Fascination with the Apocalypse Now

horseriders on Driftwood Beach, JI, 27 April 2012

THE QUESTION

Someone recently asked, at a sort of salon conversation gathering on 21 Dec. — the day that some believed the world was going to end (as implied by the Mayans’ calendar ending on that date) — why we humans are so fascinated by speculation about the END OF THE WORLD. It’s a good question.

After all, although the Mayans didn’t really predict the end of the world — their  ancient calendar simply rolled over, beginning a new 394-year century (baktun), which some believe may usher in a new and perhaps more peaceful age — lots of groups and people throughout history, since 2800 B.C.!, have predicted and prepared for Doomsday, Armageddon, the Rapture, the Second Coming, Judgement Day, the Apocalypse, the End.

THE HISTORY

Plenty of religious folk in particular — popes, cardinals, rabbis, prophets, nuns, Shakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventist forerunners the Second Adventists, the Nation of Islam, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the Millerites in the 1840s, Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God (in the 1930s, 40s and 70s), Billy Graham in 1950, Hal Lindsey in his bestselling The Late, Great Planet Earth (my mom had a copy), Pat Robertson on the 700 Club — but also others, like 16th century seer and apothecary Nostradamus (who may have said that the world would end in July 1999), UFO cults, numerologists, pyramidologists, alien channelers, the white-supremacist group Aryan Nations, John Napier (the mathematician who discovered logarithms), scientists who expected comets and asteroids to wipe us out — have been predicting the end of the world practically since humans have existed on the planet.

Some contemporaries of Jesus interpreted his words as written in Matthew 16:28 (“Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom”) and in Matthew 24:33-34 (“So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.  Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled”) as a prediction of the world’s imminent demise then, and religious people have been predicting specific dates ever since, despite Jesus’s assurance immediately following (Matthew 24:36) that ” of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.”

Perhaps the “the first bona fide Christian doomsday cult” was founded around 156 AD and lasted for several centuries even though Jesus didn’t show up. Some thought the world would end 6000 years after it was created, or no later than 500 A.D.  There were “end dates” during the 800s, 900s, and every century thereafter, dozens and dozens of them. New England preacher and witch hunter Cotton Mather predicted it would end three times (1697, 1617, and 1736), Christian preacher Harold Camping has predicted “Judgment Day” on May 21, 2011, and again in 1994, and they’re not alone in their serial predictions.

Some people still interpret the books of Revelation, Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel in the Bible to be apocalyptic prediction, with a heavy focus on events in Israel seen as ushering in the end times.

(Lists of predictions are available online for those interested, via Wikipedia’s List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events and Chris Nelson’s rather more detailed A Brief History of the Apocalypse.)

THE FEARS and THEORIES

Many people, families and small groups now  (religious and not) are quietly planning for a cataclysmic end to life — either globally, nationally, or regionally — as we know it. There are so many ways we imagine we could go! To name just a few:

  • the consequences of climate change, ranging from scarcity of water, food and oil to a new ice age or extreme flooding caused by glaciers melting;
  • government attack on gun owners or on non-Christians, or conversely, an armed citizen insurrection against the government;
  • a terrorist act or series of them, involving nuclear or chemical warfare;
  • widespread natural disaster like an asteroid hitting, or a super volcano, or a massive earthquake or shift in tectonic plates;
  • widespread public health disaster such as antibiotic-resistant infection or highly contagious and lethal disease;
  • technological (or Congressional?) disaster that could freeze the flow of money and keep us from accessing bank accounts, causing worldwide panic;
  • the planet Nibiru could enter our solar system and become a second sun;
  • the magnetic poles could shift again

And the list goes on. The Telegraph, in its Dec. 2010 article, “Armageddon in 2012? The truth behind the doomsday theories,” listed and rated some of the most popular doomsday theories.

We recognise the dangers of being mortal and of living on Earth, and some of us spend a lot of time thinking about it and preparing for threats. Even those of us who don’t do much to prepare may feel perennially anxious in the shadow of a cataclysmically disastrous future.

