The end of the world, it’s always been thought about in one way or another. Global floods and divine retribution, world war and nuclear holocaust, comets hitting the planet; all of these are, or at some time have been prophesized as the potential end of the world. It will be a tragedy that will engulf the entire planet and no one will escape. More recently, fears on a global tragedy have been more focused on totalitarian states and unstoppable terrorist violence, but it is really no different than any of the other fears or scenarios. And while these worst-case scenarios haunt the deepest parts of our mind, we cannot help but to wonder, What if? This is an opportunity seized upon by the entertainment industry to take hold of this fear and passion, and show us what would happen.
Of course, this trend does not always have to be about the end of the world. Often it will start with something much smaller. The Seven Eleven down the street gets robbed, a common and relatively innocent enough occurrence. Then, add the entertainment industry in to the scenario. The small robbery becomes a stick-up gone wrong, leaving eight people dead and the Law and Order team investigating. They find that it involves ties to a rich politician, international terrorists, an underground pedophile ring, and a kid whose parents were abusive drug users. This small incident becomes what we fear as a worst case scenario, and we love watching it.
Take that idea and move it up a notch. We are currently at war with international terrorists, who in all actuality may prick us every now and then, but are no real threat to the global culture as a whole. Give the terror war to the entertainment industry, and the president is assassinated, nuclear warheads are about to detonate in every major city, and the Chinese are about to invade with nothing but the great American hero Keiffer Sutherland (who oddly enough was born in the UK and is a Canadian citizen) to stop them. Again, we see that a relatively mundane an inactive situation (as there has been no large-scale terrorist activity since 11 September, 2001) is brought to an almost apocalyptic climax, all because audiences all want long to see what “could” happen.
Now, finally move it up to the highest level of the most remote possibility, the actual end of the world. Sure, there are asteroids and comets floating around in space. And there are enough nuclear weapons around the world to obliterate every square inch of the planet. Hell, there’s even a book that says that God will destroy every living thing on the planet, just like he did thousands of years ago. What is the probability of any of these things happening? I have never been any good at statistics, but seeing as they have not happened yet (with the exception of the whole asteroid thing millions of years ago), I am willing to bet on our pretty good track record.
The thoughts and fears of these endings still loom out there though, and we must know “what if?” So give it to the entertainers. We have a nuclear global war break out over who is going to be the one to destroy the comet hurling toward the planet. When the astronauts or cosmonauts or whatever it is that the ESA and China call their equivalents get into space, we soon realize that the comet has been sent by God to wipe the world clean and is carrying the four horsemen. Only, God is an alien that looks like Morgan Freeman and has Chuck Norris and Mr T. as his personal body guards. Our only hope is when a team of Will Smith, Sean Connery, Bruce Willis, and Patrick Stewart stops God. Worst case? Very much so.
But, still we ask for it. It is a situation that raises many questions. What is this innate desire we have to see the possibilities of our own deaths? Is it simply a blend of fear and curiosity? Or, it could be something much more. It seems as if we have an addiction to our tragedies, be they real or simulated. Probable or impossible.
I would venture to say that this phenomenon is not rooted in our biology or our pasts, but is very much a product of the present. However, to understand why, we must first look to the past. Before movies and novels, before writing and architecture, before civilization itself is where we can find the first clues to answer the question posed by today’s media.
I have maintained throughout all of my studies in the discipline of anthropology that there exists a fundamental difference in the mindsets of the past and present. This difference is perfection, or rather the idea of perfection. In the cultures of the past, people, just as today, would look to the sky. Only, they would see something they could not comprehend. From this view into the inexplicable grew a wonderment and fear. From this fear grew the first rituals, as an attempt to exert some control over the forces of the Universe. And finally from these rituals grew the first mythologies and religions. And to where did the religions not only the present, but of the past look to comfort? For perfection? They look to the past, or rather the more distant past. They look into their lost ages of gods and heroes for perfection.
Now shift to the present and ask yourself, does this still hold true? Where do we look for perfection? With our knowledge of the true workings of the Universe, and by extension ourselves, expanding and accumulating at a rate that most of us could not even comprehend as a whole, our view is shifting to something new. Rather than marveling at and longing for the unattainable past, the new generations are turning their heads forward and looking to the potential of the future. With every progressing day, the world come more and more into our control, and though a single misfortune may throw us off every now and then, we still look to the future for our view of perfection.
What is there left to challenge humanity anymore? We have conquered every part of this planet and form this world to our design. We have extended our lives and improved our health through science. Humans are very well on their way to becoming gods by many definitions of the word. We no longer need the gods and heroes of the past when we are becoming them ourselves.
Yet, it is in those small moments of misfortune that shake our confidence that we truly feel alive. For in all of our knowledge and control over this world, we often feel at peace. But humans need conflict. It is what drives any story, including our own. It is what drives ambition and competition. Without conflict, ours would become an empty species. So, we create these stories that take our most miniscule problems, those brief moments of our shaken confidence, and we blow them up (oftentimes literally) into the worst thing that they can become. We create a situation that can destroy everything that we have worked so hard for, and that gives our conflict that we so desperately need.
So perhaps it is not our tragedy that we are addicted to, but the conflict it creates. This conflict reminds us of our mortality and gives us back our humanity in the wake of our inevitable godliness upon this world. For as much as we may fear the end of days, it is also a modern symbol of our desire for imperfection in our ever-perfecting world. And of course this realization only raises more questions. This could simply be a phase that will pass, or we may finally realize that this is the real world now; it is the world that we created