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Monday, 11 June 2012

An Apocalyptic State of Mind

During the apocalypse, groups of people gazing skyward
will be a common sight.
Having watched the uber-bleak vampire apocalypse movie Stake Land over the weekend, I was struck by humankind’s ongoing obsession with its own mass demise by apocalypse. Ever since we began to ponder our existence, it seems we have been concerned with our demise - especially the notion of being wiped out en masse by some terrible, catastrophic event or plague. Even that most celebrated of mythical cultures, Atlantis, now believed to have been based on the Minoan civilization upon the Greek island of Santorini ( or Thera, as it was then ), was itself wiped out in the most cataclysmic volcanic event ever witnessed by the ancient world. Stories of Atlantis retold down the centuries by people like Plato and Pliny, were essentially apocalyptic morality tales - warnings of how the gods would punish the hubris of any civilization grown too powerful and too arrogant by destroying it utterly.

Centuries of Western historical writings, too, are rife with the fear of religious apocalypse a la Revelation; each crop failure, each climate change, each plague has been duly heralded as a sign of the coming Apocalypse. Then we feared an angry God sending His only begotten son back to wipe out the sinners and cleanse with a “scorched- earth policy” the very world that we had polluted with our ungodliness. Jump forward again in time and we find that world wars, the rise of dictators, and nuclear armament become the heralds of apocalypse. From the 1940s to the 1980s, as the biggest and most powerful countries fell out with each other and armed themselves to the teeth with weapons of mass - and mutually assured - destruction, we feared the end would be a blinding white blast and the scorch of a nuclear wind.

According to ex-prez Ronald Reagan, the most
frightening sentence in the English language is:
" We're from the government and we're here to help."
Today our fears of apocalyptic demise are rooted in man-made disease and biological warfare; in the fear that some dreadful plague will get loose from a government laboratory and scythe its way through the world population in a matter of weeks. We distrust our government and our military, imagining them to be busy creating all manner of nasties at secret facilities, and none of them in the least capable of keeping those nasties under control forever. Sooner or later their incomptence will reduce our world to chaos, lawlessness, poisoned water supplies, and random straggling bands of survivors struggling to avoid slavering zombies and vampires, hungry for brains and blood. Often we see these as terrifying, horrifying creatures that are organized, fast, powerful, and unstoppable. Sometimes we see them as pathetic shambling wrecks of one-time humanity, but no less dangerous for all that, especially if they’re in a herd. And it isn’t just entertaining fiction such as The Walking Dead, Stake Land, or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in which we find these modern monsters of imagination gone wild either: TV channels are constantly showing us What Could Happen in documentaries about bio-terrorism; on the internet are scores of websites devoted to scaring us into building zombie-proofed bunkers and stocking up on broad-spectrum antibiotics for the coming apocalypse.

Where does this obsession with apocalypse and mass extinction stem from, what is it in the psychological makeup of human beings causes it? Perhaps we recall the tales of ancient civilizations like Atlantis and deep down fear that the same hubris will be punished when the “gods” which we have created today i.e. nuclear arms, genetic engineering, etc. turn upon and destroy us. Or perhaps that arrogant pride itself creates a need within the collective human ego to imagine our species going out in fiery, spectacular fashion, rather than simply, quietly petering out of existence. Whatever the root cause of our apocalypse obsession, for the moment it makes for some jolly fun - if occasionally unsettling - entertainment!
Once we were afraid of nuclear warfare.
Now we fear...
... zombie clowns!

Come the apocalypse, wearing shades and baggy coats
will be de rigueur.

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