As a recent CNN article noted, there are a number of popular TV shows about preparing for the end, including Doomsday Preppers (a reality show, on National Geographic Channel), Falling Skies (fiction, TNT), Revolution (fiction, NBC), and The Walking Dead (AMC, fiction about the zombie apocalypse). The article also reminds us of the “Left Behind” series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that are based on the dispensationalist idea of a rapture, or the Second Coming, and the years of tribulation on earth afterward. Post-apocalyptic fiction and tales of werewolves, zombies and vampires abound. Disaster movies have been popular for many decades, from the first apocalyptic film in 1916, The End of the World.

JUST AMERICANS?

Of course, some think it’s just Americans who are obsessed with doomsday prophecies. In July 2012, the BBC considered “America’s Fascination with the Apocalypse — “There is a long tradition of such apocalyptic thinking in the US. But … it has now moved beyond religious prophecies into the secular world. … [A]ctivists from both the political left and right have embraced apocalypse thinking, issuing dramatic warnings that everything from the traditional American way of life to the very existence of the planet is under threat” — and in Sept. 2012 at Fordham University in NYC a lecture was held with the title “Apocalypse Now: America’s Fascination with Doomsday and Why It Matters,” with Elaine Pagels, Jim Hoberman, and Andrew Delbanco speaking on the topic. In the BBC piece, author Matthew Barrett Gross (The Last Myth) calls it “an idea that unites all Americans” and says it has “played a central role in the American story since the very beginning.” Apparently there are 3 million “preppers” in America, preparing and stockpiling for an apocalyptic future.

EXPLANATIONS

Scientific American also covered the phenomenon this month in a collection of  articles, essays and blog posts (originally published from 2009-2012) on its website and devoted a print issue to it, with the headline “the end. or is it?,” in Sept. 2010, including Michael Moyer’s “Eternal Fascinations with the End: Why We’re Suckers for Stories of Our Own Demise,” which suggests that “[t]he impulse is partially a consequence of our pattern-seeking nature … It is in our nature to weave a simple story from a complex set of data points.”

That CNN article I referred to earlier, and many other sites online, offer a number of other explanations for our obsession with the end of the world, despite the fact that “apocalyptic prophecy behavior is puzzling at first glance because people tend to be optimistic, rather than pessimistic.” They boiled down to a few main ideas:

  • Apocalyptic tales give us a safe theatre to explore death and the unknown, as they “embed a tale of fantasy into reality.” This might be called counterphobia, “the idea that we pursue what we are most afraid of in an attempt and effort to control anxiety over it. I think at some level, the fascination with the end of the world – whether a book or in movie form – gives us a way to control the uncontrollable, to master anxiety over death which is inescapable. For that reason, it provides us with a degree of comfort,” says psychologist Lawrence Rubin, quoted in The Apocalypse in Popular Culture: What’s the Fascination? by Calum Robson.  Richard Beck discourses on length and with great insight on this idea in his series of posts The Theology of Monsters, including “Monsters, Horror & Death.” More on this below.
  • Related to and deriving from the first but diverging slightly: Apocalyptic scenarios and predictions give us a sense of greater control, not just over death-anxiety but by offering an opportunity to reimagine and remake our world, to change our lives, to become more self-reliant, to feel we can control and co-create our future and mold it so that we feel we are not victims but survivors. In this last — seeing selves as survivors rather than victims — it’s still very similar to the first idea, that we can face (the possibility of) our own death and yet live. We can expect the end of the world and prepare ourselves so well for it that we survive it. And it’s similar to the last idea (below), that our lives feel humdrum, so we long to shake them up by imagining — with that delicious frisson of terror we experience when watching horror movies or telling ghost stories — the unimaginable. But there is also a New Year’s resolution feel about this explanation, a belief and feeling that we can co-create a new and improved world, that whatever comes may be better. In a way, that’s still a strategy for reducing death anxiety (like a belief in a happy afterlife), by means of imbuing us with a sense of renewal and even hope.
  • Another explanation is that these doomsday scenarios allow us to rise above our petty differences of gender, colour, race, creed, class, etc., and cooperate for the good of all against a powerful adversary. (Rubin, again, in The Apocalypse in Popular Culture: What’s the Fascination? by Calum Robson). It’s a narrative that captures our sense of the heroism of humanity. We feel good about ourselves because we are in the struggle together, making communal and noble sacrifices against a common enemy.
  • Finally, for some, these stories may offer a way out of despair or simply the boredom of a humdrum, unsatisfying life: “[T]hose who hope the world will end [may] need a little excitement in their lives or secretly want society to start over.  ‘There’s a lot of benefit that may come for some if the world ends, unfortunately, and some people look forward to that.'” (CNN) And along the same lines, we like to imagine the world ending on our watch (as people also did in ancient times and ever since) because it enhances or validates our sense of being a key part of something absolutely monumental: “We all believe we live in an exceptional time, perhaps even a critical moment in the history of the species. Technology appears to have given us power over the atom, our genomes, the planet — with potentially dire consequences. This attitude may stem from nothing more than our desire to place ourselves at the center of the universe. … Imagining the end of the world is nigh makes us feel special.” Cracked magazine (go-to source for this sort of thing, right?) says it this way:

