It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring — not even a Martian.
Dr. Charles Laughead and his wife, Lillie, of East Lansing, spent several days before Christmas 1954 in Oak Park, Ill., with other true believers, waiting — not for Santa, but for spacemen from the planet Clarion to whisk them away from the terrible disasters that were set to occur on earth.
Their beliefs had already cost them dearly. Dr. Laughead had already lost his job at Michigan State College. Back in East Lansing for Christmas, he and Lillie faced a court hearing to have them declared insane.
The couple was pulled into a Chicago-area cult led by Dorothy Martin, a frail, self-proclaimed psychic who dabbled in Scientology and who declared that a group called the Guardians were warning her about a flood that would be the end of the Earth.
Martin’s communication method was as old as the hills. She claimed that when she set pen to paper, she was channeling messages from extraterrestrials, a common technique called “automatic writing” and used by spiritualists of the previous century.
Before joining Martin’s cult, Dr. Laughead, director of MSU’s on-campus Olin Health Center, was already following UFO sightings and leading a small group on campus called “questers” who gathered to discuss extraterrestrial life. When he started proselytizing to his student patients about the end of the world, MSU President John Hannah stepped in and asked him to resign.
Once media attention died down, this bizarre series of events could have been an asterisk in the history books if it hadn’t been for three University of Minnesota researchers who embedded themselves with the true believers. The researchers studied the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, a fancy term for believing in half-baked ideas (or people) in face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Not only did they observe and document the meltdown of the strongly held beliefs of the believers; they published their findings in a book that became a classic text on the subject and is still used today.
“When Prophecy Fails,” by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter, is still in print, despite the authors’ questionable skirting of research principles. The book is used to explore what happens to a group when their beliefs do not come true. Festinger would go on to publish “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance,” a basic field guide to strange social, political and consumer behavior.
Martin convinced her small group of followers that space ships would arrive at 4 p.m. on December 17 to snatch them away from disaster. When their ride didn’t arrive, they wrote it off as a “practice session.” However, after waiting on the 18th, the 21st and Christmas Eve, the true believers were still stuck on earth.
Dr. Laughead, referred to as “Dr. Armstrong” in the book, told a member of the news media he had seen a “spaceman in the crowd with a helmet on and a white gown and what not.” He also made claims that the reason they were not picked up was “I didn’t think a spaceman would feel very welcome there in that crowd.”
Back in Lansing, the daily newspaper covered the debacle with great joy, taking to the streets for interviews with residents doing their last-minute Christmas shopping.
Laughead’s children patiently waited for their parents’ return while fielding media questions. (The Lansing State Journal reported that they were dusting and cleaning up about the house.)
The Laugheads weren’t the first humans to yield to cognitive dissonance — not by a long shot. Beliefs in UFOs, spaceships, spacemen and a cataclysmic end of the earth have been grist for popular culture for centuries. In 1897, H. G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” told of an extraterrestrial invasion by Martians. It was later followed by a series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, including “A Princess of Mars.” Only 16 years before Laughed was stood up by Martians, Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of “The War of the Worlds” shocked the country. It is widely said that the most infamous “fake news” radio show in history led to mass hysteria and riots in the streets. A seminal book on the subject, “Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News” by A. Brad Schwartz, an East Lansing author, disproved the mass hysteria itself as a hoax.
A simple Google search will turn up millions of citations detailing such UFO topics as the infamous Roswell Area 51 and, more recently, a secret U.S. Pentagon program costing $22 million a year that was established to investigate UFOs.
Belief in things that aren’t true is just a part of being human. On December 31, 1954, Charles and Lillian Laughead were examined by two physicians. It was determined that they were not mentally ill and did not need treatment in an institution. However, Dorothy Martin was placed under psychiatric care in Oak Park.
The Lansing State Journal writers named Michigan’s Democratic sweep as the city’s number one news story for 1954 with second place going to the firing of Charles Laughead. The article summed up the year’s big news this way: “Winning Democrats were sworn in and the world did not come to an end.” Dr. Laughead sold his home, packed up and moved east where he said he would do research and investigation.
Book Club meets Jan. 11
City Pulse will kick off its book club for 2018 at 7 p.m. Jan. 11 at Schuler Books & Records in Eastwood Towne Center, not Jan. 4, as previously reported. For the entire year, the club will read books related to 1968 in this its golden anniversary year. The first book is ‘1968 The Year that Rocked the World,” by Mark Kurlansky.