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July 22, 2020: The World Ends (For Some)


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Today was supposed to be the last day of the world, the day four horseman would ride across the sky on sinewy white steeds—sweat and spit falling to Earth like hailstones. If the Book of Revelation was any guide for what the end of the world would look like, I imagined that the bassy cacophony of those hooves would be so thunderous, people everywhere would drop to their knees, clapping hands over ears, horrified and awed by their power. The clouds—red and towering higher than we ever knew the sky could go—would part like the Red Sea to make way for the bringers of our doom.

It is 7:02 pm Pacific Standard Time on July 22, 2020, and the world has not ended. Yet. I do not think that it will, but doomsday author-turned-doomsday prophet Chad Daybell and his wife, former beauty queen and mother Lori Vallow Daybell, believed today was the day. The end of the world as we know it.

Nonetheless, it has been a very bad day. The COVID-19 pandemic has made all of humanity (or at least the subsection of humanity who currently acknowledges it is real) understand devastation in a way that no tsunami or earthquake, or terrorist attack, or bombing, ever has. It is the crisis that affects every human on the planet, all at once. An apocalypse all on its own.

During infinite days inside, at home, I’ve come to understand that every single day, millions of worlds end and new ones begin. The worlds contained within us, of course, end when we die: the way we think, the unique ways we express ourselves. And every day we survive gives opportunity for a new birth.

This was something that, in December 1849, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote of in a letter to his brother: the extraordinary experience of escaping what was meant to be the very end. After being arrested for belonging to the Petrashevsky Circle, a progressive literary discussion group, Dostoevsky had been imprisoned and sentenced to death.

He was tied to a post, seconds away from a firing squad dispatching a bullet to his brain, when, suddenly, his sentence was commuted. He was untied, and went back to his cell inside the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. There, he furiously scribbled a letter—one that captured his ecstatic, hyper state of disbelief and wonder. It was like he had been resurrected.

Brother! I have not become downhearted or low-spirited. Life is everywhere life, life in ourselves, not in what is outside us. There will be people near me, and to be a man among people and remain a man for ever, not to be downhearted nor to fall in whatever misfortunes may befall me—this is life; this is the task of life. I have realized this. This idea has entered into my flesh and blood. … I was today in the grip of death for three quarters of an hour; I have lived it through with that idea; I was at the last instant and now I live again!

I’m sure that, with time, it will be even clearer to me what, exactly, beyond millions of human lives, died during the COVID-19 pandemic. What feelings, what hopes. It will become clearer how the people who didn’t die re-emerged, whether we wriggled free from the firing post resurrected, with a new outlook, new vigor. Or we’ll know if this was all for naught: a dry-run to fix the world that we horribly botched.

It is interesting to me that Chad Daybell and Lori Vallow arrived in the public eye at this particular time in history. After police came looking for Vallow’s children in November 2019, who were missing, Vallow went missing herself. People feared that the family’s disappearance had something to do with their end-times religious beliefs—that maybe the family was huddled in a bunker somewhere. But where? No one had any idea.

What was known about Vallow and her new husband, Daybell, was that they were devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—better known as the Mormon Church. But the faith they practiced would be unrecognizable to many other Mormons; the pair was hyper-focused on the “latter-day” part of that belief system. They believed themselves to be the leaders of the 144,000—chosen people prophesied in the Book of Revelation—and were gathering others they deemed worthy to survive the apocalypse.

Vallow and Daybell were not the first people to be galvanized by the Book of Revelation, or the first to believe themselves to be the key to bringing about the end of the world. The book has been fundamental to many of Western history’s best-known millenarian groups. That’s the term religious scholars prefer, but to the wider public, these groups are more commonly known as cults.

In the 1960s, the infamous American cult leader Charles Manson ordered other people to kill for him, testing their allegiance. He called them “The Family,” and his followers believed him to be either Jesus Christ or a prophet, or both. Manson often quoted from the Book of Revelation, chapter 9, the moment after the seven seals have opened and stars have crashed to earth, blistering the land and opening a “bottomless pit.” The fissure lets loose “the smoke of a great furnace” and a swarm of locusts so large they blot out the sun. Then comes a great army, riding horses with the heads of lions that breathe “fire and smoke and brimstone.”

