A series in which we attempt to find the single, perfect superpower by reviewing each one on a five-star scale.
This Installment: Prophesy
- Receiving information about the future via super- or supranatural means.
- Distilling that information down into memetic devices to be carried through the lifespan of a culture.
- Prophesy– (verb) From Greek propheteia meaning “gift of interpreting the will of the gods”
- Prophecy– (noun) From Greek prophetes meaning fate/story/vision “spoken or written by a prophet,”
- Apocalypse– (noun) From Church Latin apocalypsis meaning “revelation,” derived from Greek apokalyptein meaning “(take) off cover/concealment.”
DISCLAIMER: We’re gonna talk quite a lot about touchy subjects like religion, nazis, and the fact that humans are mortal. I promise, though, that you’re totally gonna live forever, so don’t you worry about this.
The very first thing ever written down was the story of how the world ended. And in the almost 5000 years since, it’s still all we ever write about.
CHAPTER 1 | I am Criswell
“Greetings, my friends. We are all interested in the future for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. Whether we want to or not.”
—The Amazing Criswell
Jeron Criswell Konig was a charlatan. A huckster peddling terrible divinations. A flimflam man of the style only America seems able to produce. And Konig wanted to be famous.
In 1953, right at the beginning of the American television boom, local LA affiliate, KLAC TV put Koning on a recurring ad spot for “Criswell Family Vitamins.” In these advertisements, Konig recreated himself as “The Amazing Criswell,” dazzling those naive early audiences with his alleged psyche powers. Powers, he claimed, allowed him to see into impossible futures. Which, taken at face value, might suggest that they were comedy gags. This theory is bolstered by the fact that the ads were a bit of a contradiction; excruciatingly self-serious in execution, yet filled with ridiculous content like alien landings, witch doctors, and floating cities.
This was in the early days of television, before the social parts of our brains had evolved to evaluate televisual claims and well before the Truth in Advertising act of 1968. So naturally, this level of artistry was a big hit.
The “The Amazing Criswell” Recipe:
- Feature no less than one and no more than two Armageddon scenarios. Volcanos boiling the oceans, space rays turning metal to rubber, large scale outbreaks of cannibalism. Atomic and Silver age plots that violently grab the imagination.
- Next, provide humor to ease tensions. Embalmers using radio waves to turn bodies to indestructible stone monuments. French prostitutes on strike. The next fashion trend will be genderless tunics with matching haircuts, causing women and men to look indistinguishable.
- Lastly, mention celebrities whenever possible. Television is making America celebrity-obsessed, so the mere mention of them—even indirectly—is sure to titillate. But always, always leave wiggle room in these predictions so you can stretch it into truth later.
Konig never broke character at the time, never gave away the gag overtly, but I think he was delivering all of this with a wink and a nod. I want to believe that this was all for fun at the beginning rather than a serious deception if only to offset what comes at the end.
Live on Set
In 1960, The Amazing Criswell began to book the Late Night shows. Partly this is because Johnny Carson and Jack Paar both had enormous audiences that were ravenous for guests, but it was more than that. Konig (who was now calling himself Jeron “The Amazing Criswell” King) was an incredibly bizarre personality. He looked like God had plucked some hapless, low-level member of the old Austria-Hungarian empire, stuffed him in a mortuary suit stiff enough to hold him up, and thrown him on the guest couch where he’d start reciting issues of House of Mystery. Criswell was just so rigid and awkward that he made the perfect foil for the naturally loose and charming late-night hosts of the era. His nervous egotism laid bare next to the real deal.
And with Criswell’s own television show shut down in 1961, the late shows became his only option and their perils necessary if he wanted to keep his dream alive.
Janus of Late Night
It’s for this reason that I think Criswell was more comfortable on the Johnny Carson show. Carson was the new kid, a little green but as predictable as a clock behind his desk. That predictably means a lot to a performer like Criswell. Tells him how far he can play it. Plus Carson was an amateur magician in his younger years, and that made him a soft touch for a good gag.
