The end is nigh. On December 21, the latest apocalypse will shake the foundations of the world as we know it. Witness the collision of innumerable catastrophes: Climate change is forging massive superstorms, unleashing biblical floods, propelling glacial shifts and earthquakes, and devastating the structures humans have built since the beginning of civilization. Ubiquitous social decline will result in moral decay, the collapse of the global economy, World War III, and the ultimate ascendance of the secret cabal that wrote the blueprints for the New World Order. We’ll face swine-flu plagues and bath salts cannibalism, nuclear catastrophes, mass extinctions. Prophecies fulfilled. Eschatons immanentized. Towers will fall. The dead will rise. The very heavens will rebel against us: upon our apparent galactic alignment, our planet awaits skin-melting gamma ray bursts, grid-destroying solar flares, and tectonic plate-disrupting pole shifts. In short, human civilization is utterly and irrevocably fucked. But perhaps, if we’re really lucky, when the aliens or angels or Atlanteans arrive, they’ll save us from ourselves with a world-embracing, transcendental epiphany that will turn back the tides of history and resurrect our long-dead gods.
Or maybe it’s much worse than all that. What will we do if civilization continues after December 21? If the economy collapses, won’t we still have to eat? And assuming that the sun doesn’t explode on the winter solstice, will we still have to work on the 22nd? What’s worse?
These are not new fears. The word “apocalypse” derives from the Greek ἀποκάλυψις, meaning the removal of a covering or revelation. Its original sense designated a genre of religious texts that purported to uncover reality behind the veil of illusion, favoring phantasmagoria and mystical symbology as the means of conveying the noumenal beyond. Its use to refer to the end of the world is incidental, deriving primarily from the Christian eschatology of the Revelation to St. John. However, eschatology has existed for millennia, stretching back long before the birth of Christ. Many mythologies feature at least one story in which the world met its complete destruction (even if it later reformed).
2012’s narratives of the end of the world have had the opportunity to grow and focus. The genre has escaped the pages of spiritual revelation into the more spectacular media of film and television. Directors now select their cause of the end from a range of possible forces1, no longer confined solely to supernatural judgment. Each also depicts a victory, either in favor of the destructive power or of heroes of some redemptive quality. Apocalypse films therefore don’t differ much from their eschatological counterparts: to reveal what the directors perceive as real, they magnify their story until the whole world is at stake, using this spectacle to present a picture of the hope (if any) we have against threatening powers. But entertainment tends more toward escapist fantasy than spiritual guidance (even if it pretends to it). The crises we actually face rarely involve simplistic causes or clear victories. These pictures cover an atmosphere of noise, in which developing crises interact chaotically like weather systems. But while apocalypse stories serve as Farmer’s Almanacs to explain these complex systems and project their outcomes, they often posit false causes or impossible situations, calling into question their own utility.
2012’s apocalypses feature a spectrum of cause-redeemer polarities, from the supernatural to the all-too-real. This article will descend through that scale, beginning with the “2012 phenomenon” itself, working through The Walking Dead, The Dark Knight Rises, The Turin Horse, and ending with this year’s non-apocalyptic crisis film, Beasts of the Southern Wild. In opening fissures in 2012’s doomsday spectacles, this essay is an attempt to reclaim the sky from the scenes in the clouds.
A Taxonomy of Apocalyptic Horses2
This year provided many examples of the apocalyptic mode. Some threaten the whole world, others threaten a single household. But the macrocosm is the microcosm. What distinguishes these stories from one another is not the affected group, but rather the chosen root cause of the threat to civilization and the power, if any, that the author thinks might save us.
The Dead Horse
Spoiler alert: the world will not end (nor will we achieve transcendence) on December 21, barring an asteroid collision or a sudden “black swan.” As far as archaeologists can tell, Mayans never predicted an apocalypse to occur on this date. Never mind that the data we have about golden age Mayan culture (i.e., that which the Spanish imperialists didn’t obliterate) is miniscule considering how much the world lost; we aren’t even certain how Mayan calendars match up with the Gregorian. 2012-ers ignore the fact that the Maya were not just a single civilization, but a plurality of ethnic groups and cultures that lived in the same area, spoke similar languages, and, further, forget that many Mayans still live today and some of them are quite upset about the co-opting of their cultural institutions and the arrogance of these grandiose, research-light claims. Mayanists constantly discover new sites and note that several monuments mark dates far beyond the end of the 2012 Long Count “end date.”