Manson told his Family that the great prophesied pit from Revelation actually existed in the California desert, and it would be there that he would gather the 144,000 after sparking a race war that would eradicate humanity. He told his followers they were the chosen ones, and he was their savior. Sounds familiar.

In numerous instances, millenarian groups that have gained media attention were helmed by charismatic men and women who believed themselves to be “interventionists”; in other words, they thought themselves integral to bringing about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. At their worst, they were led by people who believed themselves to be God—the being in charge of carrying out the havoc that Revelation predicts.

In numerous instances, millenarian groups…thought themselves integral to bringing about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Many apocalyptic cults have also held rampant anti-government belief systems, equating the US government to the Roman oppressors of the early Christian era. This was the case after April 19, 1993, when television cameras captured the fiery destruction of a fringe religious compound in Waco, Texas, where at least 82 civilians lost their lives.

The people who lived there were the Branch Davidians, a splinter group of a splinter group of Seventh-day Adventists founded in the late 1950s. One of the group’s early leaders believed that the end of the world was coming in 1959. When it did not end, the Branch Davidians broke away and formed their own sect.

By 1993, their leader was 33-year-old Vernon Wayne Howell, a man who legally changed his name to David Koresh in order to reflect his belief that he was an End Times messenger, in the spirit of King David. Koresh thought himself to be not only a prophet who spoke to God but also someone who was carrying out a mission from God. He told his followers that he alone was the key to interpreting the seven seals, revealing the secrets of God. And his followers believed him. They came to Waco from around the world. They birthed families and raised them in the com-pound, and they listened to Koresh preach for hours and lived as he told them to.

During his ascent to become leader of the group, Koresh engaged in polygamy, believing all of the female Davidians were his wives in some form or another. Some were “carnal” wives, with whom he had sex, and some of those carnal wives, according to the Justice Department, were girls as young as twelve. Government reports say that Koresh demanded that his followers turn over their possessions and money to his control. “He also controlled what they ate and read, what they viewed as entertainment, and where they traveled.”

Koresh claimed he was assembling an Army of God in preparation for the last days, and that his people were warriors—the chosen ones who would survive the plagues set upon the earth by God.

Concerned over allegations that members were illegally modifying weapons to be fully automatic, in February 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms approached the tan-colored compound with an arrest warrant for Koresh over “unlawful possession of a destructive device,” and planned to search the 77-acre property for evidence of the fully automatic weapons. But as the agents drew near the building, gunshots rang out. To this day, there is no agreement on who fired first— the officers or the Davidians. Blood was spilled on both sides. Four ATF officers fell dead under the heavy gunfire, and six Davidians perished from gunshot wounds. Koresh was injured in the exchange. It was the beginning of a standoff that would drag on for 51 tense days.

During the prolonged impasse, Koresh wrote several letters in looping cursive script about his beliefs. “I am your God and you will bow under my feet . . . I am your life and your death,” he wrote. “Do you want me to laugh at your pending torments? Do you want me to pull the heavens back and show you my anger?!” He spent sixty hours on the phone with negotiators, and many of those hours were spent explaining his religious ideology.

He assured negotiators that he and his people would eventually emerge from the compound after he finished decoding the seven seals, which would delay the End Times.

At the direction of Attorney General Janet Reno, on April 19, 1993, the FBI and ATF, fearing a “Jonestown situation,” raided the compound, even driving combat engineering vehicles through the walls. The compound burst into flames—flames that, to this day, are a point of argument despite a preponderance of evidence that the Davidians lit the fires.

In the end, at least 82 civilians were dead. Autopsies concluded that at least twenty people died from fatal gunshot wounds: evidence of possible suicides or, for the five children found to have been killed by bullets, executions. Koresh died of a gunshot wound to the head.

But the world did not end.

In 1994, a year after Waco, a group called the Order of the Solar Temple was in the headlines. The group was cofounded by Joseph Di Mambro, who claimed to have lived in past lives as the Egyptian god of the underworld, Osiris, and Moses, among other famous historical figures. The group, like the Branch Davidians, were “catastrophic millennialists,” meaning they believed the end of the world was necessary to atone for a corrupted world. They expected it to occur sometime in the 1990s and that its members would enter a higher spiritual plane as a result.

