Ben Zeller was a college sophomore studying messianic religions in 1997 when news broke of a strange and unfathomable tragedy: 39 men and women took their own lives in a Southern California mansion, believing they were shedding their earthly forms to be reborn as space-traveling aliens.

The horror of the mass suicide was swiftly replaced with mockery as the peculiar beliefs of the cult, known as Heaven’s Gate, became clear, but the incident haunted Zeller. He wrote his final paper on the group, and after years of further research, produced a book on its evolution and beliefs.

Now, his work is getting a new audience on the popular podcast “Heaven’s Gate,” which recently hit No. 1 on Apple’s podcast chart. Zeller, a religion professor at Lake Forest College, served as an on-air and behind-the-scenes expert whose empathetic approach helped to guide the project.

“So much about Heaven’s Gate had treated them as freaks and lemmings,” said Ann…

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