Jack Paar wasn’t. Paar was the black id of America. His impish grin, and his pathological inability to sit up straight helped him crack the late format wide open by turning it into a high-wire act. It had also left him volatile, switching violently between cerebral, cutting, or melancholic.
March 10, 1963, was a Jack Paar night.
“The Present Time, Together with the Past, Shall be Judged by a Great Jovialist.”
Season 1, Episode 22 of The Jack Paar Program was structured according to tradition. The Amazing Criswell would be on near close, his act potentially too upsetting for the “early” part of the program. Tonight, that meant he had to follow a musical act and two comedians and would then have to navigate Paar’s legendary moods.
Unfortunately for Criswell, that meant Paar was in a spectacular mood. His inner pendulum pulled all the way back to apogee, now looking for a target to release itself upon.
You can almost see Criswell sweat under the studio lights as he stands up rigor mortis straight. His hair deflating under sweat and heat. His usual mask of certainty replaced by grim visage. Shoulders tucked in, taking up as little physical space as possible.
And there’s Paar right next to him. Body, grin, tone of voice, everything about him slanted, angled. After every claim by Criswell comes a smirk that knocks the performer’s legs out from under, Paar building moment off Criswell’s lack of it.
First it’s jokes. Followed by barbs. Finally, Paar starts asking questions, further setting Criswell to scramble. The audience roars. Even the cameras shake with laughter. Criswell, the local access con-man, is dying in front of everyone’s eyes.
And then somehow, in all this raucousness, the subject of the President is brought up.
CHAPTER 2 | The History of the End
Death used to be different. Wildly, unrecognizably different from today,
About 200 years ago, a man named Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine. This lead to a staggering number of advancements in medicine, including Jonas Salk’s vaccine for polio in 1955. But the most startling impact of his breakthrough was the way it lead the commonality of the idea that human beings naturally dying of old age. The expectation simply didn’t exist before then.
For 2 million years, mankind has been on a quest to build, create, and most of all, make order of the world. To define, arrange, and tame things through knowledge (or force).
And for 99.9%+ of those years, mortality refused virtually all of our best efforts and understanding. Death was so much bigger than the total combined efforts of humanity and, worst of all, Death seemed to be completely arbitrary. The plague came for rich and poor alike. Weather and animals killed regardless of ethnicity or religion. People died for seemingly no reason at all.
An Incredibly Brief History of Death
Once, Countless Died Everyday From Whatever.
- In 1919, the flu killed nearly 40 million worldwide and was so bad that people thought it a blight from Heaven.
- In the 15-19th centuries, the slave trade killed an estimated 60 million in Africa alone. Legends abounded of ships that materialized on shorelines to drag people to the underworld. And they weren’t that far off.
- In the 12th century, Genghis Khan came seemingly out of nowhere to burn the world to the ground, screaming “I am the punishment of God.”
- In 464, an earthquake helped lead to the Peloponnesian war. It must have been thought to be the wrath of every god in the region.
- Since the beginning of time, and an incalculable number of people have died of simple infections. The smallest cut or scrape was potentially fatal.
To recap, mankind spent roughly 2 million years as a species laying claim to everything it saw. To achieve this, we had to create from whole-cloth an enormous number of concepts and inventions and technology, imperialism, war, and pure force were applied everywhere, at all times. Peace was a rounding error during 2 million years of pure conquest.
And yet at the same time we built fictions around death. Whole cultures dedicated enormous energy to believing death wasn’t an event, but instead a tangible thing. A person who rode pale horses or stuck to dress codes. A person who obeyed laws.
Because mankind, the greatest conqueror the world has ever seen, looked at death and said, “We’d like to negotiate.” And in order to do that, we needed a face we could face.
And as bad and as scary as all that is, it’s still only for relatively small scale death. Just for things humanity could survive. To imagine something it couldn’t, we had to invent something even bigger.
In the Beginning, There Was the End
When you get right down to it, every prophecy details the end of the world. They are all about the things we cannot see, cannot control, and how those things will end all life as we know it. The world is one way, something happens, and there is a brand new world in its place. It’s been that way since the beginning. In fact, the first story mankind ever wrote was a prediction of Armageddon.