In the fall of 1994, authorities discovered the dead bodies of fifty-three members of the Order of the Solar Temple across Canada and Europe, concluding that the people had either been killed or died by suicide. A year later, a further sixteen believers died, and two years after that, five more. One of those casualties was an infant boy, purportedly believed by Di Mambro to be the Antichrist. The baby had been murdered with a wooden stake.

Still, the world remained.

For most groups, when promises of the end of the world do not come to pass as their leaders predict, death usually doesn’t occur.

For most groups, when promises of the end of the world do not come to pass as their leaders predict, death usually doesn’t occur. Famously, in the 1950s, sociologists scrutinized the beliefs of “the Seekers,” an Illinois-based group led by Dorothy Martin, a housewife. Martin believed she was receiving messages from another planet, including one predicting that a catastrophic flood would obliterate Chicago and much of the United States. She told her people that mountain ranges—like the Rocky Mountains—were the only bastions of safety.

And yet the group itself stayed put in Illinois on the morning of December 21, 1954, the day she believed the flood would come and the group would be whisked away in flying saucers.

They huddled in Martin’s house awaiting their cosmic pickup, but when no UFO arrived, and no flood came to be, the sociologists studying the group observed that the Seekers were not actually dissuaded from their belief system. In fact, the opposite seemed to occur. They listened as Martin read a message she had just received, that “Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room, and that which has been loosed within this room now floods the entire Earth.” They had a faith so strong and so powerful, she said, they’d spared the entire planet from destruction.

Anthropologist Susannah Crockford told me about this kind of phenomenon, when people adjust their beliefs so the gap between them and reality gets smaller. She observed it playing out in real time fifty-eight years to the day after Martin’s group assembled in hopes of a UFO encounter. On December 21, 2012—a date many people believed had been predicted by the Mayan calendar as when ascension would begin or the world would end—Crockford stood atop a 479-foot rock in Sedona, Arizona, with a man who believed a vortex would open below and that he would travel through it “to go to the source code that created this simulated reality and remove the virus that was currently threatening our existence.”

Crockford had been researching New Age beliefs in Sedona—a hub of crystal shops, psychics, and supposed vortexes—for her book Ripples of the Universe. When the vortex failed to appear, the man was not dissuaded from what he originally believed— he just found a new explanation to fit his preexisting worldview.

“The world’s always about to end. There’s always someone who is making an apocalyptic prediction. The interesting thing is when they fail it doesn’t seem to affect their followers all that much,” Crockford told me. Leaders simply set a new date, or say the predicted event actually did happen, just on another plane of spirituality. Or they’ll say it didn’t occur because people simply weren’t faithful enough. People stick around, even when prophecy fails. When that vortex failed to manifest, the man did not jump into the air hoping to find it. He simply adjusted his beliefs and found a new story to explain what had failed to occur.

It is one thing to believe in God’s final judgment, and that your beliefs and actions and righteousness may spare you from fiery wrath. But it is something else entirely to think of yourself as that final judge and jury of the rest of the world. As an agent of the apocalypse. As creator and executioner. That the end comes when you decide, because you alone are an exalted being to whom Jesus chose as the leader of his final army.

In early 2020, investigators tracked Lori Vallow and Chad Daybell down. They were not in a dusty survivalist bunker, but an expensive condominium on a golf course in Hawaii. The kids were nowhere to be found.

Vallow and Daybell sitting inside jail cells right now, as I write this. The two missing children were discovered in June 2020, dug out of shallow graves in Daybell’s backyard—a horrific turn to the story, and yet not the entire story.

They do not know quite yet what Idaho, what this country, will or won’t do to them. They may never see the outside world again.

But right now I’m wondering about something else: are Chad and Lori scared because there are still a few more hours until this day is done? Do they still believe they are the leaders of the end times army, that they have prophesied the end and that end will be today?

Are they happy? Are their eyes searching the corners of their cells, waiting for a line of bright white light to emerge underneath the door?

When the end comes, will they greet it smiling?

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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