
the world would look quite different.
But the greats don't let
one little setback get them down.
[Asha] When a prophecy doesn't come
to fruition, you just move the goalposts.
Whatever happened
was what was meant to happen,
and the belief system is rearranged
to accommodate a new set of facts.
[narrator] Here's why founding member
Ti's death caused such a pickle.
Ti and Do originally claimed
you could only reach
the Next Level in your physical body,
and when the time came,
the two would lead the group to a location
where a UFO would appear
and suck them all up in its tractor beam.
There, they'd join
their Next Level alien hosts
on an eternal voyage across the universe.
Of course,
things didn't work out that way for Ti.
No one appears
from the Next Level to heal her body.
They expect something to happen,
nothing happens.
[narrator] But a great thing
about the cult leader gig is flexibility.
Do said this must be
part of the plan from the Next Level,
and that our leader
was gonna lay down her body.
Ti had been called back to the Next Level
to go there and serve,
and to lead the group,
that he would tune in
and he would talk to Ti every day.
[narrator] Now that's some creative logic.
But before Do
could lock in his course correction,
he needed to make sure
everyone was buckled in.
Several months after Bonnie's death,
Do gives his followers a pop quiz.
Do came to us and said
there's something different about him
and he wanted to know
if any of us observed it,
and I had the thought pop into my head
that he was wearing a ring, and he said,
"This ring, this is my commitment to Ti."
[narrator] It's a non-traditional marriage
considering that Ti is dead,
but Do's just getting started.
[Sawyer] He got us all rings,
and he was sitting
in this captain's chair that we had,
and one by one he said,
"Come up to me."
And he put his hands on my head,
on both sides of my face.
He kissed me on the forehead.
I could see it was very serious for him,
and I was struck by that,
and it felt like love.
[narrator] It's Do's big day.
The group wedding
affirms member's commitment
to the future of Heaven's Gate,
but most of all, to Do himself.
Do's leadership is strengthened.
It's strengthened because
it's putting more stock
and power and belief in him.
[narrator] But what use is earthly power
in times like these?
[action music playing]
[reporter 1] Crack, the most addictive
form of cocaine,
is now sweeping New York.
[reporter 2] In this unfolding nightmare,
radiation may be spewing into the air.
[reporter 3] The AIDS virus
can be transferred through blood.
Do looked around the world
and said, "It's gone to Hell."
Can I swear?
- [interviewer] Yes.
- Okay. Just wanna make sure.
"The world's gone to shit
and there's nothing we can do."
We knew that there was a limit
to how long planet Earth
was gonna continue in the way that it was,
that there was a recycling
that was eminent.
But they weren't sure if that meant
everyone was gonna be killed
or the planet would go up in smoke.
What was important
is you would get off the planet.
[narrator] That's been
the group's plan all along.
But getting out quickly
will require one last pivot,
and it's a big one.
As Do and the group discuss
how to speed up
their transition to the Next Level,
a new theology emerges.
[Benjamin] They come to believe
that the soul can leave the body behind.
The body,
which they come to call the vehicle,
is seen as simply a carrier,
and what's important is the spirit,
the essence, the self.
[Benjamin] They start
to take seriously the idea
and discuss publicly the idea
they may need to lay down their vehicles,
in their language, to commit suicide.
A new world is almost within our grasp.
They were excited about going.
They were finally going to achieve
their purpose they'd been
focusing on all these years,
getting to the Next Level.
[narrator] Thanks to your
clever maneuvering,
eternity beckons,
with your followers firmly on board.
Just one question remains,
how do you know when to leave?
We all naturally want to be a part
of something bigger than ourselves,
especially people who join cults,
and what is bigger than ourselves?
A sign from God.
[narrator] So when it comes
to timing out your end game,
you have to keep your eyes open
like these other prophets of doom.
Dutch cult leader Heinrich Von Gene
convinced members of his group
Ephraim that the September 11th attacks
were a sign
of the approaching end of the world
and they should prepare
to be raptured to Heaven
by the year's end.
Shoko Asahara told his followers
in Aum Shinrikyo that a 1995 earthquake
was triggered by an American machine
designed to kick off Armageddon.
[narrator] While Monte Kim Miller,
leader of the Concerned Christians,
claimed the 1991 collapse
of the Soviet Union
signaled the time of the end,
and later sent his followers to Jerusalem
to try and set off
the Battle of Armageddon.