But even those who don’t think the end of the world is coming, such as Daniel Pinchbeck, who predicts mass transcendence after the solstice, or the late Terence McKenna who predicted an utterly “novel” occurrence on this date3, have skewed the half-deleted data in favor of their theories. New Age gurus think they are witnessing the beginnings of an elevated “consciousness” and find in the Long Count a final date when most will “wake up” from their ignorant slumber. Sometimes it’s gods or aliens4; sometimes it’s a mass shift that we spontaneously undertake. It’s easy to sympathize with this desire: Who wouldn’t want us all to achieve Nirvana just by virtue of time reaching a predetermined date (or by the forces of history providing the correct circumstances, which is tantamount to the same thing). But if the day when we realize the solutions to the problems facing our world ever arrives, it will do so because of work, not because it’s simply the right time or because a god descends to inform us. Awareness is something one must cultivate, and on December 21, the most we can expect to happen is a true believer creating a one-shot crisis out of zeal, or the suicide of a cult, or a whole lot of effort justification and placebo effects.
Spiritualists can find the apocalypse in any calendar. In the 1960s, the Age of Aquarius (which, astronomically, will occur around approximately the year 2600) was to precipitate the enlightenment of all (Father Yod and The Source Family’s The Thought Adjusters, released earlier this year on Drag City, contains some artifacts from this school). In fact, this phenomenon is fairly common in any group with radical beliefs in the supernatural. Millennialism occurred in 1000 C.E. just as it did in 2000. Last year, radio personality Harold Camping declared that Jesus Christ would return to Earth on May 21, 2011. When that didn’t happen, he recognized his miscalculation and informed the public that it would occur October 21. It’s now December 2012.
It’s not hard to glimpse the probable origins of these apocalyptic scenarios. For those who believe in the intervention of supernatural forces, these stories provide a hope for validation of the wickedness of society and of their own future redemption. The evangelical fire-and-brimstone story has us meeting our maker in judgment for our moral depravity, now so abominable that the supreme being can no longer abide. When these groups raise their collective struggles, either real or imaginary, to the supernatural layer, they place the responsibility of bettering society on a force that, at best, they claim exists beyond their own understanding. In suspending their own will, they pass the buck to Christ, or Quetzalcoatl5, or a pseudoscientific miracle. If you can believe in these beings based on textual authority or flawed New Age “research,” a well of pain relief lies open in which to drown your troubles. But Quetzalcoatl is not coming, at least not as a god (and I’d recommend a healthy dose of skepticism in evaluating any individual who claims to be him). Supernatural intervention will not occur6 . Intellectuals have beaten this dead horse for centuries, and yet we’re still addressing the fallout from its passing.
A Horse with No Name
But even as we abandon the supernatural, the threat of nature rises up before us. Here, real danger lurks, and a genuine fear of death rears its head. Earth’s homeostasis has suddenly fallen out of balance. Storms build and dump flood waters on the coasts, while deep droughts threaten our food sources and convert vast swaths of farmland to desert. Species are going extinct at a higher rate than ever in human history. Extrapolating from these phenomena produces what seems like an endpoint. Will climate change one day obliterate human society? How do we imagine a world in which the world itself turns against us? While disaster-porn spectacles like Roland Emmerich’s 2012 fill this role, the majority of these stories chronicle not the lead-up but the fallout from the apocalyptic event. These narratives tend to mythologize the lone survivors, who wander the wastes left from the collapse of the former world armed with vigilante justice and cold benevolence. We have a fine example of this genre in Waterworld, but lately the most common natural apocalypse features a more straightforward antagonist: zombies.
In the first episode of The Walking Dead, Sheriff Rick Grimes finds a nameless horse in an abandoned pasture and rides like Wyatt Earp into the heart of Atlanta. Zombies promptly eat it. The Walking Dead presents the post-apocalyptic world as a series of moral dilemmas. The old heroic image seems to no longer work. You might have to kill your best friend or an innocent child turned by the plague. And yet, within the surviving enclaves, a return to so-called “traditional” values has occurred. Women wash the clothes and cook dinner while men hunt and guard the camp from intruders. After the end, we’ll no longer take for granted food and shelter, needs that modernity has estranged from us. Money becomes useless, and only “real things” have value. It’s a utopia, for some — the violent struggles of the pre-civilization world have returned, and one can again achieve glory in battle, no longer tied to the workaday existence of the modern everyman. Humans flee the cosmopolis, the original source of their anxiety, for the countryside, and a slow transformation takes place: the greatest enemy is no longer nature, the force that created this doomsday, but ourselves.
