THe Final Countdown
As dates for the apocalypse come and go, why do we remain enraptured with the end of the world?
Story by Renee Cree, SMC ´12
On an unseasonably mild night in December, the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art is packed. Dressed in their finest, partygoers sip cocktails and dance below a glittering disco ball. There is even a countdown to midnight. It could be a New Year´s Eve celebration, but it is a decidedly different event.
The cocktails are named after the seven deadly sins. The music is performed by a glam–rock band outfitted in bespangled Mad Max–esque garb. Images of a post–apocalyptic world flash on a screen behind the band. The walls are decorated with artwork depicting Earth and humanity in various scenes of ruin and decay: an empty Ben Franklin Bridge, the soiled head of a doll in an empty room, an asteroid destroying Earth.
Amid the ominous decor, the revelers are buoyant. This is exactly what they came for. It is Dec. 21, 2012, and they are celebrating the end of the world.
Associate Professor of Media Studies and Production Barry Vacker is the host of the fete, held to cap a three–day symposium on why our culture is so enamored with—or even obsessed with—the apocalypse. Sponsored by Vacker´s think tank, the Center for Media and Destiny, the program featured film screenings and panel discussions about why doomsday memes continue to replicate, even when most of us know "The End" is not coming anytime soon.
AWAY WE GO
Vacker has been interested in media portrayals of the end of time since he was a young boy in Texas, watching old B–movies on Friday and Saturday nights. "I never really believed the world would end," he says, "but there was something both awe inspiring and terrifying about watching it unfold."
That bird´s–eye view is what draws most people in, Vacker says. "Through a movie or a television show or a book, we get to see it happening, but we don´t have to actually experience it," he explains. "That´s what makes these doomsday scenarios so appealing. They serve as these great, effective warning systems." And the question of "What if?" is at the heart of most apocalyptic stories.
"Within them are beginnings and ends," Vacker explains. "Some films present an end–game situation: ´Stop doing this or the end will come.´ Others posit that the end must happen so we can have a new beginning."
Vacker´s latest book, The End of the World—Again: Why the Apocalypse Meme Replicates in Media Science and Culture, examines our enchantment with the end of the world and how it is depicted in myriad situations across pop culture, including nuclear war; a technological takeover; ecological havoc; cultural breakdown; and a total, cosmic wipeout.
To coincide with the 2012 end of the Mayan calendar—which some interpreted as the day the world would end—Vacker taught Media, Culture and "The End of the World," a media–criticism course that explored each of those possibilities in further detail. Students viewed films and television shows, and conducted online research, to understand how the apocalypse meme has evolved from ancient times and why it persists in our culture.
"We don´t think these situations are really going to happen," says Brendan Curry, a senior majoring in media studies and production who enrolled in Vacker´s class. "But we watch these kinds of movies because we wonder, ´Well, what if they did? What would we do?´"
One of the movies the class studied was 2011´s Melancholia, the story of a would–be bride who finds out the world is about to be destroyed by a rogue planet, and nothing can be done to stop it.
"The main character, Justine, realizes there´s no real meaning for humanity at all," says Genevieve Gillespie, SMC ´13, Vacker´s teaching assistant for the class. "She feels as though everything is a sham, that we´re all just going through the motions with no meaning. She feels that humanity is evil and deserves to be wiped out."
A depressing prospect, to be sure, but in many of these stories—such as the plots of films like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow—there is something of a bright side: A small band of survivors remains at the end of it all, suggesting a kind of monumental do–over for humanity.
"The slate is wiped clean," Vacker explains. "All the turmoil and evil in the world has been completely wiped out, and now we have the chance for a new and better world to emerge from the ashes of the old one."
And the apocalypse is big business, Curry notes. "You don´t just see this meme in the movies," he says. "Even while watching the news or reading headlines, it´s there. When [Hurricane] Sandy came around, the media were calling it ´the Super Storm,´ ´the Monster Storm,´ giving it these overdone titles and exaggerating the storm´s path to catch people´s attention. They keep the meme going to [attract] more viewers."
(From left to right:) Barry Vacker, associate professor of media studies and production; Murali Balaji, assistant professor of media studies and production; and Brendan Curry, a media studies and production senior, contemplate the myriad ways the world might end.