They failed.
With their eyes on eternity,
Do and Heaven's Gate
sought their own celestial signal.
In the late '90s,
they start looking for signs
of the end of the world,
and they found one in the comet Hale-Bopp.
It's the brightest comet
that's passed
through the solar system since 1577.
[Benjamin] This was an amazing comet.
Had a long tail, it was very bright.
But also, importantly,
members of Heaven's Gate came to believe
there was a companion following it, a UFO.
[narrator] The UFO claim came
from one of the most
reputable sources possible,
an anonymous tip on a radio call-in show.
- Chuck, welcome to the program.
- Thanks, Art. Pleasure to be here.
It was the claim
from an amateur astronomer
that he had a picture,
and the government
had censored the official photos
to hide the existence of this UFO.
[Chuck] Perhaps they saw something
they felt might disturb people.
[Art] And now maybe you've got it on film?
[narrator] The UFO claim
was ultimately debunked,
but it fit seamlessly into Do's prophecy.
I think they saw it and said, March 1997,
that's when it'll be closest to Earth.
It corresponds with Easter,
uh, it corresponds with the story
of what they consider this first attempt
to demonstrate, 2000 years ago,
the truth of the Next Level.
[Benjamin] They believed that the comet
was a sign that it was time to leave.
[narrator] Nothing focuses the mind
like a tight deadline.
That's really the rub for a lot of people,
what keeps a lot of people in.
There's always gonna be
that part of you that says,
"What if they're right?"
They're afraid they're going to miss out.
The graduation time,
or the season of the harvest,
is right now.
[narrator] As the time
to exit their vehicles grows close,
the crew plans
their departure meticulously.
They build a website,
produce a book,
and shoot a series of videos
recording their final thoughts.
They even issue a press release titled,
"Heaven's Gate Away Team Returns
to Level Above Human in Distant Space."
They picked up a book
written for terminally ill patients
on how to end their lives,
and they follow the details in that book.
[narrator] First, they smuggle in
powdered barbiturates from Mexico
to ensure a tranquil exit.
Then they assemble
the outfits they'll wear for go time.
They take out the trash,
pay their library fines,
and mail the videos
explaining their decision
to major press outlets.
Their final act?
Signing out of their daily log,
which they'd used since the 1980s.
In the column labeled
"Estimated Time of Return,"
one member wrote a simple message.
They planned it for months,
and they executed it
over a three-day period
in March 22nd to March 24th, 1997.
[siren wailing]
What we are looking at here
is in fact 39 suicides.
There are two nurses,
members of the group,
that administered a drug
with a pudding substance
and some kind of vodka mixture,
and then the nurses finished the process
by putting a plastic bag over their heads.
[narrator] According to Do's teachings,
thirty-nine souls escaped the pain
of earthly existence and became free.
I believe they're on spacecrafts
in the Next Level environment
in deep space.
They could have a spacecraft
right over this building right now
and we wouldn't even know it.
Coroners in San Diego
[narrator] As for the news media,
they handled
this story with traditional restraint.
[reporter] San Diego sheriff's deputies
stumble into a house of death.
[Benjamin] How we responded as a society,
as a culture, was not what they'd hoped.
They'd hoped we'd join them.
What happened was ridicule.
Marshall Applewhite, I
I take my hat off to you.
You were right about everything.
The comet, the spaceship, everything.
Congratulations on a job well done.
Well, Ted, I really appreciate that.
[crowd laughs]
People can be really cruel
and not understand how the depth of belief
can get someone to do that. Um
So, yeah, that was a hard time.
When I set down
that glass of phenobarbital,
I had a moment of,
like, "Marshall, not good."
[narrator] In the end,
Marshall Applewhite and his disciples
suffered a fate worse than death.
They were considered dangerous,
bizarre, but mostly ridiculous.
[narrator] That's something
no cult leader should accept,
which is why,
as you continue on this journey,
you need to take care of your image.
Do it right
and you can even become beloved.
Next stop, Japan, to meet Shoko Asahara,
the incredible levitating mastermind
of Japanese yoga cult Aum Shinrikyo,
who carefully managed public perceptions
of himself and his following
while stealthily planning
an apocalypse of his own.
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