The day the saucers didn’t come: The story of “When Prophecy Fails.” [Part II]

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This is the second part of my series on the book When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter. The first part of the story is here.

At the time University of Minnesota psychologists Leon Festinger and Stanley Schachter first became interested in the UFO group from Chicago, Mrs. Keech did not have very many followers. This began to change in late September and early October 1954 as a result of Dr. Armstrong. The doctor chaired a weekly meeting of young people at a local church called the “Seekers,” which dealt with Christian mysticism and discussions about comparative religion. However, after Mrs. Keech’s prediction of a major cataclysm on December 21, Armstrong began to tell the Seekers about her predictions and about UFOs and aliens generally. The elders of the Christian church where the Seekers met were alarmed and immediately revoked permission for him to continue meetings of the Seekers there. He managed to have the group reinstated by promising the church he wouldn’t talk about UFOs and aliens–a promise he kept–but Armstrong did continued to use the Seekers as an entreé to young people he thought would be interested in Mrs. Keech’s ideology. By talking to Seekers contacts one-on-one outside the group, he began to assemble a group of followers, mostly college students, who believed Mrs. Keech’s prophecies about the “Guardians” coming to take the “chosen” away in flying saucers.

Meanwhile, Festinger and the psychologists were attempting their infiltration of the group. The men who were later to write When Prophecy Fails traveled from Minneapolis to Chicago to meet with Mrs. Keech (whose address had been published in the paper). She was somewhat dismissive, and the authors were intrigued that she didn’t seem to be proselytizing her beliefs heavily. Festinger and his team decided to hire an independent observer to infiltrate the group. They also sent another agent, a sociology student, to Dr. Armstrong’s Seekers meetings. This student at first had trouble getting Dr. Armstrong’s attention, but when she told him a phony story about a paranormal experience she supposedly had in Mexico, Armstrong accepted her immediately. With more observers strategically deployed–and cover stories concocted by Festinger to explain their apparent interest in flying saucers and New Age prophecies–by late November 1954 the infiltrators were regular faces at the meetings that were now routinely taking place at Mrs. Keech’s home to discuss the prophecy and the “chosen people’s” preparations for it.

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Although Scientology was a little-known group in 1954, a number of followers of the group profiled in When Prophecy Fails, though not actually Scientologists, had experience with Dianetics and “auditing”–still done today, as it was in the 1950s, with a device called an “e-meter.”

On November 22, 1954, Dr. Armstrong–his true name was Charles Laughead–was asked to resign as a doctor on the staff of the Michigan State College health center. His superiors were alarmed that he was spreading strange and unorthodox ideas and warning his patients, mostly students, that the end of the world would happen on December 21. Dr. Armstrong and his wife came to Chicago and basically lived full-time at the Keech house. The next day, several new converts appeared at the house. One of them was Bertha Blatsky, “a tall, robust, powerful-looking woman in her early forties.” Interestingly, Bertha had also previously been a Scientologist–as had Mrs. Keech–and both had presumably been exposed to L. Ron Hubbard’s New Age cosmology of aliens, past lives and memory regression.

Bertha almost immediately became center stage of the UFO group. At her first meeting she began panting and sighing, and then suddenly claimed, “I am Sananda! Sananda speaks!” (Sananda was an alien, one of the “Guardians,” whom the group believed had previously been on Earth as Jesus Christ). The others eagerly listened to her, and after being possessed by the spirit of Sananda Bertha seemed bewildered that she’d been “chosen” to be the voice of the Guardians. At the end of this meeting, which lasted into the wee hours of the morning, another was called for two days hence after 11PM. This was no coincidence. Bertha’s husband very much disapproved of her explorations into the occult, and he worked nights–that night he would be at work and Bertha would be free to come to the Keech house to spread the word of Sananda.

This she did, and how. At the next meeting and others over the next few days, Bertha claimed to speak with Sananda’s voice, and gave the group many new messages and explicit instructions–not all of which were consistent with the “automatic writings” that Mrs. Keech had received. Followers were now being instructed to quit their jobs, leave their families and move in with Mrs. Keech full-time until the date the saucers would come. Bertha was clearly making a bid for leadership of the cult. Being somewhat retiring and passive, Mrs. Keech couldn’t quite bring herself to reassert her own control over the direction of the group. The followers, including the Armstrongs, were now totally confused by the contradictory “orders” being given to them by the Guardians from two separate channels. All everyone agreed upon was that the wold would end on December 21–until Bertha seemed, obliquely to be sure, to question even this by casting aspersions on whether Mrs. Keech had been told the real truth by the Guardians.

The idea of a galactic being called Sananda being a sort of “alien Jesus” was not unique to the 1950s. It still persists today in New Age circles, as this recent video (from 2014) attests.

Things were now getting very tense for the group. Days were ticking down toward the December 21 cataclysm. Sananda and the Guardians had provided no clear direction–not on the issue of proselytizing, not on who among the group would be “chosen,” and not on who had the moral authority to give them direction. The outside world began intruding. On December 16, local newspapers suddenly picked up the story of Dr. Armstrong having been dismissed from his position at the college. The story found its way to a wire service and went national. Doing research on my own, I found the story on page 5 of the New York Times for December 17, 1954, titled “Flying Saucers From Mars? Loses College Post Over The End Of The World.” Reporters as well as questioners from the general public began flooding Mrs. Keech’s house with phone calls demanding interviews or further prognostications. And doomsday was only a few days away.

Psychologically, now many members of the group, however they’d come into the orbit of Mrs. Keech or the Armstrongs, were now heavily invested in the truth of the prophecy. Several of them had abandoned their jobs and some among the college-aged members even left their homes and said final goodbyes to family members in anticipation of the cataclysm. All of the believers were anxious for “orders” from the Guardians, and began to expect and perceive messages, some coded and maddeningly ambiguous, in everyday events or media reports. Between internal pressures–anxiety, flagging confidence, and the power struggle within the group–and external forces, such as reporters and family members laughing at or deriding the believers’ faith in Mrs. Keech and her space messages, it was clear something momentous was going to happen. In fact this was the whole game: the believers hunkered down in Mrs. Keech’s Oak Park home, waiting to be rescued at the end of the world by unseen aliens in whom they’d placed their trust.

In the next installment: the day of the promised cataclysm–December 21, 1954–finally comes. How will the members of the UFO cult react?

The header image for this article contains the cover of the 1964 edition of When Prophecy Fails, which is presumably copyright (C) 1964 by Harper & Row. Its inclusion here is believed to be fair use under applicable copyright laws. The photo of the e-meter is by Flickr user Daniel Spiess and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.
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