True Crime Factor Interview: Benjamin Zeller

On March 26, 1997, the bodies of 39 men and women were discovered inside a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California. It was later determined that each of the deceased were members of a millenarian group known as Heaven’s Gate; the victims had ritualistically ended their lives as part of a belief system which required them to exit their earthly vessels in order to ascend to the “next level.”

Among the dead was the group’s leader, Marshall Applewhite, who had co-founded “The Crew” – Heaven’s Gate’s earliest incarnation – in 1974 along with the late Bonnie Nettles. Applewhite posthumously shouldered most of the blame for the suicides during the ensuing media blitz, with many claiming the Heaven’s Gate chief had brainwashed his devotees into taking their lives.

Benjamin Zeller, religious scholar and Associate Professor of Religion at Lake Forest College in Illinois, has penned a book documenting the origins, history and ideology of the Heaven’s Gate movement. Released in 2014, Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion provides a balanced and unprejudiced examination of the group’s members and their fatal decisions.

Zeller kindly spoke with me on the afternoon of May 12 to discuss the Heaven’s Gate organization and his work researching the group. You can visit Ben Zeller online at and follow him on Twitter under the handle @ZellerProf.

Purchasing information for Heaven’s Gate is available here.

(Special thanks to Betsy Steve at NYU Press)

Please click on the “Play” icon below to hear the interview:

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