Even when an author posits an uncontrollable cause of the apocalypse, morality returns to precipitate our redemption (or potentially our downfall). Willfully disobedient characters meet their doom. Living villains emerge as eminently more dangerous than the mindless forces of nature. In desperation, humans seem to lose even the most instinctual moral compass; but the few good souls that still walk the earth ultimately, despite heavy losses, prevail. Over time, this benevolence becomes an enforceable law. The Wyatt Earp kill-or-be-killed archetype returns as wartime dictator (sometimes with hints of democracy or pseudo-committee structures). Characters gain specific duties, handed down from Sheriff Rick or the Governor, with occasional advice from advisers. It becomes up to single men to “hold the group together,” and the Horse with no Name archetype becomes nation vs. nation, strongman vs. strongman. We must be careful that, in fleeing for fear of chaos, we do not take refuge in the comforting cage of tyranny.
The Dark Horse
Some fictions attack the morality problem head on by immediately presenting the apocalyptic threat as a faction of humans. This is the most common form that the conspiracist view of history takes: some evil group is the single enemy of all, and through machinations, they will execute a plan to destroy and remake society. Sometimes these are actors at the highest level of government and finance, or, in the case of high-budget Hollywood thrillers and propaganda, a degenerate group of terrorists. When great power falls into the wrong hands, the whole world is in danger. And it’s up to a hero, or a group of them, to save us.
2012’s greatest example of this narrative comes in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan’s Gotham hosts a Straussian police force built on a noble lie, serious organized crime issues, a bloated aristocracy, and a growing underbelly of leftist radicals. Even Batman himself has sunk into malaise. But a balance exists — that is, until the arrival of Bane (the name immediately clarifies his moral position). Batman confronts him, loses, and finds himself at the bottom of a prison in the Middle East (where else?). Meanwhile, Bane captures Wayne Enterprises’ fusion reactor and arms it as a bomb7, hanging it over Gotham’s head like the Sword of Damocles. Under the pretense of freeing Gotham’s citizens, Bane actually plans a nuclear holocaust.
Bruce Wayne’s initial attempts at escaping the prison fail, but he learns of the purpose of Bane’s mask: it dispenses an analgesic gas to ease his constant pain. According to the morphine-addled former prison-doctor, Wayne fails to rise because the support rope allows him to be unafraid of death (Alfred has been warning Wayne of his recklessness since the earliest parts of the film):
Doctor: You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.
Bruce Wayne: Why?
Doctor: How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death?
Bruce Wayne: I do fear death. I fear dying in here while my city burns.
Doctor: Then make the climb.
Bruce Wayne: How?
Doctor: As the child did. Without the rope. Then fear will find you again.
So the polar forces of this conflict each have a particular fear: Batman eventually rises out of the pit heroically afraid of death, and the apocalyptic Bane assaults Gotham out of fear of the pain of economic struggle and moral decline. Bane’s fear of pain (here presented as the force of evil) propels him to attempt to destroy the metropolis, the overflowing excess of modernity, the seat of financial power and decadence. Batman’s fear of death impels him to preserve Gotham, despite its many faults, saving in the process a busload of innocent orphans, all themselves potential Batmans and Robins (ironically, also potential Banes). In this dichotomy, Nolan presents an initially compelling characterization of what causes apocalyptic desire: the desire to assuage the pain of modernity. Bane’s fearlessness in the face of death paints him as a Machiavellian conspirator, prepared to execute Ra’s al-Ghul’s “destiny” by obliterating the quintessential city, the forge of wealth and poverty, seat of excess and crime.
Ernst Jünger anticipates Nolan’s Batman in his bleak essay “On Pain.” Junger, writing just before the outbreak of World War II, prophesies the rise of a new human who integrates with technology and becomes utterly cold to the pain of existing under modernity. Above all, the new human valorizes courage and discipline, finding its most powerful metaphor in the emergence of the art of photography. Fused with the eye of the director, the camera subjects the silent viewer to images of catastrophe with cold detachment. It’s Batman’s detachment from bodily and financial pain and courage in the fear of death that allows him to rise out of the abyss to exploit Bane’s weakness, his undisciplined rage, held in check by his opiate mask.
But in the face of crisis, pain is merely a symptom of a deeper sickness. In desensitizing oneself to pain, one opens the door to its deepening. This is not, of course, to advocate terrorism, but it is to suggest that humans do not have to sit idly by for the status quo in which the structures that promote greed and poverty enforce our decline. It’s valuable to learn to accept suffering, but we must also work to lessen it. The images the camera captures should spur us onward to at least slow the decline and help one another in our pain, and should not lull us into a state in which we open ourselves to its increase.
