Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AiPT! Comics cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.
What’s the harm in all the doomsday scenarios we see in entertainment and pop culture lately? Thelonia Saunders breaks it down for us.
It was on a gray day in May of 2011 that I first saw them. It was hard to identify them at first; Times Square isn’t exactly the ideal place to pick people out from the crowd, even if they are shouting at the top of their lungs. But the figures with the big placards warranted at least a glance, I guessed. Their lure had worked — once I looked up and read their signs, I couldn’t look away.
The rapture was that day, these people and their signs were warning us. It was happening (or would happen later that evening – they didn’t have the most rigid timeline), but we still had time to repent if we wanted to be found righteous enough to be plucked from the sinful Earth and lightly tossed unto Heaven.
I walked past the people with their placards, met up with my friend, saw a show, went to dinner, and by the time I had fallen asleep that night, I had completely forgotten about them and their promise of the end of the world. I woke up the next day to find that the world was, indeed, still there.
Not only was everything where it had been the night before, but when I went online, I was met with wave after wave of joking pictures of people laying out their clothes on the ground as if they’d been rapture-d on their mid-morning walk (when you get rapture-d, it seems, you leave your clothes behind). It was seen as this big cosmic joke, that these people believed so wholeheartedly in something that didn’t happen, and surely now they would understand the error of their ways.
Unsurprisingly, this didn’t happen.
Harold Camping, the Evangelical “Apocalypse” Preacher, went back on his radio show to explain that he may have made a calculation error. The end of days was not in fact on May 21, 2011, but was going to be the following October (it was not). Then it was 2012 (it was not). Camping died in 2013, but you can honor his memory by choosing a random date in the coming year and live like you’re going to die on that day (and then push it back another year when that date finally passes).
The End of the World has been predicted many times, by many different people, for very many reasons, and yet, so far, the world has not ended. Either we are just the cockroaches to what must be very annoyed higher forces, or perhaps some people just like predicting the world will burn. But why? And more importantly, why do people believe them, time and time again, even with categorical proof that they were wrong?
Apocalyptic events, Doomsdays, and their aftermaths have long fascinated people. Stories of how things come to an end came about almost as soon as we created the stories about how things came to be. Ragnarök, the Norse end of the world, co-existed with Biblical stories of mass destruction and rebirth, like Noah’s Ark or Christ’s return. These stories of creation are by nature cyclical, and so the need for destruction events arises in order for humanity to be reborn (metaphorically or otherwise).
Psychologically, stories of cataclysmic endings satisfy the same part of our brains that enjoy horror movies. We like the rush of thinking that every moment could be our last, and then it gets pushed back to a later date, like a roller coaster where all you do is go up and up and up. It also reduces our fears — of growing old, of the uncertainty of life — down to a clear-cut answer. You don’t need to worry about how or when you’ll die because, says the prophet, you will die at this time on this day, and you will never have to worry again.
It’s living day-to-day but on a larger scale where nothing matters because the end is always there, always a guard post to move back and back. Doomsday preppers do not have to concern themselves with everyday life, all they need to do is prepare, assemble, and plan. This gives them a simplified, goal-oriented view of the world, something that is particularly comforting in times of turmoil and stress.
Psychologist Karen Douglas, of the University of Kent, says that those who believe in an impending apocalypse also have a generalized mistrust of the government. She theorizes it’s the feeling of powerlessness, as well as a mistrust in authority, that drives these people to believe with all their hearts that the end is coming and no one else can see it (and if they can, they lie and say they can’t).
Denying this means nothing to them, as they have fully integrated an adversarial scenario in which everyone who believes what they do is “us” and everyone else is “them.” There’s a reason this is a pattern that keeps coming up in the history of the world, and particularly when things are dire: it’s easier to stay organized if you can neatly ignore a good chunk of people who think differently than you.
But even outside those groups that the mainstream deems “fringe,” there is a fascination with the collapse of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic narratives and dystopias have long fascinated humanity, and though the means of delivery change every now and again (zombies are passé now, right?), these are stories that we can’t get enough of.
Perhaps it’s the interest in a return to nature as technology grows ever more present and people spread more and more across the Earth that appeals to us. Perhaps it’s the idea that in the destruction of society, we will no longer be lumped together as a totality of human beings, and it will instead be the individual (the “me”) being the hero of my own story (in this story, I get a katana). “When humanity collapses, I will be the one to change things,” says that one person you know who always tells you they’d do great in a zombie apocalypse. (No, you wouldn’t.)
The end of the world and everything we know has been trivialized to the point that it barely even registers. From every movie villain threatening to end the cosmos (or snap half of it away), to alien invasions, to all those catastrophe movies a la 2012, it’s nothing new and is even a little boring. Oh, you’re going to blow up the planet? That’s the fifth time I’ve heard that this week.
This sort of Apocalypse fatigue is similar to the way in which we react to the actual news. We’ve been hearing for decades now that the world is going to collapse, whether it be from bombs to climate change to a random meteor or that super volcano under Yellowstone Park, and so far, we’re still here. Climate change and other threats are real, but fiction teaches these things probably still won’t happen even if we do nothing, or that someone else will fix it for us (Bruce Willis, strap into your space suit).
There’s only so many times you can slam the EMERGENCY button down before it gets stuck that way, and now the blaring siren is a white noise that we can all ignore as we go about our business, because hey, the world might be ending, but I still have bills to pay until it does.