Believing that the end of the world is nigh does have its attractions. You know where you stand. You can spend, spend, spend in the knowledge that Visa and Amex will be mangled under the thundering charge of the Four Horsemen. You can confidently quit that dead-end job before it literally becomes a dead end.
And you can pick a date for doomsday to suit your holiday plans. July 1, for instance - for, as Nostradamus fans will know, the Mystic Meg of 16th-century Provence predicted that the King of Terror would descend from the sky in the seventh month of 1999. Or August 11, when, according to some cheery souls, the eclipse will presage biological disaster, famine and a war to end all wars: Armageddon.
Others maintain that the millennium bug will bring civilisation crashing down on January 1. And for astronomers the date May 5, 2000 has a nice ring: on that day, for the first time in 6,000 years, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will be aligned with Earth. Which means? You can surely guess. Trillions of tons of ice spilling from the South Pole, biological disaster, famine, Armageddon . . . you know the plot by now.
It's easy to poke fun at this numinous numerological nonsense - and perhaps that is the healthy response. But there is a dark side. Apocalyptic cults flourish as never before. According to the FBI, there are 1,500 in America alone. Some are cranky but harmless as they prepare for "end time". Some will do grievous damage to themselves. Some, if recent history is any guide, will do grievous damage to other people. All will claim to be carrying out the will of God.
That is the chilling message of a television documentary to be broadcast on Saturday as part of Channel 4's "Nostradamus Night". In Waiting for Armageddon, the film-maker Paul Yule tracks down six of these cults and allows their leaders to state their beliefs.
Two speak from beyond the grave. David Koresh, leader of the 80 Branch Davidians who died at Waco in 1993, is seen talking during the siege, already wounded in his side ("like Jesus", he tells his followers). Marshall Applewhite, the creepy bald guru of the Heaven's Gate cult, is captured on videotape before he led his 39 followers into mass suicide in 1997 - the men having previously castrated themselves. They believed that they would have no further use for their earthly bodies since they were moving to a "higher level" courtesy of a divine spaceship towed by the Hale-Bopp comet. Interviewed at length in the programme is Lorraine Snelson, a former Heaven's Gate member, whose daughter was one of the 39. Was she sad that her daughter had killed herself? Not a bit, said Mrs Snelson. She did the right thing.
Yule also gained access to Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth), the Japanese cult that appalled the world in 1995 with a nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 13 and injured 3,000. Some 400 Aum elders were arrested after that (the leader, Shoko Asahara, could face execution), yet the cult is as active as ever: a £35 million computer business pays for its recruitment drives.
"This was the most disturbing of all the cults I met," says Yule. "The participants seemed so young, so intelligent, so sweet, yet they had given themselves over completely to a man who had ordered death on the subway."
And so the programme's catalogue of madmen and monsters goes on. There's Hayseed Stephens, the Texan millionaire who believes that his mission is to discover the world's largest oilfield under the Dead Sea: this will bring untold wealth to Israel, which will in turn incur the jealousy of the Arabs and Russians, and thus bring about Armageddon.
There is Yisreel Hawkins, another Texan, whose House of Yahweh (40,000 members worldwide) joyously anticipates a three-year "tribulation" of biological and nuclear disaster that will wipe out four fifths of the world's population by 2002. And, at the lighter end of the apocalyptic spectrum, there is Brother David, a former trailer-park owner from Syracuse, New York, who has gathered likeminded Americans on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem to await the Second Coming. "If you are expecting someone important to fly in, you go to the airport to meet them," says one of his flock, with unarguable logic.
Waiting for Armageddon could have included more. It barely touches on the Order of the Solar Temple, the grisly Swiss-Canadian cult modelled on the medieval Knights Templar. Since 1994 more than 70 of its members have killed themselves in impeccably stylised rites, usually involving fire. And there is no mention of the innocuously named Concerned Christians, the Colorado-based cult whose members sold everything and moved to Jerusalem, only to be deported by Israeli police last January for (it was alleged) planning to provoke a war inside Israel and so spark Armageddon.
What gives these cults such powers of life and death over their members? In part it must be because they play on spiritual feelings that exist (albeit in less extreme form) in mainstream culture. A survey in 1997 found that one in four American Christians believes that Jesus will return in his or her lifetime.
Apocalyptic fears are further fuelled by such influential tele-evangelists as the Rev Pat Robertson, whose novel The End of the Age follows the Book of Revelation pretty closely.
But cults have existed since time immemorial. One may not necessarily agree with Yule's view that "Jesus and his disciples were a classic cult", but charismatic leaders predicting the end of the world have been prominent throughout history. In 1844 the Baptist preacher William Miller persuaded his followers to sell their possessions and move to upstate New York to await the Day of Reckoning, which he said would be October 24. In 1900, a hundred Russians - the Brothers and Sisters of Red Death - committed suicide in the belief that the world was ending. And in 1978 the hideous Jim Jones persuaded 913 people to drink a cyanide-laced fruit drink in Guyana in an apocalyptic suicide pact.
All these cults share certain beliefs, usually based on a literal reading of the Book of Revelation. But there are two crucial differences between them and the present cults. The first is timing: the proximity of the year 2000, besides triggering a kind of doomy hysteria, has also encouraged a confusion between the words millennium (just a date on the calendar) and "millenarianism": a belief that Christ is about to return to preside over the "thousand years of peace" that, according to Revelation, will precede Armageddon. And the second difference? That is more serious. When charismatic leaders predict the end of the world, and nothing happens, they trigger a psychological condition that is known as "apocalyptic disappointment". In such cases a ruthless figure such as Koresh, equipped with a modern arsenal of guns and bombs, can easily create the illusion of apocalypse in the minds of his supporters by provoking a battle with security forces. "If you believe that Man's time has run out and you are about to enter God's time, then it doesn't matter what gets in the way," says Yule.
Israel, understandably, feels most threatened by such cults. Even in normal times "Jerusalem Syndrome" - a temporary mental aberration that causes tourists to believe themselves to be biblical characters such as the Virgin Mary or St Peter - affects 1 per cent of visitors to the Holy Land. With five million visitors expected for the millennium, that's an awful lot of temporarily unhinged people. On top of that is the threat of a cult suddenly doing something violent and stupid. No wonder the Israelis have cancelled a proposed "virtual-reality" mock-up of the Apocalypse that was planned for the real Armageddon - the mountain district of Megiddo.
Amid all the brainwashed blather and fixed, beatific smiles, Waiting for Armageddon contains one little speech that rings true and pure. "To find true happiness," says Takashi Yamashita, a former member of the Aum cult, "you must be sceptical. That is what intelligence really is."
Paul Yule echoes that. "People go into cults first because they want to have friends, and secondly because they are promised salvation. We all want to believe that if we could only find 'the answer', life wouldn't be such a muddle. But 'the answer' doesn't exist. Before I made this film I used to think that it might. Now I'm certain that it doesn't."