Clarion Call

Call to City: Flee That Flood

That was the headline of a newspaper article that alerted social psychologist Leon Festinger and his colleagues to the beliefs of a group in Chicago led by Marion Keech. Keech claimed to be in receipt of messages from the planet Clarion, manifested in the form of “automatic writing” when she was in a trance. The wise people of Clarion were warning Earth that our planet was about to be destroyed, by dawn on 21st December 1955.

Being fairly sure that the Earth would not be destroyed on that date, Festinger took the opportunity to investigate the group and its beliefs, with particular interest in what would happen to their belief system after the deadline. The research, including direct infiltration into Keech’s group, was written up later as a popular book, When Prophecy Fails (by Festinger, Rieken and Schachter).

alienI suppose that title gives away the outcome. The Earth did indeed survive, and the believers had to cope with the failure of the prophecy. Of course, it wasn’t the first or last such failure. I’m particularly fond of the “Great Disappointment” of 1844. The Baptist preacher and prophet Wiliam Miller had calculated, though detailed and arcane analysis of the Bible, the date of the Second Coming of Jesus as some time during the Jewish year 5604. When that year passed without obvious incident, on the Western date of 21st March 1844, Miller returned to his calculations and proposed the use of a different Hebrew calendar, which ended the year on 18th April. Again, nothing happened.

Further revisions by Miller and his followers pushed the date forward, but always, reality intervened. Still, perhaps somewhat bizarrely, there remained a large number of true believers, and churches descended from Miller’s organization remain in existence today.

The actual planet Clarion also had a history of revision and recession. It was mentioned first by one Truman Bethurum, who claimed in 1953 that he had met the crew of a spacecraft from the planet, led by the beautiful Captain Aura Rhanes. In Bethurum’s first book on the encounter, he wrote that Captain Rhanes had told him that Clarion orbited in such a way that it was always out of sight behind the Moon. On being told that such a path was astromically impossible, he changed his story to say that it was always behind the Sun. Later still, when it was proven that no such planet existed, he wrote that Captain Rhanes must have meant that Clarion was in another solar system…

The group who believed Marion Keech’s messages from Clarion expected, like the members of Heaven’s Gate in 1997, to be rescued by flying saucer before the Earth was destroyed. However, unlike the later cult, the Clarion believers survived to deal with their disappointment. Or was it relief? They divested themselves of all metal objects (tabloids usually mention that this included underwired bras), and waited together for midnight, when they would all be transported away before the cataclysm at dawn. On the stroke of midnight, nothing happened. It continued to happen for several hours: the entire group sat together in stunned and appalled silence.

Then, at 4am, Marion Keech felt herself going into a trance, and another message arrived. Earth had been spared. The Greater Powers had felt sympathy for the true believers and had decided not to demolish the planet.


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