As a species, we like the apocalypse in the same way that a mopey teenager might like the idea of their own funeral: We want to see our decaying remains and revel in the tragic glory that we couldn’t appreciate until it was too late. We want to see crumbling skyscrapers and flooded metropolises and know that, once upon a time, we built those things.

Not only do we feel part of something incredible, but imagining THE END — whether of our own life or of everyone’s life all at once — boosts our appreciation for what we have in the here and now.

ONE EXPLANATION TO RULE THEM ALL

I said before that these explanations boil down to a few main themes, but really I think there is only one underlying theme: Seeking to comfort ourselves by controlling anxiety about what we can’t control. And what we most can’t control, and what everything else we can’t control hints at, is our own death and the death of those we love. We want to be survivors, but history and medicine tell us that we won’t be, if surviving means that our hearts keep on beating. Most of us won’t even be remembered beyond a generation or two.

We want to be the heroes of our own stories — noble, good and strong — but in the end we will be bones, ashes, compost (if we’re not locked inside titanium vaults).

DEATH, DEATH, DEATH

In the past, and in less developed countries now, people have been more in touch with death, because it was ordinary. It happened in the home, it happened often, it happened accompanied by a lot of pain and undeniable suffering. People feared it but they were also conscious of it.

Now, in modern times and places, we still fear death and dying, even though we rarely see it first-hand, in our homes, in the streets, every day. Still, the absolute threat of death is just as prevalent as ever — we are all still going to die — but now we are much more able to repress the thought of death from our conscious minds. Most of us don’t smell its stench. We rarely see it and when we do, it’s often in antiseptic hospitals, or on a mediated screen.

Beck’s post on Monsters and Death, mentioned above, addresses this:

Thanatologists, those scholars who study how cultures deal with death, call our current era ‘the pornography of death.‘ That is, modern life in America is typified by systematic cultural death repression. That is, death is systematically pushed out of consciousness. Consequently, to discuss death in the public sphere is inappropriate. Like pornography, talk of death is illicit.

He sees the Industrial Revolution, which changed the way we got food from killing and processing it in our yards (“Farm children lived with death on a daily basis”) to buying nuggets that look nothing like a chicken (“Boneless meat fosters a kind of death repression”) as one thing that distanced us from death, and the other is of course the modern hospital: “Before the rise of the modern hospital we died at home in our own beds. After death, the body was prepared and displayed in the home. The wake was in the home. In short, death and dead bodies were common features in every American household.” Now we have a funeral industry and we’ve moved corpses out of our back yards and into memorial gardens.

In short, “In modern America [and elsewhere], one never comes into contact with the dead. This lack of contact fosters death repression.”

