We know that the world isn't going to end on the 21st of December (or at least isn't more likely to end then than any other day), but it's always nice to remember that there's a firm precedent for the world not ending on schedule. It didn't end in 1844, when William Miller and Samuel S. Snow convinced the Millerites to give away all their possessions (resulting in the Great Disappointment). It didn't end with Y2K, and the Large Hadron Collider didn't suck us all into a black hole.
History is lousy with doomsday predictions, from the ancient Assyrians through this year's self-professed prophets of the endtimes. But while some preachers wait for the Rapture (the Western doomsday du jour) and other folks fear we've doomed ourselves with particle physics or nuclear technology, some apocalyptic predictions are a little stranger than others. Here are eight predictions that go beyond the Second Coming, with unlikely prophets, bizarre pseudoscience, and a few predictions that are way out there—even for doomsayers.
The Prophet Hen of Leeds (1806): Human prophets proclaiming the end of the world show up everywhere, but when a hen starts predicting the apocalypse, people take notice. The hen in question began laying eggs inscribed with the words "Christ is coming." According to Charles MacKay's book Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions Vol. I, Volume 1, this sparked a religious fervor in Leeds until its denizens learned the unpleasant truth: some hoaxster had been taking the eggs, inscribing them with corrosive ink, and reinserted them into the hen's body. I imagine that, if the hen truly could communicate through her eggs, she'd have some rather crude words for the fellow forcing eggs up her cloaca.
Isaac Newton's Doomsday (1733): This is a doomsday prediction that has raised some eyebrows not because of the prediction itself, which was pretty standard (if heretical) Biblical interpretation fare, but because of its author. While Isaac Newton is remembered primarily for his contributions to science and mathematics, he was also a noted theologian and a great believer in the occult, though his private papers on matters like Biblical scholarship and alchemy weren't generally available to scholars until 1991. Newton believed in the Bible as divine revelation, but he also believed that it contained prophesies in highly symbolic language that required a skilled interpreter (like Newton himself) to decode.
When Newton's apocalyptic predictions came to popular attention in 2003, many news outlets seized onto Newton's prediction that the world would end in 2060. While Newton did idly speculate on a date the world might end, he didn't really believe in setting dates; after all, human interpretation could be fallible. By his Anglican contemporaries' standards, however, Newton's religious views would have been unorthodox and even heretical. He was anti-Trinitarian and believed that worshipping Christ as divine was sinful. Stephen D. Snobelen, who has studied Newton's theological writings in great detail, has issued an interesting statement that sheds more light on Newton's beliefs and his apocalyptic prophesy.
Warning from the Planet Clarion (1954): Take one Chicago housewife, add a dash of Scientology and a fascination with UFOs, shake well, and you get one of the early UFO cults. Fifty-four-year-old Dorothy Martin claimed that she was receiving communications from aliens from the planet Clarion, warning her that a Supreme Being would cleanse the Earth on December 21st, 1954. Armed with this prediction and a few strands of Dianetics, Martin gathered her own group of followers, called the Seekers. Martin told the Seekers that a flying saucer would come for the true believers to save them from destruction. The Seekers had to show their faith by leaving their jobs and giving away their money and possessions in anticipation of their rapture. On the eve of December 21st, the Seekers gathered in the appointed place and removed all metallic objects from their bodies to keep from being incinerated by the UFO.
Fortunately, this story has a happier ending than a certain more recent UFO doomsday cult. When, after several hours, the flying saucer failed to arrive, Martin "received" another message from Clarion, claiming that the Supreme Being was so impressed by the Seekers' show of faith that it decided to postpone the apocalypse. What Martin and the other Seekers didn't realize at the time was that they had been infiltrated by social psychologist Leon Festinger. Festinger and his colleagues were interested in studying how the Seekers would resolve the dissonance that would result from the prophecy's failure. The results of the study were published in the 1956 book When Prophecy Fails.
