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Cult experts predict more doomsday acts as millennium nears

March 28, 1997
Web posted at: 10:40 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Louise Schiavone

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Across the country, millions of people are asking how a simple comet sighting could lead 39 people in an exclusive neighborhood to kill themselves.


But some experts say they understand how the comet could lead to a mass suicide, and they're seeing the same patterns elsewhere.

The arrival of the brightest comet of the century and the impending turn of the millennium have spawned warnings that the world is ending. Cults are heeding the call.

  • Members of the Heaven's Gate cult near San Diego believed Comet Hale-Bopp shielded a spaceship, which would transport their liberated spirits to heaven.

  • A newsletter on the Web called "Earth Change Predictions" tells readers in its January 1997 issue that "A Mighty Earthquake Will Split North America In Two" and "The Earth's Rotation Is Predicted To Reverse In 2 Years."

  • Doomsday cult leader Shoko Asahara, the leader of the Aum Shinri Kyo cult in Japan, convinced thousands of followers that major disasters would occur in the final years of this millennium. He is on trial for masterminding a sarin gas attack on a Japanese subway that killed 11 people.

Their beliefs and actions, although extreme, are not uncommon behavior for the human race as a whole; similar reactions have been repeated on the brink of every major turn of the calendar on record.


"As you change from one millennium to the other, you feel that something very fundamental is changing," said psychologist Michael Apter, a professor at Georgetown University. "That is not a rational belief. It's even, if you want, an irrational belief, but it's very much a part of our psychology."

An upcoming exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore entitled "The End is Near" is a collection of works exploring turn-of-the-millennium and apocalyptic prophecies from "self-taught visionaries."


Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, museum president and founder, says the art touches on everything from doves of peace and rainbows -- promising a new, happier world -- to nuclear bombs exploding, warheads and tanks.

And comets appear, again and again, at the museum and in the collection, along with spaceships, serpents and dire prophecies of judgment and destruction.

Philosophers and theologians say history advises to expect the unexpected.

"Whenever there is the end of a millennium, the anxieties of the age are drawn into very sharp focus, and this can trigger apocalyptic fervor," said Chris Leighton, executive director of the Institute of Christian and Jewish Studies.

Apter agreed. "I would guess we're going to see more and more of this, judging by what happened in the first millennium. ... There will be people who will do bizarre and crazy things."


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