DEATH REPRESSION

The ways most of us do come in contact with death are precisely through our imaginations (as humans have always done — including when we lived daily with actual, ubiquitous death — through “grimm” fairy tales, ghost stories, fables, doomsday books, art imagery, and so on) and now also through the media, which present us with stories, photos and videos of plane crashes, natural disasters, terrifying encounters with sharks and grizzlies, mass shootings, tragic highway deaths, acts of terrorism and war, etc. We also have extremely violent and popular video games where people kill and are killed over and over.

I think the glimpses of death we get through the media, even through those video games, only serve to keep death safely in the unconscious realm. We think if we rehearse it, if we acknowledge its existence in fantasy, in the lives of other people in other circumstances than ours, that we will somehow defeat it. But we don’t. And we won’t.

THE SACRED CENTRE

I said earlier that I think that apocalypse-speculation all boils down to one explanation, which is seeking to comfort ourselves by controlling anxiety about what we can’t control. I’ve explained how I think that motivation underlies our urge to explore death in a “safe” space (far away, in imagination, non-immediately) and our preparations and affirmations that lead us to believe we are survivors and not victims; and I think that the same explanation also underlies the satisfyingly noble feeling we have when we feel we’re cooperating together, rising above our differences, against a common enemy (aliens, comet, germs, NRA, government, terrorists, etc.) as well as how special we feel to be part of something extraordinary. Whether religious, atheistic, pagan or other, we humans seem to want a “sacred centre” to give our lives meaning, to give us a feeling of transcendence, goodness, unanimity in righteousness. To give us identity.

As always, I feel James Alison explored and expressed the psychology of the “sacred centre” and the unanimity, grief and fear attendant with it — all of which are important to us when speculating on all things ending — in his talk on contemplation in a world of violence, after 9/11. I’m quoting at length because I think his insights are complex, deep, and widely applicable:

I would like to take us all back in our memories to the afternoon of September 11th — the afternoon, that is, for those of us who were on this side of the Atlantic. What I want to suggest to you is that we were all summoned to participate in something satanic. Now, by ‘satanic’ I don’t mean an over-the-top figure of speech, but something very specific, with very specific anthropological content, something whose very ability to be decoded by us is a sign of its failing transcendence.

“[I]mmediately we began to respond, and our response is to create meaning. It is our response that I am seeking to examine. Our response was sparked by two particular forces: the locations chosen for the suicide with collateral murder — places symbolic of power, wealth and success (never mind that many of those killed were neither powerful, wealthy or successful); and the omnipresence in the cities in question, and particularly New York, of rolling cameras and a hugely powerful media network which enabled a significant proportion of the planet to be sucked in to spectating from a safe distance. An already mimetic center, drawing more attention than ever towards itself, on that day became virtually inescapable.

“As we were sucked in, so we were fascinated. The “tremendum et fascinosum,” as Otto described the old sacred, took hold of us.  … And immediately the old sacred worked its magic: we found ourselves being sucked in to a sacred center, one where a meaningless act had created a vacuum of meaning, and we found ourselves giving meaning to it. All over London I found that friends had stopped work, offices were closing down, everyone was glued to the screen. In short, there had appeared, suddenly, a holy day. Not what we mean by a holiday, a day of rest, but an older form of holiday, a being sucked out of our ordinary lives in order to participate in a sacred and sacrificial centre so kindly set up for us by the meaningless suicides.

“And immediately the sacrificial center began to generate the sort of reactions that sacrificial centers are supposed to generate: a feeling of unanimity and grief. Let me make a parenthesis here. I am not referring to the immediate reactions of those actually involved — rescue services, relatives, friends, whose form of being drawn in was as a response to an emergency and a family tragedy. I am referring to the rest of us. There took hold of an enormous number of us a feeling of being pulled in, being somehow involved, as though it was part of our lives. Phrases began to appear to the effect that “We’re all Americans now” — a purely fictitious feeling for most of us. It was staggering to watch the togetherness build up around the sacred center, quickly consecrated as Ground Zero, a togetherness that would harden over the coming hours into flag waving, a huge upsurge in religious services and observance, religious leaders suddenly taken seriously, candles, shrines, prayers, all the accoutrements of the religion of death. …

