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The Independent Culture
Initiates of the Cathode Portal, a group which believes that coded messages are being beamed to us from Alpha Centauri through our television screens, have long suspected that there is more to the opening sequence of Inside Story (BBC1) than meets the eye. To ethereal chords, a human hand, surrounded by an aura of spectral light, unclenches to reveal a key. We pass through the hole at its centre and the hand repeats its ritual motions. No coincidence, surely, in the use of these time-honoured symbols of revelation. Halfway through "The Cult", the door opened a little further. "I'll tell you about a kingdom level beyond here," said a man with eyes like a bisected gobstopper. "And if you want to go there, then you have to follow me because I'm the guy who's got the key!!! at the moment." (My italics and exclamation marks.)

That way madness lies, of course - precisely the kind of exegetical mania depicted in Rachel Coughlan's film about the suicide of 39 members of Heaven's Gate, who were convinced that they were going home to the kingdom level, rather than on a short ride to the San Diego morgue. It turned out to be very thoughtful, overcoming the essentially limited fascination of gawping at the gullible. When a surviving member of the cult recalled that he had been "just mesmerised" by his first meeting with Marshall Applewhite, the group's guru, a certain scepticism about his powers of resistance seemed to be in order. The image formed of a rabbit giving an interview about its first encounter with a set of car headlights - "You have to understand, they were just dazzling". Another offered the perfect oxymoron for such

rag-rug faiths - "Everything sounded so incredibly believable," he said.

Inside Story couldn't really take any credit for the film's first saving grace - which was that virtually everything, bar the suicidal act itself, had been recorded on video. A cult member, who acted as a press-relations man for his dead friends, recorded what he found when he went to their San Diego mansion - the bodies lying neatly on their bunks, each covered with a carefully aligned purple scarf, each wearing a pair of identical trainers (part of their Star Trek-style going-away uniform). Similarly, the police filmed their investigation, the dead cult members recorded their lives and farewell messages (all conspicuously excited about the forthcoming "trip"), relatives videoed the rare visits home - and one couple even recorded their daughter's phone call to say she wouldn't be seeing them again. It brought home to you the fact that, in more prosperous societies at least, all human life is already on tape - it just needs editing into shape.

The second saving grace was more subtle, but had been neatly illuminated by the structure of Coughlan's film - and that was the issue of whether this constituted a scandal at all. The cult might have looked creepy from the outside (one of the forbidden activities for "students" was "Trusting my own judgement - or using my own mind" and the regulations were so all-encompassing that they even dictated exactly how to make pancakes - as if the cult was an unholy combination of a McDonald's outlet and an enclosed order). But it didn't look creepy to its willing participants. There was no evidence of abuse or coercion; those who had left did so with the knowledge of Applewhite, and still shared many of his bizarre convictions (though one who was just about to become a father conceded that he was glad he hadn't gone through with his planned castration). "That wasn't suicide in the true sense of the word," said a grieving relative. And he was right - if you understand by suicide a despairing termination of existence. But another parent, while sharing the same sadness, had come to a wiser accommodation with the liberty all children must have when they are children no longer: "David lived his adult life doing what he wanted to do with people he loved and who loved him. And who's to say whether this was a bad life?" It was part of the film's strength that it didn't imply the answer was simple.