Barry Vacker, associate professor of media studies and production, and Genevieve Gillespie, SMC ´13, discuss their three–day symposium on human fascination with the apocalypse. Video: WHYY/Newsworks
AN APOCALYPTIC HISTORY
Humanity´s fascination with its own demise is nothing new. One of the first recorded references to a coming end of the world is associated with Zoroastrianism, a religion founded in ancient Persia at least 3,000 years ago. Citing a prophecy that the city would fall 120 years after its founding, Romans thought the end would come in 634 B.C. And around 66 B.C., the Essenes, a faction of Judaism, thought an uprising against Roman soldiers signified the end of time.
"Even in ancient times, people looked around and felt society had gotten away from them," explains Lucy Bregman, professor of religion. "They saw a discrepancy between the world as it was and how they thought it should be."
For most of human history, life was difficult (to put it mildly). "Coming out of the first millennium, for example, the Vikings had just finished wreaking havoc on most of northern Europe," Bregman explains. "People were recovering from that and feeling very fragile."
And things got worse during the Middle Ages, when warfare, corruption in the church, illness and economic uncertainty were rampant. Add to that the Little Ice Age Earth experienced between approximately 1350 and 1850, and "life was objectively awful and terrifying," she says. "People didn´t know what to do."
In particularly bad times, Bregman notes that there was a flurry of interest in the world ending. "People began to feel that God had to intervene at some point to restore order," she says. "The emphasis was never on death and doom, but rather on hope. The world and humanity would be reborn, as they were supposed to be.
"In the Judeo–Christian and Muslim religions, the end focuses on a positive outcome," she adds. "The coming defeat meant an eventual restoration and renewal, and hope for peace and prosperity."
One of today´s most popular end–of–the–world stories has nothing to do with being peaceful or prosperous, and everything to do with being repulsive and frightening: The dead will reanimate, feed on the living and overtake society. Thanks to television shows like The Walking Dead and recent movies including Zombieland, Warm Bodies and World War Z, the popularity of zombies continues to grow—so much so that an annual, nationwide design competition called Zombie Safe House allows budding architects to create spaces where the living can keep their brains safe from marauding bands of the undead, and do so with style. There is even a handy guide to surviving such an apocalypse, The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead.
In reality, hordes of walking corpses are about as likely as Earth colliding with a rogue planet. And yet, there are those who do not discount this possibility entirely, says Murali Balaji, assistant professor of media studies and production, and editor of a forthcoming book titled The Thinking Dead: What the Zombie Apocalypse Means.
"I think more people are more open to the notion of this type of apocalypse than some of the other scenarios we know about, particularly since the era of the A–bomb," he says. "There came a real fear that these things could happen due to chemical or global warfare, and no one knew what the effects would be."
Balaji studies how zombies have shuffled into our collective hearts through television and movies. He says that for many people, an interest in the walking dead plays directly into a captivation with the unknown.
"The image of the walking corpse plays into fears of what we may become after [death], and seeing that loss of humanity can be jarring," he says. As a result, zombies evoke a more visceral reaction than other movie monsters of the extraterrestrial or blood–sucking variety.
Balaji adds that while it is unlikely that the undead will feast on our brains, the zombie metaphor does have roots in the larger construct of a global apocalypse.
"Some scholars believe we are consuming things mindlessly, like zombies do," he says. "From an environmental standpoint, from the production of more goods to the waste it creates, many believe it is hastening the end of the world."
The opening of Vacker´s book features a quote from French philosopher Jean Baudrillard: "Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvelous as being there at the beginning." Vacker believes that is one reason why we will continue to wonder about the end of the world.
"Once Galileo discovered that Earth was not the center of the universe, it sort of dislodged us," Vacker says. "We´re not at the center of anything—we´re not even a remotely powerful player. And we started to wonder where we´re going as a species." Essentially, if we were to see the world end, we would be the absolute pinnacle of what this planet had to offer; we would not be left in the evolutionary dust, so to speak. The thought of that gives us meaning and makes us feel a bit more important, he says.
Gillespie suggests another possibility: We are drawn to the prospect of an apocalypse so that we can feel more connected to one another.
"Even in our mediated, global society, there is a great deal of evidence that we are feeling more alone and isolated than ever before," she explains. "We can´t feel connected unless we have shared experiences. Often, tragic events help us bond more than celebratory events. Maybe humans need a balance of tragedy and relief to feel alive, to feel like a species, to remember who we are collectively."
To view some of Vacker´s favorite apocalyptic movies, click here.