“And there was the grief. How we enjoy grief. It makes us feel good, and innocent. This is what Aristotle meant by catharsis, and it has deeply sinister echoes of dramatic tragedy’s roots in sacrifice. One of the effects of the violent sacred around the sacrificial center is to make those present feel justified, feel morally good. A counterfactual goodness which suddenly takes us out of our little betrayals, acts of cowardice, uneasy consciences. And very quickly of course the unanimity and the grief harden into the militant goodness of those who have a transcendent object to their lives. And then there are those who are with us and those who are against us, the beginnings of the suppression of dissent. Quickly people were saying things like ‘to think that we used to spend our lives engaged in gossip about celebrities’ and politicians’ sexual peccadillos. Now we have been summoned into thinking about the things that really matter.’ …”And there was fear. Fear of more to come. Fear that it could be me next time. Fear of flying, fear of anthrax, fear of certain public buildings and spaces. Fear that the world had changed, that nothing would ever be the same again. Fear and disorientation in a new world order. Not an entirely uncomfortable fear, the fear that goes with a satanic show. Part of the glue which binds us into it. A fear not unrelated to excitement.“What I want to suggest is that most of us fell for it, at some level. We were tempted to be secretly glad of a chance for a huge outbreak of meaning to transform our humdrum lives, to feel we belonged to something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity. What I want to suggest is that this, this delight in being given meaning, is satanic.  … A huge and splendid show giving the impression of something creative of meaning, but in fact, a snare and an illusion, meaning nothing at all, but leaving us prey to revenge and violence, our judgments clouded by satanic righteousness.

“When I say satanic, I mean this in two senses, for we can only accurately describe the satanic in two senses. The first sense is the sense I have just described: the fantastic pomp and work of sacrificial violence leading to an impression of unanimity, the same lie from the one who was a murderer and liar from the beginning, the same lie behind all human sacrifices, all attempts to create social order and meaning out of a sacred space of victimization. But the second sense is more important: the satanic is a lie that has been undone. It has been undone by Jesus’s going to death exploding from within the whole world of sacrifice, of religion and culture based on death, and showing it has no transcendence at all. … [W]e no longer have to believe it, we no longer have to act driven by its compulsions. It has no power other than the power we give it.

I think speculation about the end of the world enables us to explore death from a safe vantage point, to prepare for it “if” it comes, and mostly, to feel better about our humdrum existence, to feel we are part of “something bigger, more important, with hints of nobility and solidarity.”

UNCOVERING and DE-SACRALIZING

Alison goes on in his remarks to offer another alternative:

We are given a very specific and very commanding example of the divine regard: it teaches us to look away, not to be ensnared, to de-sacralize. It is the very reverse of apocalyptic.” … We are tempted to imagine that suicide planes, collapsing buildings, increased security, the unanimity of the rich and powerful, and of course, bombs and more bombs and more bombs, are signs of power. Are creative of a new world order. … But what Jesus suggests is that all that power is a dangerous illusion. His talk is of a quite different power coming, scarcely noticeably, in the midst of all those things, weaning us off our addiction to the sort of crowd desire which makes that power possible and apparently all englobing.

In short, Alison says that fascination with the sacred centre is “a distraction, dangerous to us, but of no consequence to God, a distraction from the real coming into being of an entirely gratuitous, peaceful, creative meaning, and one in which we are invited to be involved.”

For myself, I think the “apocalypse” is ongoing, every day. It’s, literally, the uncovering, the unveiling, the revelation of a world that we can be part of all the time, when we notice that the sacred centre and its attendant grief and drama is a lie; when we resist the temptation of feeling morally good and right, either because of what we do or what we believe, and instead let that go entirely so we can receive what’s freely given; when we look through the illusion of meaning, identity and security that’s gained through violence, unanimity, and sacrifice; when we stop locating evil in others, justifying our own violence, and making distinctions between good and bad violence. When we stop looking for the end of the world as we know it … and just live it.

As Mary Oliver writes:

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:

to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

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