Daniels, a shaggy, shambling 60-year-old from Philadelphia, "discovered" the millennium before anyone else. In 1987, soon after he finished his doctorate in folklore and folklife from the University of Pennsylvania, he was doing what people with such narrow-niche credentials tend to do: working for a soon-to-die record company in Manhattan that specialized in folk music.
At work one day, quite out of the blue and related to absolutely nothing, he "had a vision," as he likes to say with a Twilight Zone voice and an Elmer Gantry glaze in his eyes: the millennium was coming and no one was paying any attention to it. He would be the first to turn the millennium into a profession.
And indeed, he was. He started a newsletter, the Millennial Prophecy Report, which he published for five years until he turned it into the more fashionable communique du jour -- a website (www.channel1.com/mpr). After 13 years of eavesdropping on oracles, soothsayers and seers, he has charted the predictions of more than 1,200 "prophets," all of whom live in the United States. And while he is unswayed that any of them have anything approaching unerring accuracy, he is still impressed with their fervid imaginations.
"We don't like living in a world of sin and hate and discomfort," he said recently in a Washington cafe while on a tour to promote his book, A Doomsday Reader: Prophets, Predictors and Hucksters of Salvation.
"We live in meaning like a fish lives in water. We all crave to know that our lives matter. Take that away and life is not worth living."
But the millennium was supposed to give people a chance to divine meaning, to invent meaning, to plumb the universe around them and return with reconnaissance reports about what awaits us in the Great Beyond. For some, the future is grim and bleak; for others, it's pristine and slightly sterile. For most of them, though, it's no more than a Rorschach of their temperament or their theology.
After compiling every conceivable prognostication, Daniel's favorite is: "The hollow Earth stuff. These people say that there's a sun inside the earth that provides light and heat and where Nazis have been hiding and breeding since 1945, when Hitler fled there as he was losing the war. All the Nazis have secret, ancient wisdom and someday will take over the planet with the aid of aliens flying UFO's. The earth will then turn into a giant feeding lot for the aliens."
Daniels has little desire to live in the paradise that any of these believers espouse. "If it's perfect," he said dismissively, "I wouldn't want to be there. It would get boring pretty soon. I'd want something with a little bit of an edge to it so I could have a break from perfection. A weekend in Vegas would help." But then, Daniels began his millennial pursuits as a self-described "secularist" who escaped the Congregationalist church in New Hampshire. He hasn't returned to religion since; chronicling thousands of faith-based predictions for the future hasn't given him the inclination to do so.
Nevertheless, he concedes that society has benefitted from some strains of millennialism: "The Shakers were the first feminists in this country. The Millerites [disciples of William Miller, a 19th century preacher who self-destructively set specific dates for the end of the world] had the first chain of newspapers in every major city in the United States."
Daniels says there's something very American about millennialism. "Columbus came here looking for the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel," he said. "The Pilgrim fathers came here to find a Shining City. This was paradise. And we're still trying to make the world over in our image and make it safe for democracy with our 'police actions.' Everyone came here to start over, to find the streets paved with gold. Even the Chinese, who worked on the railroads.
"The people who make these predictions remind me of Sterling Hayden talking about 'bodily fluids' in 'Dr. Strangelove.' They talk calmly and speak utter nonsense. They're world saviors, although none of them succeed in that, and they probably end up burned out and bitter."
By Ted Daniels
By Arthur Magida