From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Doomsday cult" is a term used to describe groups obsessed with Apocalypticism and Millenarianism, and can refer to both groups that prophesy catastrophe and destruction, and those that attempt to bring it about. The term was popularized in John Lofland's 1966 study of the Unification Church, Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith. A classic study of a group with cataclysmic predictions had previously been performed by Leon Festinger and other researchers, and was published in his book When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. These two works were later drawn upon by sociologists and other academics in their explanations of doomsday cults. Some authors have used the term solely to characterize groups that have used acts of violence to harm their members and/or others, such as the salmonella poisoning of salad bars by members of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh group, and the mass murder/suicide of members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God group. Others have used the term to refer to groups which have made and later revised apocalyptic prophesies or predictions, such as the Church Universal and Triumphant led by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, and the initial group studied by Festinger, et al. Still others have used the term to refer to groups that have prophesied impending doom and cataclysmic events, and also carried out violent acts, such as the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway and the mass murder/suicide of members of Jim Jones' Peoples Temple group after similar types of predictions.
Referring to his study, Festinger and later other researchers have attempted to explain the commitment of members to their associated doomsday cult, even after the prophesies of their leader have turned out to be false. Festinger explained this phenomenon as part of a coping mechanism called dissonance reduction, a form of rationalization. Members often dedicate themselves with renewed vigor to the group's cause after a failed prophesy, and rationalize with explanations such as a belief that their actions forestalled the disaster, or a belief in the leader when the date for disaster is postponed. Some researchers believe that the use of the term by the government and the news media can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which actions by authorities reinforces the apocalyptic beliefs of the group, which in turn can inspire further controversial actions. Group leaders have themselves objected to comparisons between one group and another, and parallels have been drawn between the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy and the theory of a deviancy amplification spiral.