Christian fundamentalists and Doomsday prophets once held a monopoly on raw, overwhelming fascination with the end of the world. But the end of the world has become increasingly mainstream. Pop culture and the news cycle both suggest our obsession with the Apocalypse has reached fetish proportions.
Overlooked in the debate over whether violent video games make those who play them more violent is a trend evolving alongside the violence that’s possibly more telling. Zombie apocalypses, war torn landscapes, dismal futures, and the collapse of civilizations, both earthbound and galactic, dominate the storylines of the most successful video game franchises.
Mass Effect’s ending was so bleak it even drew a negative reaction from fans. Call of Duty’s original setting of ravaged World War II Europe has given way to entirely zombie-focused spin-offs and challenge modes more popular than the regular games. Gears of War focuses on a handful of humans’ last ditch effort of to survive an alien onslaught.
The "Walking Dead" has “shattered ratings records” in its second season and was named a “top cable drama.” HBO’s "Game of Thrones," based on a bestselling series of fantasy novels, describes a kingdom in steep decline with taglines like “Winter is Coming.”
The Mayan prophecy that the world will end in 2012 has sparked its own cottage industry of doomsday glamour, and people are taking it seriously. NASA’s Ask an Astrobiologist has received over 5,000 questions on the subject since 2007. Some of those asking wondered if they should kill themselves, their children, or their pets. Even the once-venerable History Channel, Discovery Channel, and National Geographic have bought in with show after show discussing what horrible things might happen in 2012.
Even the staid journalism industry is in on the action. The news cycle seems to thrive on apocalyptic stories.
Occupy Wall Street has dominated the news for months and is characterized by Millennials or younger activists convinced they are the first generation of Americans to be worse off than their parents. Serious pundits have heralded our own recession as a harbinger of imminent, total, and global financial collapse.
Every tsunami or earthquake is judgment from either a God or environment gone wrong. Earth Day, which often becomes a call to “stave off the Eco-Apocalypse” even as it rallies people to more responsible living, has taken on almost religious proportions.
A quick return to the National Geographic Channel gives us Doomsday Preppers, a reality show devoted to “otherwise normal Americans prepping for the end of the world as we know it.”
What do they mean otherwise normal? Americans are fascinated with the end of the world, or at the very least, the end of our place within it. The “preppers” are only odd in that they’re acting on their fears rather than simply wallowing in them for entertainment.
Maybe we’re inoculating ourselves against the shock of the next terrible thing. Maybe we’ve just become so pessimistic and cynical that we can’t imagine our world not ending. Maybe in a global village, the people who make up the world’s lonely superpower are starting to feel a bit smaller and don’t like it.
But maybe, just maybe, the charm of the Apocalypse is something to be thankful for. To borrow a quote from Grant Morrison, an author who is more than passingly familiar with fictional apocalypses, crises, and doomsday scenarios, “We should be grateful that we live in a culture so insulated from true horror it can afford to play with fear as entertainment.”