As the day of the cataclysm–December 21, 1954–approached, the Chicago UFO devotees camped out at Mrs. Keech’s suburban house were in a state of agitation. Members of the group came and went at all hours, the phone was ringing off the hook and everyone was on-edge. The struggle for dominance over the group between Mrs. Keech and Bertha Blatsky finally resolved–but not the way anyone expected. When Bertha went home after one meeting and channeled the “voice of Sananda” (the extraterrestrial Jesus) in front of her husband, he was shocked and challenged her sanity. He warned her that if she wasn’t done with the group by January 1 he’d send her to a psychiatrist. Bertha did return to Mrs. Keech’s house, but her husband’s threats obviously deflated her. She no longer tried to channel Sananda or issue prophecies on her own. Mrs. Keech, by default, returned to her former position as the movement’s central prophet.
On the morning of December 17, someone called Mrs. Keech’s house and told her he was “Captain Video,” a spaceman. (Captain Video was the name of a science fiction TV program that was running at the time). He said that a flying saucer would land in the yard of her house at 4PM to pick up the “chosen ones.” This was obviously a prank; the existence of the group was made public by the newspaper articles about Dr. Armstrong’s dismissal from the college, and it was easy enough for people to look up Mrs. Keech’s telephone number. However, the members of the group were too committed to their beliefs to consider the possibility that they were being trolled. Mrs. Keech reported the prophecy to her followers, and they immediately fell into line.
The UFO cultists then began a frenzied preparation for their rendezvous with the aliens. One of Mrs. Keech’s messages had warned them that they couldn’t be wearing any metal when they boarded a flying saucer; it would somehow react badly, perhaps fatally, with the aliens’ power field. The followers not only took off jewelry, wedding rings and such, but tore zippers out of their clothes, removed buttons with metal backings, and the women took wires out of their bras. Some worried about metal fillings in their teeth. At 4:00 sharp they were all in the backyard, waiting for the saucers to land. Of course, they didn’t. Shocked and disappointed, the followers came back inside after an hour and a half. No one talked about what had happened, but then Mrs. Keech received a message from Sananda praising the group’s dedication. This had the effect of diverting everyone’s thinking from the disappointment.
“Captain Video” was a movie serial from the early 1950s that was later shown on TV. Some members of the UFO group from Chicago believed it contained hidden messages for them.
Over the next few days the believers’ faith increased–something that Dr. Festinger predicted would happen. Curious visitors came to the house to ask questions, and Mrs. Keech proclaimed several of them to be spacemen, including a teenage boy who was completely bewildered when the followers began asking him for messages. Some watched the Captain Video show on TV, trying to divine hidden messages from it. Nearly everything was interpreted as confirmation that the December 21 cataclysm was still on. At first it was supposed to happen at dawn; then a message that Mrs. Keech divined placed it at midnight. The blessed day of salvation was upon them.
As the hours ticked by toward midnight on Tuesday, December 21, 1954, the group again went through their rituals to prepare to board the saucers and leave Earth. People took off jewelry and tore metal out of their clothes. Transcriptions of Mrs. Keech’s messages were bundled in a shopping bag and prepared to be taken as “sacred books” aboard the spacecraft. They rehearsed passwords that they believed would be asked of them when they boarded the saucer. At 11:35 PM, one man–actually an infiltrator, in fact one of the authors (perhaps Festinger himself?)–suddenly said, “I forgot to take the zipper out of my pants!” In a panic, Dr. Armstrong led him to the bathroom where they ripped the zipper out of his pants with a razor blade. Then they returned to the living room, and everybody waited in hushed silence.
Of course, nothing happened. Panic grew as the minutes ticked by. When one clock read 12:05, someone reassured the group that that clock was slow and it wasn’t yet midnight. But soon it became obvious the saucers weren’t coming. “There was little to see in the reactions of the people in that room,” Dr. Festinger wrote. “There was no talking, no sound. People sat stock still, their faces seemingly frozen and expressionless.” The prophecy had failed–and left the group completely crushed.
Though their existence has never been proven, flying saucers have persistently remained a matter of intense public interest. This famous shot–later shown to be fake–was taken in Brazil in 1967.
It seems incredible, that intelligent, ordinary people could convince themselves, solely on the word of one person, that the world was ending and they were destined for new lives among the stars. What’s amazing about When Prophecy Fails and the story of the UFO group is how almost normal their beliefs begin to seem the further you read about them. Everyone just accepted the main prophecy; all their subsequent actions grew out of that acceptance. Dr. Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance has at its heart the observation that belief is often more powerful than proof. No one was willing to question the veracity of Mrs. Keech’s prediction–its acceptance was an article of faith, and psychologically the group did everything they could do reinforce it.
What happened after the saucers didn’t land–the “disconfirmation,” as Festinger puts it? If you’ve been reading all along, you should be able to predict it: the group doubled down. They went into high gear trying to proselytize and convert new followers, suggesting various justifications for the failure of the December 21 prediction–it was the wrong date, or the Guardians were “testing” them–or often just brushing it off entirely. In a famous incident, some members of the group went Christmas caroling on December 24, singing songs as they hoped, again, to be taken up by a flying saucer. Then, finally, over the next few weeks, the group began to fall apart as individual members became disillusioned. Many of the students returned to school when the term began in January, some still tepidly believing, but others finally convinced it was bunkum. “I’m done with all of them,” said one female student. “I just regret I made such an ass of myself, giving away my money and stuff.”
The failure of the prediction sent the group’s core members essentially into exile. Bertha, afraid that her husband would send her to a psychiatrist, initially doubled down on her beliefs, but then began to pull away. By early January she had no contact with other members of the group. Dr. and Mrs. Armstrong still believed fervently, but after their return home from Chicago they found their family and friends hostile. Dr. Armstrong’s sister tried to have the couple declared insane and their children given to protective services. This attempt failed, but they left town, eventually winding up in California.
Photos purporting to show flying saucers, such as this one taken in 1979 or 1980, have since become somewhat passé; accounts of “alien abduction,” which became very popular in the 1980s and 90s, have upped the ante.
As for Mrs. Keech (true name Dorothy E. Martin), she too faced possible legal action to declare her insane. She went into temporary hiding with another member of the group, then fled to Arizona, without her husband, to join a Dianetics center. She continued to believe fervently in Sananda and the Guardians. She remained committed to New Age beliefs until the end of her life, and died in 1992.
Although it was written as a psychological study, When Prophecy Fails is actually an interesting and surprisingly human story of a group of people with extraordinary beliefs. Though it’s difficult for a reader to share a literal belief in flying saucers and an extraterrestrial Jesus, as you read the book you can’t help but sympathize with the people portrayed in it. Indeed, though their beliefs were bizarre, were they not just doing what most of us do in life–searching for some sort of answers? Yet the book is a cautionary tale too. Belief is good and can have tremendously positive effects in a person’s life. But we must all be careful not to be so blinded by our beliefs as to fail to recognize reality. Cognitive dissonance seems like something that can’t happen to you. The truth is that no one is immune to it.