For millenialist Christians, symbols and code have supreme power. Ministers and preachers for centuries have tried to determine the return of Jesus Christ by interpreting the writings of the Bible, in particular the book of Revelation. Amongst whores riding beasts, rampaging supernatural horsemen, and evil inversions of Christ, one symbol stands out. 666, the number of the beast. 666 serves as a simple proxy, the mark that Satan, grand adversary to Christ, places on those who forsake His teachings. Featured in the Left Behind novels by Jerry B. Jenkins, the 1972 film “A Thief in the Night,” and the eponymous song by Iron Maiden. It plays on fears of a fascist state marking its citizens to control every aspect of their personal lives. On a symbolic level it is powerful, a way to remark on a corrupt godless world, and obviously the perversion of retail inventory systems. Yes, to some end times believers, 666 has infiltrated the very systems we use to buy groceries.
Supermarkets, while existing in some form from the early 1900s, first entered their modern format in the 1940s and 50s. Development of refrigerated trucking made possible the logistical network for a single company to operate a chain of stores in any given region. This level of scale meant potential for significant profits, but presented several new challenges. Inefficient delivery of goods could result in shortages of high-value in-demand foods, or a glut of highly perishable produce. These problems continued to mount, and in 1973 the pressures became too great. The solution was the barcode. Initially developed in the 1950s using a circular design, an IBM engineer named George Laurer modified the original concept into a rectangle for simpler printing and encoding potential. The form then that we all know, titled the UPC (Universal Product Code) by the “Symbol Selection Committee” was born.
It is in this UPC that fundamentalists see a nefarious plot. Specifically cited, Revelation 13:16-18: “And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads. And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.”
At this point you are probably horribly confused. The only common thread between an inventory tracking system and this passage is a reference to buying and selling. This is where we’ll have to dive into the structure of the barcode.
In order for the code itself to contain useful information, the numbers are broken up into two sections, the left (L) and right (R). These two sections use different binary formats to categorize numbers, allowing the computer to correctly determine the full number, irrespective of how the barcode itself is oriented. These two sides are separated by three identical marks, one denoting the start, one the middle, and one the end of the code. It’s here that something seemed off to the fundamentalists. These spacers between (L) and (R) and opening and closing the barcode itself were composed of two thin lines, suspiciously similar to the thin lines associated with the six in the barcode. Their conclusion? The mark of the beast, 6-6-6, was hidden in a modern tool for buying a selling. This is, as you may expect, a gross misreading of the numbering system, as the two thin lines represent only the first three bits of a seven bit code for the number 6, and only align with the first three bits of the (R) side numbering system. Technicalities like these however are of little concern to the true believer, and the myth has endured.
In a post-Watergate world and a burgeoning culture of Satanic panic, allegations that a secretive cabal had insinuated the mark of the beast into our grocery stores took off. Here was clear evidence that the end times were upon us, that our proud American institutions had been taken over by dark forces and that evil was all around. For people of a faith system that views any adversity as motivated by Satan, this story has strong emotional power. This fear would spread to many areas of American life, including a notorious California cult.
One stark example of barcode paranoia was presented in the music video VHS tape “S.O.S.” from Family International. The video contains several songs detailing how modern office society is crushing our souls, the dangers of abortion, mocking Darwinian evolution, and showing the dark future of a world in which UPC barcodes mark humanity as property of the anti-Christ. In the latter example, the song implores the protagonist Kathy not go to the supermarket, and instead to escape with her godly friend to the wilderness, so that their souls will be safe from Satan’s corruption. This story of escape from society takes on a darker tone when the history of Family International is taken into consideration.
Family International was founded in 1968, a spinoff of the Christian and Missionary Alliance—a millenialist and apocalyptic cult with a theology centered around a radical “Bridal Theology.” The Bridal Theologists had a love for Jesus that was a sexual love, one that demanded they visualize his presence in every sexual act. This practice was especially appealing to the growing hippie movement that was collecting in California at the time, which was drawing in people who actively embraced the ethos of “free love.” Unsurprisingly, this theology had a very dark side. Detailed in a Channel 4 documentary, the cult aided and abetted sexual abuse of children in the community.
It seems shocking that anyone would allow their own children to be abused in such ways, but it is important to recognize the role that the cult’s propaganda plays in normalizing behavior. Those who have left such organizations almost unanimously recount how the charismatic leaders systematically isolated them, with the cult left as their only source of social interaction. In this way, we can see how the fear of a simple inventory system used in all major stores can be leveraged to drive people away from modern society and inculcate the vulnerable into the confines of an abusive and manipulative cult.
It is important to note though, that Family International was not the first to identify Satan’s work in the UPC system. The idea was first widely proposed in the book “The New Money System” in 1982, written by Mary Relfe, a more traditional evangelical with a ministry focusing on outreach and end times prophecy. While still on the fringes of religion in America, ministries such as Relfe’s still enjoy a wide latitude and de facto legitimacy, even as they push a conspiracy theory that by nature isolates its believers from society as a whole.
Fears of the Antichrist marking us with his barcode to corrupt our souls has been on the wane since the 90s, but only because the vector has changed. Instead of the supermarket checkout, our cell phones stand to mark us as the Devil’s property, or the RFID chips we use to track our pets is now the first step in a sinister plot to mark us all. What makes these theories even more dangerous, is how they prey on very real and very important concerns with regards to privacy and government intrusion in our personal lives. While we may rightly worry that GPS systems logged by unaccountable corporations are likely to be turned over to government agencies without our knowledge and consent, we must be on guard to not pass on our capacity for free thought to religious organizations that would seek to drive us away from our friends and society.