• Oct 10, 2013

Apocalypse Soon?

By Maddie Gaw

In Swimmers, the characters Tom and Farrah both see a billboard on the way to work that ominously predicts the end of the world. Everyone at the office who hears about it has different reactions. Some are freaked out, like Randy and Tom, and start pointing to random occurrences in their life to “prove” the apocalypse is coming. Others, like Farrah and Yuri, use it as an opportunity to re-assess their life and start checking things off on their bucket list. Still others, like Priya and Charlene, see it as no big deal.

If you take a sampling of recent popular books, films TV shows and video games, you’ll find apocalypses and post-apocalyptic societies everywhere, not to mention the slew of real-life apocalyptic warnings, from the 2012 Mayan calendar prophecy to evangelist Harold Camping’s 2011 end times prediction (broadcasted on billboards not unlike the ones in the play). Why are we so fascinated with the apocalypse?

This isn’t a new obsession. Apocalyptic stories appeared in all manner of religious traditions from thousands or millions of years ago. Many current apocalypse-devotees are seized with religious fervor when it comes to their beliefs. Lorenzo DiTommasso, a professor of religion, explains that an apocalyptic worldview like that “springs from a desire to reconcile two conflicting beliefs. The first is that there is something dreadfully wrong with the world of human existence today…On the other hand, there is a sense that there is a higher good or some purpose for existence, a hope for a better future.” The religious apocalypse involves destruction, but also a brand new world reborn.

The concept of apocalypse as a total annihilation with no second chances is much more recent, stemming from Cold War paranoia and the Nuclear Age in the 1950s, where trust was so low and destructive capabilities so high. The 20th<th### sup=""> century also gave way to what sociologist Tom Gitlin calls the world’s first “slow-motion apocalypse”—climate change.

Neuroscientist Shmuel Lissek suggests that certain people “find the idea that the end is nigh to be validating.” These could range from people with fatalistic attitudes as the result of trauma to people looking “to attribute doom to some larger cosmic order” which “removes any sense of individual responsibility.” This could apply equally to religious and secular people.

As for why it seems like apocalypse fever is more popular than ever, the psychiatrist Robert Lifton predicted that the Nuclear Age would eventually lead to generations of people who would see signs of doom in almost any aspect of life. The popularity of franchises like The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games and the tendency to label any scale of catastrophe a “workpocalypse” or a “snowpocalypse” seems to support this argument.

Whether the idea of the apocalypse sends you fleeing to the basement or inspires you to face your fear of swimming, the odds are you probably aren’t alone in your fear or fascination.