In December 1954, the Tribune ran a short item about a Michigan doctor who foresaw the end of the world:

The doctor, fortuitously named "Charles Laughead," a former staff physician at Michigan State, forecast a tidal wave, a volcanic action, and "a rise in the ground extending from Hudson’s bay [in Canada] to the Gulf of Mexico which will seriously affect the center of the United States."

But Dr. Laughead was merely serving as the spokesman for Dorothy Martin, a 54-year-old Oak Park housewife, who herself was simply relaying communications from "outer space." Martin’s extraterrestrial sources from the planet Clarion informed her that "there will be much loss of life, practically all of it, in 1955…. It is an actual fact that the world is in a mess. But the Supreme Being is going to clean house by sinking all of the land masses as we know them now and raising the land masses from under the sea."

Observers of history and residents of the center of the United States are aware that this did not occur, though Laughead claimed that a December 21 earthquake near Eureka, California "might have been part" of the "advance information" on Martin’s prophecies. The next week, Dorothy Martin was placed under psychiatric care to prevent the Oak Park police of charging her with "inciting to riot," after a "boisterous crowd… blocked traffic on Christmas Eve outside the Martin home at 707 S. Cuyler Av., Oak Park, after Mrs. Martin had predicted that she and her associates would be ‘lifted up’ that night by spacemen.

Martin also faced charges of contributing to the delinquency of minors, because a "police investigation showed that children of the neighborhood had talked to Mrs. Martin about space travel with the result that some of the youngsters had trouble sleeping afterward."

What Martin and Laughead didn’t know was that their hearty band of future space travelers had been infiltrated: by University of Minnesota social psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues. After reading a newspaper article about Martin, Festinger rounded up a handful of psychologists and psychology students to pose as converts to Martin’s small group of "Seekers," gaining their trust and recording the group’s actions during their not-Final Days.

In 1956, Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter produced When Prophecy Fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world, an account of their time inside Martin’s group. Though it’s a work of psychology, it’s written in a narrative that reads like a combination of investigative journalism and Charles Portis’s brilliant cult spoof Masters of Atlantis.

Martin had been exposed to theosophy and Scientology, and Laughead was a former Christian missionary and mystical dilettante who was enthralled by UFOs. Between them they assembled a patchwork belief system that combined elements of Christianity, Scientology, atomic age sci-fi, and Paradise Lost. (And Star Wars, which obviously didn’t exist yet, though Joseph Campbell might argue otherwise.)

According to their creation myth, the planet Car—though they were wrong about the Rapture, they were eerily accurate about Blondie’s "Rapture"—had been divided between the Lucifer-led scientists and the followers of God and the Light:

The "scientists," having invented something analogous to atom bombs—in those days, the name was "alcetopes"—threatened to destroy the hosts of Light and, through their fumbling cleverness, succeeded in blowing to pieces the planet Car. The disappearance of Car, as an integrated mass, produced enormous disturbances in the balance of the omniverse ("all universes") and nearly caused complete chaos. Meanwhile, the forces of Light had retreated to other planets, such as Clarion, Uranus, and Cerus, where they regrouped and considered their next strategy. Lucifer led his troops, their minds now obliterated of cosmic knowledge, to earth. [p. 52-53]

The forces of Light wouldn’t complete their strategy until 1977, under the direction of George Lucas.

Of course, you can’t have an apocalyptic movement in the post-War Chicago suburbs without the light-comedy, Portis-esque trappings of the era:

Toward the end of his talk, a letter was passed around for everyone to sign; it was addressed to President Eisenhower, asking him to make public the "secret information" the air force had accumulated on flying saucers.

