Earlier this month, HBO released a four-part docuseries on Heaven’s Gate, a UFO cult whose members died by mass suicide in 1997. In one of the series’ most surprising moments, one former member of Heaven’s Gate revealed that masturbating to MTV accidentally saved him from becoming one of the 38 people who died alongside cult leader Marshall ‘Do’ Applewhite.

During its 20-plus years of existence, Heaven’s Gate forced strict rules on its members, including three “Major Offenses,” which could result in someone being excommunicated from the religious group. One of those offenses was listed as “Sensuality — permitting arousal in thought or in action (not nipping it in the bud).” Heaven’s Gate members were therefore celibate and not permitted to masturbate.

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One of the few surviving Heaven’s Gate cultists, who goes by the name Sawyer, was interviewed by HBO for the series. He revealed that he departed from the group in 1994 after he committed an offense. “I remember turning on MTV one time and boy did that inflame me,” Sawyer said. “Seeing women dancing around half-clad… I was off the wagon. I was occasionally masturbating. I would have a thought and the thought was so powerful, I couldn’t hold back. I didn’t even have the desire to ask for help, it was that intense.”

He continued, “I didn’t recognize that breaking those procedures was leading up to something. I told [Do] what I was doing. Do said, ‘You have the potential to become a really good member of the Next Level. I don’t want to throw you away.’ Because I wasn’t influencing anyone else to get involved with sensuality, he was willing to help me with it while I stayed in the classroom, but then it didn’t change me. I kept on giving in to masturbation. I told Do, ‘I feel like I need to leave the group.’ He got me a plane ticket and gave me $600. I’m really kind of a pitiful person, really.”

During a TV interview shortly after the mass suicide, Larry King asked Sawyer if he believed he would have died by suicide if he hadn’t left Heaven’s Gate in 1994. “Surprisingly as it may seem, at the time, I thought I would. Yes,” he answered.

Despite Sawyer’s departure from the group, which saved him from participating in the mass suicide, the former Heaven’s Gate member remains loyal to the group’s teachings. “I don’t feel guilt, I feel like I flunked my test,” he said. “I could have graduated with them, I had the capacity to do that. I believe that 100 percent.”

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults | Official Trailer | HBO Max

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults is now streaming on HBO Max.

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