When one reads the word ‘cult’, all sorts of images immediately spring to mind. Maybe it’s occult symbols and men in long red robes, like you’d find in Resident Evil 4. Perhaps it’s a Scientologist auditor, slowly drawing out experiences from past lives through intense and intruding interrogation. Or, specifically of the ‘doomsday’ variety, it’s a crazed pastor auguring the downfall of human society to thousand of devoted fans and raptured listeners.
Behind all of these disparate images, however, a few things remain consistent: some kind of conspiratorial ideology, a fervent devotion to membership, a well-developed hierarchy of roles and a clear collective goal of some kind. The 5 September 2020 ‘cult’, which originated on the internet late last year, has none of these features. In fact, it’s such an absurd and hilarious failure of a doomsday effort that it could hardly be called a cult at all. And it’s something that could only have originated from the silliness of Reddit.
While the subreddit does seem to have some loose ties to real-world cultlike behaviour and a strange performance art project in Portland, Oregon – revealed through investigative videos by YouTubers Nexpo and ReignBot – the actual online space is anything but enigmatic. Navigate there now and you’ll find a webpage well and truly taken over by shitposters and 14-year-old memers trying their best to scrounge up a Gold award from their peers.
That’s not to say that the cult never had dedicated followers at one point. Scroll back far enough and you’ll find all the fun and schizophrenic hallmarks of aggrandising doomsday paranoia. Photos of canned pineapples expiring on September 5? An email from a telephone company stating that there would be disruptions on September 5? QAnon-like rants about the global cabal kicking off the next world war on September 5?
Yet, despite such fervour in the group’s early days, ‘truthers’ are all but an endangered species on the page these days. Any posts actually discussing doomsday are quickly shut down by an endless barrage of copypastas and nice cock bros.
So, where did 5 September 2020 fail? For one, there is almost zero mythology or recognisable iconography that establish the cult’s identity. For a doomsday cult to have any kind of attractive power, it should at least provide a compelling narrative for why the world is ending at a particular time, preferably dressed up in kitschy graphic design à la Heaven’s Gate. Not only is the landing page for the group objectively fugly, but there barely exists a backstory for the apocalypse that was supposed to happen last week. The most in-depth lore you’ll get are vague phrases like ‘the man in blue flames’ or ‘The Organisation is not to be trusted.’ Dig any deeper as to why the group formed in the first place, and you’ll hear roughly the same: that ‘some dreams’ happened to ‘coincide’ leading to ‘an omen’ about … last Saturday being filled with misfortune?
One other reason 5 September 2020 was doomed to collapse is due to its lax hold on constituency. Being a public subreddit, any user can simply register an anonymous account and begin posting. Though there are rules against offensive and unrelated content listed in the sub’s sidebar, they are utterly unenforced due to a lack of moderation. The result? The subreddit now sits at almost 14,000 members, 85% of which are probably trolls jumping aboard what promises to be a hilarious trainwreck. Without a tightly controlled information stream, even those hypnotised by the promise of apocalypse will soon have to come to grips with the fact that their discussion page for survival tips and end-times portents is instead being used to share monke memes.
But perhaps most embarrassingly of all, 5 September 2020 is a doomsday cult without a clear idea of what doomsday even looks like. In the sparse communications sent out by the group’s de facto leaders, the sketch shifted from world-shattering apocalypse, to localised cataclysms across the United States, to the final admission early this year that the world was in fact ‘not ending’ but rather ‘many bad things will happen that day’. What sorts of bad things? How bad? And how many? Who knows! Certainly not the members of 5 September, that’s for sure.
Thus, despite its lofty ambitions to connect those across the world that had received an omen in their dreams and create a tight-knit community of survivors, 5 September 2020 set itself up for failure from day one. Now that the heralded date has come and passed without so much as a stubbed toe for most, it’s safe to conclude that any believers still sticking around are probably thinking about abandoning ship, or selling off the thousands of dollars of survival gear they’ve accrued in the past year.
The lesson to be learned is this: in order to make a successful online doomsday cult, you’re going to need a cool logo. Maybe hire Dave Rudnick to do some lettering for you, and commission Keith Rankin for some surrealist artwork. Next, set up a tiered list of roles, vaguely sci-fi sounding. The Elites do all the dreaming, and the Grunts do all the recruiting. Keep membership highly exclusive and locked behind an interview that participants must study for. Finally, market the hell out the apocalypse. Consider hiring an e-girl on TikTok to dance to your cult’s original hyperpop song. You’ll get there.