When beggars die there are no comets seen; The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes Julius Caesar (II, ii, 30-31).
From the dawn of history, changes in the heavens have been seen as signs of impending doom. The very word disaster comes from the Greek word for "bad star" reflecting the ancient belief that a dying star was a sign of trouble to come here on Earth. As a cosmic harbinger of destruction, the comet has a very special place in our collective imagination. For all the scientific investigation that astronomers dedicated to watching and classifying new comets, folklore surrounding comets and their message of doom still springs up around the world.
According to Thomas Banbury in his 1895 book, Jamaican Superstitions, a popular uprising in Jamaica in 1842 was linked to "a very extraordinary comet, which continued in the heavens for several weeks. It was in the west, and the shape of it was like a salt fish split in two, with the head cut off), the head square and the body tapering off to a point. It was remarkably brilliant. These people made reference to it in their songs and pointed to it as an illustration of their divine mission, and the people were not a little alarmed at its appearance." One religious groups known as the Myalists declared the comet to be a sign that the world was ending, that Christ was coming, and that they had a new divine mission to attack "magic workers" (typically practitioners of Obeah -a form of voodoo common in that part of the world). By the time the comet had passed, the uprising had claimed numerous lives, mostly suspected sorcerers.
Despite its predicted appearance by astronomers, sightings of Halley's Comet in 1910 generated a wave of hysteria as well. By all accounts, it was quite a spectacle with "comet-watching parties" becoming fashionable in many parts of the world. Newspapers and radio broadcasts carried details of the latest scientific findings relating to the comet and, when astronomers announced the discovery of cyanogen in the comet's tail (using the then-new spectroscope), the hysteria became even worse. The prospect of the comet subjecting the entire world to cyanide poisoning, no matter how attenuated. definitely sold newspapers. A new industry sprang up with snake-oil salesmen peddling anti-cyanide pills and gas masks designed to protect the gullible from the comet's influence.
The popular fears over the comet's passing played out in unexpected ways. According to one news story out of Oklahoma, a group of evangelists who called themselves the "Select Followers" had planned to sacrifice a sixteen-year old virgin to "make a blood atonement for the world's sins" until local police intervened. While the story later turned out to be a hoax, it has since taken on the status of an urban legend. At the same time, the Cuban government used the comet as a pretext to crack down on political reform movements aimed at helping former African slaves. The government justified their actions on the belief that the comet would be used by radicals to foster racial unrest due to widespread belief in its supernatural influence (local newspapers especially stressed the supposed danger that the comet posed to isolated white communities). When the comet finally finished its pass by the end of May in 1910, the world breathed a sigh of relief and things seemed to return to normal.
The appeal of comets as a sign of the Apocalypse isn't so easily forgotten however. With each new sighting, stories of "doomsday comets" bringing cosmic destruction to Earth seem to abound. When Comet Kohoutek made its appearance in 1973, "Moses David" Berg of the cult group Children of God (now Family International) declared that the comet was a sign of disaster ("Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed"). Cult members distributed the warning in the popular media. At the same time, Edward Ben Elson of the Church of the Odd Infinitum announced that the comet's gases could "ignite the world's oil supply and bring death to most of mankind". A chosen few would be saved however since the comet would be landing on the shore of Lake Monona to take them from the cosmic destructiont. Elson sold tickets for $10.00 each but, being a lawyer, told potential buyers "no warranties implied or expressed". LSD guru Timothy Leary optimistically suggested that ""The Comet Starseed [Kohoutek] comes at the right time to return light to the planet Earth". When Kohoutek came and went, the furour subsided (although the public felt cheated that the "Comet of the Century" didn't live up to its promise).
As the Millennium approached, news stories abounded about "doomsday comets" (or doomsday asteroids, tabloids rarely knew the difference). Halley's Comet's return in 1986 proved disappointing, especially compared to its spectacular 1910 appearance. Comet Hale-Bopp raised more hysteria when it approached in 1997. As one of the rare naked-eye events of the past century (but still not as awesome as hoped), the comet became the subject of intense media scrutiny when an amateur astronomer claimed to have spotted a UFO in its wake. Although other, more reliable astronomers dismissed this revelation, the UFO story may have inspired the mass suicide of thirty-nine members of the Heaven's Gate cult on March 19, 1997. In a prepared statement left behind by the head of the cult, Marshall Applewhite, he referred to the mass suicide as "the only way to evacuate the Earth" so that the souls of the dead cultists could board the UFO trailing the comet. Since they believed that the Earth was about to be "recycled" (i.e. destroyed and subsequently remade), boarding the UFO seemed their only chance of survival.
Although Hale-Bopp came and went without any other fatalities (or UFO landings), the notion of "killer comets" continues to have a place in doomsday scenarios (especially with 2012 coming up). At this point, it's easy to made two basic predictions about the future: 1. sooner or later, we will be subjected to a new comet that will brighten the heavens with a spectacular light show, and 2. that someone somewhere will declare that comet to be a sign that the world is ending.
It's written in the stars, after all.