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It’s the End of the World As They Show It

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On November 13, 2009, the world is going to end. At least, in theaters it is. Roland Emmerich’s 2012 appears to come complete with all the standard features of a Hollywood apocalypse: mass hysteria, government foundering, anarchy, and loads of CGI destruction. Yes, it seems Emmerich is up to his usual shenanigans (and whether humanity is doomed or not, I’m just thankful he got John Cusack for the lead).

Hollywood’s master of disaster has earned his title over the years with such blockbuster epics as The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day. His movies depict ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, people pitted against seemingly insurmountable odds as the world they know crumbles all around them.

It seems the director has got “end times” on the brain, and he’s not the only one. Since the early ’90s, Hollywood has pumped out a litany of world destructions: Cloverfield, Invasion, The Day the Earth Stood Still, I Am Legend, 28 Days Later, War of the Worlds, The Mist, Constantine, Armageddon, The Core, Deep Impact, The Road, and Dawn of the Dead (and all of the recent zombie films inspired by George A. Romero), just to name a few.

As a side note, it is important to mention that recent years have seen apocalyptic visions emerging in print as well. A great many of these stories have packed our local bookshelves, one fantasy novel more nihilistic and ruinous than the last. And the public simply cannot get enough of it.

All of these global-warming, alien-invading, zombie-killing yarns, even the less reflective ones, flirt heavily with a number of the doctrines of eschatology. “Eschatology is a part of theology and philosophy concerned with what are believed to be the final events in the history of the world.” The predictions and central themes of each doctrine are dependent on the context in which they are discussed.

With regard to some religions and mysticisms, eschatology refers to the spiritual awakening concurring with the apocalypse (literally “the lifting of the veil”) and foretold by sacred texts. Secularists naturally employ doctrines of this philosophy that are mostly concerned with the end of human existence or the corporeal destruction of the planet. Some faiths consider both spiritual transformation and the obliteration of celestial bodies.

Whatever doctrine people come to embrace, one thing is certain: our culture is absolutely saturated with ideas on just how it’s all going to go down. Some claim that the end will come in the guise of an asteroid, even now hurtling through the deep void of the cosmos, its collision with our planet predetermined since the beginning of time. Others may point to advancing technology or the nuclear horrors amassed in the laboratories of our national governments. While both certainly have their points, perhaps noteworthy is the latter’s assumption of human responsibility for reaching the specie’s final destination.

But from where does this fascination with the apocalypse stem? Has human history led us to a predisposition for reflecting on “the end?” Are people naturally attracted to entropy and chaos? Maybe it’s a little bit of both.

The nuclear paranoia experienced by just about everyone growing up in the Cold War era is fertile ground for discussion of such a topic. Who among the younger generations cannot recall their parents’ anecdotes?

When they were our age they didn’t have to deal with “depression” or “anxiety.” When they were our age they spent half of every school day balled up beneath their desks, as instructed by the ruthless schoolmarm, preparing for a nuclear holocaust. And, of course, they spent the other half of those days walking to and from school in six feet of snow, uphill, both ways.

Joking aside, I can commiserate with this post-World War II generation. The constant fear that at any moment the Russians might be invading must have been downright nightmarish, children staring out their classroom windows, wondering if today would be the day that their bomb drill experience should be called upon, loose side desks the only guard against a nuclear warhead detonating over the playground outside. This is a fear that only the Baby Boomers among us can relate to. Later generations probably couldn’t even fathom such a steady atmosphere of tension and unease.

Perhaps the catastrophic obsession our society is experiencing today is simply a perverse form of celebration. The Soviet threat is over. The Cold War is over. Nuclear paranoia, while not entirely wiped out, has been greatly diminished. At long last this country’s people can wholly free their imaginations to the majesty of chaos, envisioning the most outlandish of disaster scenarios without fear of their real-world comparatives coming to fruition.

That is, of course, just one idea, rooted in our country’s history. Then there is the other question: Are people naturally attracted to entropy and chaos? An answer can be readily observed in the youth of our society. Though the details vary from person to person, just about everyone goes through those rebellious teens and twenties. By all accounts, it’s an ancient standard, found in almost every culture. According to the popular viewpoint, this is a typical period of development in an individual. People that age cannot help but feel in some way, shape, or form, at least a little nihilistic. Some say that the individual eventually grows out of this unreasonable (though natural) behavior, and most do.

So what happens to the rebellious tendencies of our youth? The answer may be found in our environment. These tendencies don’t just up and vanish when we all hit 19 or 26 or 32. Rather, they are beaten out of us because it is feared that such dispositions can’t coexist with a stable society.

So at some point in all our lives, we begin to make concessions. We begin to bargain, learning of the limits placed on us by our society. This may be the main reason we find ourselves inundated with stories of the apocalypse (after all, it does signify the ultimate disorder, the epitome of entropy). With stories, there is no threat. We can vent the natural, nihilistic feelings from our youth by watching (or reading of) the world’s demise, and still bear to consign ourselves to the confines of a stable society.

If you don’t buy all this, consider that we’ve all got our perfect zombie-apocalypse strategy stored away in the back of our heads, whether we’d admit to it or not.

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About Jon Erbar

  • The key to this article is that you do not take any possible radical reordering of society seriously. To the person who refuses to do so, all that you write may be comforting. To the person who sees the radical reordering already taking place, it is a bunch of well – nicely ordered words.

    Just curious. When did you say 2012 was premiering in Israel again?