WHEN THE WORLD did not end last month due to the expiration of the Mayan calendar or the collision of the planet Nibiru, I was a bit bummed. Not because I actually expected it to happen. No. I left that to the Chinese businessmen who built survival pods, most of the Russian nation, and the millions of viewers who felt compelled to hit “Gangnam Style” just one more time. For me, it is more that I was sad—that’s not right—left feeling empty that the spectacle of it had passed. It was the grand finale to yet another End of the World reality show.
In the U.S., the panic may not have been as overt as it was being reported from pockets in the rest of the world, but the prediction certainly did not go unnoticed, if not expressed in any other way than by joking or derision. But let’s be honest, we all love a good End of the World prediction. Modern human psyche is deeply rooted in this.
I grew up in an evangelical Christian tradition where this ideology is very much alive and well. My grandfather was a self-styled expert in the arena of biblical prophecy, and I was frequently lulled to sleep by the sounds of the grown-ups in the next room discussing whether any of the current political figures on the world stage might fit the bill for the Antichrist, who would eventually usher in the End Times. My childhood nightmares are not exactly what one might call “normal.”
When a small pamphlet made its way into my 15 year-old hands stating that Armageddon was on its way during September of 1988, I was ready to believe it.
At the time, I didn’t even need that much convincing, really. I had been conditioned for it since I could breathe. A sophomore in a private Christian high school, I knew what I had to do: I quit the school and transferred over to a public school where I could save kids who hung out in the smoking section from the impending doom. When the predicted weekend arrived, I sort of tidied up my room, blew off an essay I had due the following week in school, and changed my underwear a few times throughout the day. And really, how was leaving this earth that upsetting? I believed I was going to basically get to skip having to die and go straight to heaven via the clouds. Really, it was all very logical.
Of course, when it didn’t happen, I was a little disappointed. Oddly, however, I was also a little relieved. Actually, I may have been a lot relieved. I had a few things I had not gotten to yet, such as college and sex, and had been curious about sticking around to see what those things might be like. But during the lead-up to that particular End of the World, I got to experience firsthand the excitement of thinking it might really happen. It was thrilling. And totally addicting.
I, of course, moved back to the Christian school the following year where I got to watch the whole thing unravel again in 1989 (a miscalculation, we were told), and then again—although admittedly with waning gusto—in 1990. We then took a four-year pause.
In 1994, there were at least three End of the World predictions, made by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Bahá’í sect leader, and Evangelical pastor Harold Camping. Now that was exciting. People from three different religious groups were all calling it, and who were we to say that there was no way it could be true? Still, I had been burned by the 1988 disaster and was not foolish enough this time to cash in all my academic chips. I watched the year unfold curiously, but from a distance, telling myself all the while that Jesus could come back, and it was my job just to be ready. At any time. At any moment.
By the time Y2K rolled through, however, I was done. Thoroughly. But rather than tuning out altogether, I tuned in to something different. Suddenly, people all around me who had not gone through what I had in my earlier years were all abuzz. I watched with fascination as they stored the canned goods and bought the duct tape. They talked to each other about what it would be like to survive on the edge of a meltdown of civilization and whether they should begin exchanging SPAM recipes. Some people began stockpiling weapons and long-term medical supplies. Just in case, they said, but you could see it in their eyes: they believed. In response, I rolled my eyes publicly but secretly wondered if I should not at least be taking some precautions. Sure, the hype was completely overblown, but who was to say something like that couldn’t ever happen? Maybe not at the turn of the millennial clock, but sometime. Still, those people were batshit crazy, right? I mean, wow. Just listen to them. Certifiable. Hey, turn up the volume on the television, would you?
I know I am not alone in this strange and somewhat guilty addiction to watching humans pit their strength and intelligence against some sort of end-game event. If television ratings are any indication, it would seem that the larger American population is hopelessly obsessed. The popularity of television shows like Doomsday Preppers, Revolution, Jericho, Falling Skies and The Walking Dead are all evidence of this. Even the popular Christian film series Left Behind is due for a remake starting this spring. Instead of the outspokenly religious Kirk Cameron in the lead role, however, it is going to the more “mainstream” One Tree Hill’s Chad Michael Murray. Nicholas Cage, too, has been cast in the film. They are clearly expecting a hearty response, and if the past is any indication, they will get it.
So what is with this obsession with the End of the World in our culture? Is it that we really think something bad is going to happen? Or is it, like our nightmares, more that we have to entertain the scenario from every different angle until we are sufficiently satisfied that we have a solution? And once we figure out our solution, will public interest finally wane?
Speaking for myself, I am beginning to become annoyed with the whole genre. And still, I can’t seem to look away. It’s the whole “what if” of it. Of course, cataclysmic predictions have been going on almost as far back as recorded history with public panic back in 634 BCE over the destruction of Rome, so the human compulsion to entertain its own demise doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. And anyway, a new date has already made its way to our headlines. It would seem that the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) Church is expecting the “real” End of the World before the end of 2013. Reports show that they have even shut down their sole grocery store in the town of Colorado City, AZ where they live. Word has it, they are planning big.
So, here we go again. Happy New Apocalypse!