Friday, January 25, 2019

Prophets always double down

”When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter is a classical study of an apocalyptic sect and the supporters´ reactions to the failure of its prophecies. The book was first published in 1958. On the basis of historical material, the authors suspected that apocalyptic movements often became *more active* after their prophecies about impending doom had been disconfirmed. However, there was no way of actually proving the theory – until the researchers discovered the Seekers, a small UFO sect based in a suburb of Chicago, which predicted that the world as we know it would end on December 21, 1954. Festinger & Co directed some of their students to join the sect (i.e. to infiltrate it) in order to discover how the leaders and members would react when the apocalypse failed to materialize. Today, this kind of research method would probably be considered unethical. In the book, most personal and geographical information have been garbled to protect the identities of the sect members, but they were well known at the time, due to media interest in their prophecies. The leader and main ”channel” of the group, Dorothy Martin, is called Marian Keech in the narrative. Her chief sidekick, Charles Laughead, is called Dr Armstrong. A competing medium who played a certain role in the events, Rose Phillips, is referred to as Ella Lowell. ”Lake City” is obviously Chicago, ”Collegeville” is East Lansing (where Armstrong had a position at the university) and ”Steel City” is presumably Detroit.

The book is easy to read and the events described border the absurd and tragicomic. Already before the predicted apocalypse (a great flood which would destroy Chicago together with the central parts of North America), the Seekers had experienced their first ”great disappointment”. On December 18, an obvious prankster called the Martin residence and informed her that a UFO would land in her own backyard later the same day, presumably to pick up all the sect supporters. The hoaxer called himself Captain Video, the name of a character from a popular science fiction TV show! Yet, Martin´s supporters gathered outside her house, sincerely hoping to be rescued by the space ship. When the UFO failed to materialize, the sect members watched ”Captain Video” on TV, trying to find coded messages in the show about what to do next… After a supposed psychic message from the aliens, the group gathered outside the Martin residence again throughout the night, once again expecting a space ship to pick them up. Nothing happened this time either.

Festinger´s undercover observers weren´t disappointed by the reactions of Martin, Laughead and the Seekers after December 21 came and went without any floods or aliens. Instead of losing faith, they simply reinterpreted the aborted prophecy (the aliens had called off the whole thing due to the ”light” spread by the Seekers) and, just as predicted by Festinger, became *more* active in trying to convert people to their little UFO religion. They even invited people to gather outside Martin´s house on Christmas Eve (200 interested outsiders showed up), promising that this time, there would be a UFO landing for sure. Before the failed apocalypse, the Seekers had been a semi-secret group which rarely talked to the press and seldom tried to win new converts. After the failure, by contrast, they were more than eager to talk to reporters, including hostile ones, and never turned down anyone who asked for information – most peoples showing interest in the UFO group were teenagers, many of whom were ”interested” only ironically. (The pranksters constantly plaguing the group were also teens or college students.) Many of the sect members had quit their jobs, got rid of money and other possessions, and experienced conflicts with their families as a result of their belief in the imminent end of the world. Armstrong had been fired from the University of Michigan, and the local police and PTA in the Chicago suburb where Martin was living had made systematic attempts to stop her from proselytizing. Add to this the ridicule in the media. Armstrong explicitly told one of the undercover researchers that he *had* to believe in the message since he lost so much and no turning back was possible. The will to believe was strong, and this explains the bizarre fact that the Seekers went on the offensive after their predictions had been disconfirmed – one way to deal with the cognitive dissonance is to convert the rest of the world to your perspective (including your reinterpretations of the failed prophecies). The Armstrong family, now under Rose Phillips´ influence, awaited another UFO landing about five months later – again, nothing happened. As for Martin, she eventually moved to Peru, then to California, and until the end of her days continued to issue channeled messages from the space brothers, often with apocalyptic overtones.

What struck me most when reading ”When Prophecy Fails” was that the Seekers wasn´t an outright cult. Rather, we are dealing with a somewhat looser structure of extremely gullible honest-to-God people. Martin clearly believed in her ability to receive messages from the aliens through automatic writing, while Armstrong had been drawn into the flying saucer milieu after a long meeting with George Adamski, whose tall tales he swallowed hook, line and sinker. Both leaders were so desperate for ”orders” from higher intelligences that they often assumed that high schoolers or college kids who came to visit the Martin residence were in fact ”space men”. They also mistook one of Festinger´s undercover research assistants for an alien! Authority within the group wasn´t entirely clear. While Martin was the main channel, she was temporarily challenged by an ordinary rank and file member who suddenly began to channel ”the Creator”, who was said to be higher than ”Sananda” (Martin´s alien spirit-guide). Armstrong and some other supporters of the sect also accepted the revelations coming through Rose Phillips, who wasn´t even a member and seemed mildly skeptical of the doomsday prophecies. Two or three members of the group were probably skeptical to all or most of the happenings, yet were never purged. Note also how easy it was for the researchers to gain access to the group. There is clearly much more to unpack here…

Of course, what makes ”When Prophecy Fails” really disturbing is that it may shed some light on other religions the holy scriptures of which contain failed prophecies. Guess which ones? ”When Prophecy Fails” also raises questions about political movements, or indeed entire civilizations, which see *their* expectations disconfirmed. However, since Marxism, open border globalism or the Western Idea of Progress usually don´t have an absolute cut off date for when the Messiah will arrive, it takes longer for the cognitive dissonance to work itself out. Still, it´s interesting to reflect on the similarities between us ”rational people” and Dorothy Martin´s  little UFO sect in Lake City 70 years ago…

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