About two hours after the formal meeting had started, it broke up, for refreshments, into small groups of two or three. Some discussed spiritual transmigration, others college football. Some of the girls served the tea and cake—an handsome monument covered with pink and blue frosting in the design of a "mother ship" and three small flying saucers, bearing the words "Up in the Air" …. Later, a few of the young people attempted levitation of one another, though this venture also failed. [p. 72]

 The bulk of the book has a literary, novelistic quality, following the conversations of the believers through November and December as one date for the Rapture passes into another, and their rationalizations grow ever more elaborate while staying quaintly suburban. Near the end of the group’s dissolution, Martin received the following message, which instructed the group to go to the altar, which was her sun porch, and to record songs transmitted by the students of "Losolo University":

"So shall ye be at the altar at the time of the evening when there is a tola [flying saucer] directly over you. So by your own tape shall ye play a song and dance your own time. Use the mike and put it on the altar and sit where you are and put the hand to the mike not too close and be the first to get the direct taped posy word. And give thyself the pleasure of a pretty song which has been sung by the boys’ glee club of the Losoloes." [p. 184]

Reckoning for the group came on Christmas Eve. The Seekers gathered on Cuyler Avenue to sing Christmas carols while they waited for the flying saucers, surrounded by the press and onlookers. "They sang and waited for the spacemen for perhaps twenty minutes before they retreated to the living room," the authors write. By the time Dr. Laughead gave an interview to a reporter, it was clear that their rationalizations were running out [p. 187-189; "Dr. Armstrong" is Dr. Laughead, as Festinger gave pseudonyms to everyone involved]:

Newsman: Didn’t you say you were going to be picked up by the spacemen?

Dr. Armstrong: No.

Newsman: Well, what were you waiting out in the street for singing carols?

Dr. Armstrong: Well, we went out to sing Christmas carols.

Newsman: Oh, you just went out to sing Christmas carols?

Dr. Armstrong: Well, and if anything happened, well, that’s all right, you know….


Newsman: Uhuh, but do you think it’s conceivable that they were scared away by the crowd?

Dr. Armstrong: Oh no, they weren’t scared away, but a thing like that, it’s shall we say, expedient?

Newsman: Expedient?

Dr. Armstrong: Ya—

Newsman: In what way?

Dr. Armstrong: Well, I mean to get the mob reaction to that kind of a setup before they actually decide to do anything.

Newsman: In other words, so they wouldn’t start a riot or something, if they picked you up then.

Dr. Armstrong: Well, heavens, they’ve had riots over less than that, you know.

As great as Masters of Atlantis is, there’s nothing in it that’s as perfect as that exchange.

But When Prophecy Fails is more than just a wonderfully readable dispatch from the edges of psychology. The book was the genesis of Festinger’s theory of "cognitive dissonance": the idea that humans are as given to rationalizing as being rational. It may seem absurdly obvious now that Festinger’s phrase has become part of the vernacular, but in 1957, when he published A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, it was a revolutionary theory that would go onto influence the study not only of psychology, but politics, economics, and other fields.

Among the psychologists influenced by the work was Philip Zimbardo, designer of the in/famous Stanford Prison Experiment, which clearly bears marks of Festinger’s breakthrough. (If you’re not familiar with it from the reams of references in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, you might remember it from an episode of Veronica Mars.) Here’s Zimbardo introducing the concept of cognitive dissonance, using video of Festinger’s lab experiments; Festinger himself makes an appearance:

"When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance," Festinger wrote in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. As he completed When Prophecy Fails, Dorothy Martin had left Oak Park for a Dianetics center in Arizona: "in the few ordinary letters she wrote us, she still seemed to be expecting some future action from outer space."

Martin fell off of Festinger’s radar, spending several years in the Peruvian Andes, returning to the U.S. in the 1960s. By then known as "Sister Thedra," she founded the Association of Sananda and Samat Kumara in Mount Shasta, California ("long an attraction to America’s mystically minded"), where she found herself again reporting from the nether regions of space to a small group of believers.

She died in 1992 in Sedona, Arizona—home of spiritual vortices and a thriving New Age tourist industry—at the ripe old age of 92: "It is now come the time that ye come out from the place wherein ye are. Ye shall shout for joy! Let it be, for many shall greet thee with glad shouts! So be it, no more pain…."

(big h/t to the Christian Science Monitor and @mbimotmog.)

Update: Slate also has a piece by Vaughn Bell on Festinger and When Prophecy Fails, as does Adam Doster.