In a way, it had to be.
As far back as 3400-3100 BCE, mankind was making attempts at writing. Receipts we think, but really more crude drawings and hashes than full thoughts. These protoforms were pressed into clay tablets before being filed away in caves. But to create a true language? The very first one at that?
That was another thing entirely. A millennium-long undertaking performed in secret in the deserts of Sumeria. It had to be a warning. The first telling of the great flood, the fall of man, the death of Gods and the Final Judgement.
It had to be this. Since then, virtually every single culture on Earth has written its own prediction of the End Times. And usually very early. But why? What morose needs could this common act fulfill?
The End Times Best Seller List
- The Egyptian book of the dead, rendered in hieroglyphics so sacred, it’s said scribes made the Ibis glyphs with clipped wings lest they fly away.
- The Hindu story of a God reborn ten times before destroying and remaking the universe.
- The Buddhist age of swords followed by seven suns that would burn the world clean.
- Judaism’s war great war, avoidable only through present-day suffering.
- The Christian Book of Revelations which began as a rebuke of the Romans and turned into a global sensation.
- The Vikings tale of War, dead Gods, and the wolf beneath the tree.
- The trumpet blasts of Verdi’s Otello
- The verdant wastelands of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.
- The Judgement Day on August 25, 2017, in 5.1 surround.
- Adrian Veidt, Willoughby Kipling, and David Haller
CHAPTER 3 | Something Fateful
- Eschatology– (noun) The school of thought dedicated to cultura humans believe that humanity will end.
- Eschatology– (noun) from the greek eskhatos “last, furthest, uttermost, extreme, most remote” in time, space, degree. Literally translates to “the study of final things.”
- Eschatology– (noun) The theological school of thought dedicated to theistic prophecies of death, judgment, heaven, and hell; the four common pillars in virtually every end of the world concept.
Like any field of study, religious eschatology has a long, deep history filled with contradictions. So a summation of the whole thing is out of the question.
Instead, I want to talk some about the current thinking in the field. More specifically, the concept that Apocalypse texts act an almost mathematical proof for the cultures that create them.
The thinking goes that humanity needs a conclusion to every story in order to best understand it. We can truly see this in Morrison’s work which tends to end in powerful iconography that tells the entire tale. Batman in red, purple, and yellow, fueled by pain and psychological damage. Think of Superman as the constructivist ideal at the end of Morrison’s, the man inside the sun, selflessly saving us all.
Apocalypse stories work in a similar fashion. You can see them either as the final answers to the great questions regarding the immortality of the human soul, existence of higher powers, and potential for the afterlife. Otherwise, you can view Armaggedons as a way to provide final “evidence” of a faith’s teachings. Using Christianity as a familiar example, the book of Revelations says:
There is a God. He did send a messiah. There is an afterlife. If you follow these rules you will be saved. If you don’t, you will be dammed.
Setting aside imagery and borrowed mythology, that’s really all the book of Revelations is a summation. However, that book of the New Testament is one of the very few not written to a specific person. Instead, it is written as a direct promise to all. Further, it’s not part of the distant past of the book, but of a future that might—we’re told—involve us personally. With personal context and finality, the book acts to reinforce faith.
- Eschatology– (noun) The philosophical school of thought dedicated to death, judgment, heaven, hell; the four common pillars in virtually every end of the world concept.
Throughout the 20th century, a number of prominent philosophers— namely Martin Heidegger, Nicolai Berdyaev, and Hans Blumberg—dove into eschatology as a means of understanding the human condition. As we established above, Apocalypse stories are common across practically all of humanity, so this common point makes an interesting place to start.
A Warning Before We Begin
Martin Heidegger was a Nazi supporter. And even though he later repented this, it is still a totally unacceptable and despicable act. Further, it makes the man a complete hypocrite as a human being, seeing as his philosophical approach is entirely reliant on universal connections. A theory in direct contradiction to nazism and fascism.
