The Seekers, Dec. 24, 1955
In December 1954, a headline in the Chicago Tribune read, "Doctor Warns of Disasters in World Tuesday -- Worst to Come in 1955 He Declares." The doctor, Charles Laughead, was a follower of Dorothy Martin, a 54-year-old housewife from Oak Park, Ill. Martin believed that aliens from the planet Clarion had beamed down messages informing her that a massive flood would soon destroy the planet. Her wild prophecies attracted a small group of followers known as the "Seekers," many of whom had quit their jobs and sold their belongings in anticipation of the end. They gathered at Martin's home on Christmas Eve, 1955, singing Christmas carols while they waited to be saved by the aliens in their flying saucers. As the night wore on, Martin's followers became increasingly impatient. Finally, at 4:45 a.m. on Christmas Day, Martin announced that God had been so impressed by their actions that he would no longer destroy the Earth.
This story has a side note that is almost as interesting as the prophecy itself. A small group of psychologists and students organized by University of Minnesota social psychologist Leon Festinger infiltrated the Seekers in an effort to study and better understand apocalyptic cults. Festinger revealed his findings in the 1956 book, "When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World." This work was an early exploration of the psychologist's now-famous theory of "cognitive dissonance," a term that refers to the human tendency to rationalize when one's thoughts and actions are in disagreement.