Halley's Comet Spurs Sales of Gas Masks (1910): Speaking of UFO cults, we need to look only as far back as Hale-Bopp to see how a comet can spark predictions of the end of the world. But in 1910, the apocalyptic predictions came with a bit of extra authority. After Chicago's Yerkes Observatory announced that deadly cyanogen gas had been detected in the comet's tail, which the Earth would pass right through, the New York Times quoted French astronomer Camille Flammarion as saying the gas "would impregnate [the Earth's] atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet." More level-headed scientists attempted to assure the public that Flammarion was wrong and that the concentration of material in the tail wasn't enough to poison anyone, but that didn't stop the crazy for anti-comet products. Anti-comet pills were sold for a dollar a pop; anti-comet umbrellas promised to shield bearers; gas mask sales boomed. In cities, Americans greeted the not-quite-end of the world with rooftop comet parties. The uproar was apparently an inspiration for Sir Conan Arthur Doyle's 1913 novel, The Poison Belt. The Library of Congress details coverage about the comet's 1910 pass.
The Jupiter Effect Shakes the Publishing World, but Not the Real One (1974): Another doomsday prediction with a weirdly scientific pedigree is The Jupiter Effect, a bestselling book written by Cambridge-educated astrophysicists John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann. The Jupiter Effect predicted that the alignment of the planets on March 10, 1982, would result in geological instabilities, triggering devastating earthquakes. Unlike most would-be prophets, however, Gribbin actually repudiated his predictions before the events in question. In 1980, he told The New Scientist that his predictions were "too clever by half." That doesn't mean he and Plagemann had completely rejected their notions; in 1982, they published The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered, which argued that the titular effect had actually predated the planetary alignment and was responsible for the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens. It was also a bestseller, although by 1999, Gribbin confessed in his The Little Book of Science that he wished he'd never had anything to do with putting forth the Jupiter Effect claims.
Space God Appears on TV (1998): God and spaceships both pretty common components of a good apocalyptic prediction, and as we saw in the case of the Seekers, sometimes they blend. Hon-Ming Chen added a few extra layers of weird to his doomsday theology. The leader of the Taiwanese group Chen Tao (the "True Way"), also known as the God's Salvation Church, Chen predicted that God, who will look just like Chen, would appear on every television set in the world on March 25, 1998 on channel 18, ready to take Chen's followers to the afterlife. (A sizable portion of the remaining population would die, of course.) This by itself isn't quite enough to set Chen apart from other doomsday cultists (the New York Times published a convenient list of millennial doomsday sects in 1999), but for an extra bit of oddity, Chen predicted that God's spaceship would land in Garland, Texas, for no reason other than it kind of sounds like "God's Land." He moved hundreds of his Taiwanese followers to Texas, ordering them to wear white smocks and cowboy hats. When the appointed day arrived and God failed to appear, two-thirds of Chen's followers abandoned him. He moved the remaining faithful to a town outside Buffalo, where they continued to wear cowboy hats and anticipate the apocalypse.
A Punch in the Face from Planet X (1995): There are plenty of folks who claim inside knowledge on the apocalypse thanks to aliens, but Nancy Lieder's Nibiru cataclysm has managed to gain quite a bit of traction. By 1997, Lieder's claim that aliens known as Zeta Reticulans had warned her of a planetary object known as Planet X (later connected to the mythological planet Nibiru cooked up by ancient astronaut proponent Zecharia Sitchin) that would knock Earth off its axis, triggering a cataclysmic pole shift, was so well known that she was mentioned in the New York Times. Astronomers have repeatedly debunked Lieder's claims, but conspiracy theories persist, with Lieder's supporters claiming that NASA is covering up evidence of Nibiru's existence. CalTech professor of astronomy Mike Brown said in 2009 that Nibiru is the most common pseudoscientific topic he is asked about (although there was also a spike in "Planet X" questions thanks to marketing for the film 2012). Hopefully, this pseudoscientific claim will start to die off with the new year; our Melancholia end was predicted to come in 2012.
Safety in Bugarach (present): Many doomsday predictors of various sects believe that the "upside-down mountain," Pic de Bugarach, houses aliens who will rescue them from the December 21st apocalypse. What's especially odd about this prediction is that it's not clear exactly where it came from; New Agers have been flocking to the commune of Bugarach since the 1960s to bask in the mountain's alleged mystical qualities. Now the small town has become a destination for 2012 apocalypse believers of all stripes. The denizens of Bugarach aren't exactly thrilled about this dubious attention; the mayor announced that the village is closed to visitors until doomsday is safely behind us. That hasn't stopped some locals from making a killing renting out their apocalypse-proof homes.
What are some of your favorite offbeat apocalyptic predictions?
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