However, there is simply no one better to cite on this philosophical subject. Heidegger, despite his clear and undisputed flaws as a human being, developed a philosophy that is not only uniquely pertinent to this discussion but forms the basis of much of 20th century thought. And arguably, the best parts because one of the tragedies of this contradiction is that the texts I’m referencing here are pre-WW II and are, in fact, quite beautiful.
I’m not here to defend Martin Heidegger as a man, nor am I here to redeem him as a human soul. But I do find his philosophical outlook necessary here. If I used a different thinker, they would be working his Heidegger’s theories, which I feel is more deceptive of me than telling the truth. I hope this distinction can be maintained in the following paragraphs.
Essentially, Heidegger believed every individual has an authentic self which is intimately connected with not just nature, but all things. A connection that would, if permitted, push us towards true generosity. The problem, he claimed, was that the awesome scope of this truth puts pressure on the human psyche such that most people never explored their true selves and instead gave in to the ease and comfort of tradition, societal expectation, and selfishness.
What makes us “human” as opposed to “homo sapien,” he said, was our ability to understand that we will die, that it is inevitable. And that this death served as an orientation point in our lives. We know that we cannot have infinite experiences (which would make us all the same), so we choose our experiences (which makes us unique). The problem is that our focus is wrong; we think of our ideal selves as the person at the end of the journey. In other words, a corpse we spend our lives memorializing. Instead, he says, we should strive to fully realize our connection to this moment, this place. and the person we are in it.
“Being itself is inherently eschatological”
Heidegger’s solution to this begins with the end times. To fully embrace our mortality. Not in a morbid sense, but rather in an honest sense that acknowledges that social status and acclaim won’t make us truly immortal. And that there’s no sense in ticking boxes until the end.
So to truly know ourselves, we have to picture the entire world dying. Because that’s the only way we can gain perspective on what “right now” truly means.
If we line up the two lenses of religious and philosophical eschatology and use them to look at the early chapter, and an interesting possibility is revealed. Our fear over randomness and our inability to handle inadequacy combined with our need to believe that our morals are right and our struggle to be ourselves forms a single picture.
The end of the world is all about our earliest human drive: to put things into order.
Think about it. Throughout history, we have been in constant fear of our own death. So our egotism says that this must apply to the world as well, leaving us to now be worried about that. And so we invent a story that turns all of that potential chaos, that arbitrary death, into a neat line.
The Catharsis of Armageddon
We fear that we won’t know when death is coming, so the End of Times story says “here at the signs.” Watch for horsemen and materializing swords and a chariot pulled by goats. Don’t worry, the story says, you won’t miss the Apocalypse. And if you don’t see these things, then what you’re experiencing ain’t it.
We don’t understand death and why it happens to those we care about. So the story says that we will know the will of our Gods. That there was meaning all along and someday you will have it.
And lastly, we cannot imagine death. Cannot picture true nothingness. Worse, we cannot imagine any authority, even the faceless universe, does not work in rewards or punishments. So the story tells us that there is life after death. Here is Heaven, here is Hell, there is no such thing as nothingness.
That it takes the end of the world to accomplish that feels like vanity. The idea that humanity is so important that we have to blow up the universe before we can judge it seems self-aggrandizing. Or that finding order and peace would take nothing short of an ocean of blood and a lot of dead Vikings rather than maybe 100 humans agreeing not to be jerks for a few years. And maybe worst of all, the idea that the universe must be within a human understanding of “organized” in order to be finally complete.
CHAPTER 4 | Criswell Predicts
It’s March of 63 and Jeron Criswell King is on the Jack Paar Program and he’s about to be eaten alive. If he were a singer or a comedian like the other acts of the night, he could have a bad go of it. Maybe even laugh with everyone over how poorly this was going, the way Carson does when his own jokes flop. Instead, he’s The Amazing Criswell, the first television psychic, and sorta undermines that power if he couldn’t see tonight coming.
So when the subject of the President comes up, he throws a hail mary.
