Can You Make a Comedy About UFO Cult Mass Suicide?

Actor Paul Theron in a Kickstarter video for "The Away Team"

The Austin Chronicle recently reported that a local filmmaker is raising funds for a comedy inspired by the mass suicides of the Heaven’s Gate group.

When 39 members of this group killed themselves—claiming that their consciousnesses would be transported to a spaceship, which they believe may have been hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet—the media hyped this incident as “the worst mass suicide in U.S. history” (not counting Jonestown, which occurred in Guyana).

Funny stuff, right?

Satire about religion is a double-edged sword. American popular culture has long been fascinated with cults. After the Heaven’s Gate suicide, Family Guy as well as the comedy Road Trip (2000) poked fun at the mass suicide meme. By portraying cult leaders as suicidal maniacs and cult members as helpless losers, these comedies reinforced a distinction between healthy, “normal” religion and deviant “cult” religion.

Basically, these jokes relieve our anxiety that our own religious beliefs and practices might be just as strange as than those of the cult.

But satire can just as easily call these distinctions into question. In 1998 The Simpsons aired an episode about cults in which Bart opines: “Church, cult, cult, church. So we’ll get bored someplace else every Sunday. Does this really change our everyday lives?”

I met with filmmaker David Jones at a south Austin cafe to discuss his project as well as our public conversation about new religious movements.

Jones explained that his fictional cult not directly based on Heaven’s Gate, but is inspired by it. Much like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012), The Away Team is a fictional story that takes its cues from real life figures and movements. As research, Jones watched “Exit Statements” made by Heaven’s Gate members before their suicide. He also contacted surviving group members to clarify certain details about what happened.

He wanted to know, for example, why each member was found with a five-dollar bill and three quarters. The media claimed that this was intergalactic “bus fare” for admittance onto the spaceship. But Jones was told the money was actually a sort of inside joke. Before 1997 Heaven’s Gate members had spent decades travelling and living “off the grid.” They had run afoul of local laws claiming that anyone without at least five dollars could be defined as a vagrant. So members always carried five dollars and money for a phone call.

Benjamin Zeller, author of Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion, has also noted that Heaven’s Gate members engaged in a lot of self-deprecating humor because they were aware that mainstream society perceived them as crazy.

This research led Jones to conclude that a comedy about Heaven’s Gate might not be as inappropriate as it sounds. “I could never make a comedy about David Koresh or Jim Jones,” he explained, “But the Heaven’s Gate members were a bunch of intellectual people who made a conscious decision. And they appeared cheerful about what they were doing. I think the surviving members would love [The Away Team] if they saw it because it’s taking jabs at society.”

Inspired by comedians like Larry David and Ricky Gervais, Jones sees humor in portraying the daily banalities of running a UFO religion. By doing so, he hopes to challenge the distinction between religion and cults. An agnostic, Jones explained, “To me, all organized religion is a cult.” He added that institutions like beauty pageants for toddlers were far more disturbing to him than unusual religious groups like Heaven’s Gate.

The Away Team could also challenge popular understandings of why incidents like the Heaven’s Gate suicide happen. Dark comedies about cults often suggest that committing mass suicide is simply “what cults do” and that no external factors influence this decision. However, scholars like Catherine Wessinger and David Bromley have shown that these movements generally engage in violence only when outside pressures have caused them to feel they have no other option.

Jones says his film will portray how obstacles like a leader with failing health and harassment from concerned family members could lead a hypothetical movement to consider mass suicide as a viable option.

Despite his good intentions, Jones has faced some backlash from critics who claim his project is in bad taste. He understands the reaction, but defends the right of comedians to make light of anything.

Jones is confident that when critics see the finished film, they’ll get it. He added poignantly, of the Heaven’s Gate followers: “People forget, they were just human beings.”