The president of the United States was a trap. Any figure that big in space and time, audiences assume, must have the same outsized presence in the astral whatever. So not having an answer ruins credibility. But having an answer is worse. People that big have their every movement noticed by the public. And in 1963, the television that gave Criswell an audience also made them into the documentarians of the President, able themselves to spot any erroneous prognostication.
So he only had one possible response.
“I predict that [the President] will not run for reelection in 1964, because of something that will happen to him in November 1963.”
—The Amazing Criswell, The Jack Paar Program 3/10/1963
This is called the Barnum-Forer Postulate. It works like this:
- Take an uncontrolled variable (“the President”)
- Make a claim so vague (“something will happen) that you can stretch or remold it into truth later
- Buy yourself time (“November”) so either the thing can happen or people forget exactly what you said.
- Claim something sensational (“not run for reelection”) to excite people enough to seem bold, certain, and also to distract from tricks
This prediction not only got Criswell out of the situation, but it also put the host on the defensive for once. Paar was known to be good friends with the sitting president, and I think Criswell’s “prediction” does more than act as a saving throw I think it was meant to cut back at Paar and buy the performer some room.
Which it did. I can’t find a proper record or recording of what happened after that, but general thoughts are that the rest of his set went well, doing his usual bit of celebrity predictions, wild sci-fi promises, and then talk of the end of the world (this time possibly starting in Denver.) Applause. Cut to Black.
265 days and about 14 hours later.
It’s an unseasonably clear and bright day in Dallas on November 22. Last night’s rain has washed the world clean. It’s a perfect afternoon for crowds. At 12:29, John F. Kennedy’s motorcade enters into Dailey plaza.
One minute later, the world ends.
I can’t find any records of Criswell’s activities on that Friday in late fall. Unsurprisingly, the self-professed psychic wasn’t even on the national radar in that day of terror and woe. That day he’d said was coming. But since I started researching this article, I’ve found myself meditating on it a lot.
When did he find about JFK’s death? And what happened the instant that he was possessed by that terrible knowledge?
Like before, I want to imagine it was a feeling of enormous loss at first. Then shame or guilt that followed it. Little different than much of the rest of America (and the world), though maybe with a more personal connection to the pain that can only come from being more closely connected. I wonder what he made of that connection at first. I stick here, but I hate the question that comes next:
At What Point Did the Elation Set In?
Sometime soon, within a public appearance or two, Criswell was already tying himself to the event. His stiff mortician’s suit and pallid complexion finally finding context here, amid death. His classic voice goes low and quiet as he tells his audiences about how he “regrettably” saw this but could not stop it. By 1966, Criswell was proudly claiming the event as further proof of his psychic accuracy. All the winks and nods were gone; Jeron King had become a true believer in The Amazing Criswell. And John Kennedy’s very real death was now the one true fact in Criswell’s huckstering.
“[I] had the gift, but … lost it when I started taking money for it.”
—The Amazing Criswell, said to his tenant, writer Charles A. Coulombe.
Criswell kept at it while he could. But eventually, TV stopped calling. This lead to him self-publishing vinyl recordings of his predictions. Predictions that were no longer at a confident, leisurely Johnny Carson pace but now came forth rushed, nervous, and stammering as Criswell raced against time and studio costs. And when these failed, and the two books that came after dried up, when he was well and truly forgotten, then he found his reckoning.
The Passion of Jerome Criswell King
One of the most fascinating parts of this story is how it accidentally falls into an eschatological pattern. Criswell reframes his abilities around the prediction, using it as proof in his faith in himself. His connection to JFK’s death not only gets him interest on the Tonight Show circuit but completely changes his interactions for the better, acting as a proof of a paradisical afterlife. It provides him greater fame, a sort of secular immortality of the human soul. And, when it all falls apart, he sees it as his final judgment.
Maybe this is just apophenia, seeing patterns that aren’t here. Or maybe it’s that the data I’ve come across has been prefiltered into a familiar narrative, as history and the news often do.
But I look at The Amazing Criswell, and I cannot help but wonder: what future did he want to live in?