The Pale Horse
The sickly horse is the final nightmare, and perhaps the most real and frightening of this procession. Stoic suffering of pain is where this figure begins. At this stage, pessimism has doubled back on itself; the fire and/or brimstone pictures that the other figures represent a best case scenario to what the Pale Horse promises. True, they predict world-ending catastrophes just like the rest, but instead of pointing to a group or a force as a cause, they suspend that judgment. The causes of future suffering are mostly accidents. There is no utility in allowing these accidents to frighten us, and we must continue forth into the darkness, because that is all that remains for us. “This is how the world ends/ Not with a bang/ but a whimper.”8
Béla Tarr’s art house apocalypse, The Turin Horse, is perhaps the most coherent realization of this picture. In its glacial march towards oblivion, we witness a series of crises that confine the peasant protagonists to a fate of starvation. The first of these crises (apart from the constant gale-force winds that buffet their land) is the loss of their livelihood: the horse that drives the father’s cab refuses to leave the barn, refuses even to eat, like an equine Bartleby the Scrivener. Soon, they hear from a neighbor (named Bernhard, after novelist of endless rants Thomas Bernhard), a believer in the Dark Horse, that the nearby village has blown away. He blames its downfall on a corrupted other:
Everything has been debased that they’ve acquired, and since they’ve acquired everything in a sneaky, underhand fight, they’ve debased everything. Because whatever they touch — and they touch everything — they’ve debased… And those many noble great and excellent just stood there, if I can put it that way… I was truly mistaken when I thought that there has never been and could never be any kind of change here on Earth.
The skeptical father dismisses this attribution as rubbish, but sells him some liquor to ease his woes. After more meals of boiled potatoes, wild travelers stop at the family’s house and, amid offers to take the younger daughter with them to America, steal water from the family’s well. The father drives them away, knowing that America holds no solutions to their problems and that the traveling party has its own problems even before making the journey. Afterward, the well dries up, which triggers a food crisis. They attempt to leave, but return, finding that the surrounding areas all face the same struggles. Then the liquor goes and along with it any refuge from the decline. Finally, the lights go out, and a darkness covers the land.
Tarr takes care not to project a cause of the peasant’s suffering onto any particular force, but the destructive wind continues throughout. Sound editor Gábor ifj. Erdélyi uses the same sample over and over to represent that wind. Maddeningly bleak,The Turin Horse’s monotony presents its many convergent crises as constantly unfolding unto its end. This pessimism may be realistic, but it accords little potency to the possibility of recognition. In seeing the decline, in remembering the past, there is a hope of enduring the darkness. We must take The Turin Horse as a kind of challenge, to either stem the tide or face an inexorable doom.
The Audacity of Hope9
It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future. The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance. This disenchanted those who fell prey to the future, who sought advice from the soothsayers. For that reason the future did not, however, turn into a homogenous and empty time for the Jews. For in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter.
– Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”10
This article is by no means an attempt to diminish the conversation surrounding the various crises that our world faces. Very real threats to the lives and well being of vast populations confront the globe. Many exceed possibility. Climate change is happening. Even if humans were to slowly curb carbon emissions and discover the natural causes of these changes, the process already unfolds before us, and we can already witness its effects in record heat waves, huge storms, and droughts. Natural resources like oil and rare metals will deplete as world populations grow. The economies of the European Bloc and the United States (among others) face serious monetary crises that will deeply affect the livelihoods of their citizens. And as these major events occur, social unrest spirals out. In Greece, a neo-Nazi party rises; in the US, citizens petition the government for state secession. This is not to mention complex situations like the Israel/Palestine conflict, one of the many crises that seems to have polarized the world into factions staring down a global conflict. We do face a darkness, and it seems overwhelming. But the end has not come, and apart from an inescapable extinction event like an asteroid collision, our species will endure.
The past is full of great catastrophes. Rome seemed to suffer an apocalypse when it fell to the Vandals, but in reality, one faction merely ascended the throne of another. The world faced a possible picture of its collapse in World War II (and dealt with the fallout of its many great disasters and crimes), but, while we process the pain, we continue to live. During the Cold War, the world seemed constantly in peril of nuclear holocaust, but no one ever pulled the trigger(s). The world continued to turn, and humans survived, carrying the torch of civilization with them. In sifting through the garbage heap of history, our persistent existence is a testament to a crucial proposition: There is hope, even in the darkest times11. That hope lies in the force in which others have predicted our downfall: human beings.
This year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild12 represents a bayou community negotiating the floods after a huge storm through the eyes of a child. Although the danger is great, many of the residents of The Bathtub weather the storm without evacuating. After the rains, six-year-old Hushpuppy rides in her father’s boat, pondering the results of the disaster: “For the animals that didn’t have a dad to put ‘em in a boat, the end of the world already happened.” But the end has not yet occurred for her or for The Bathtub. Miss Bathsheba, teacher and homeopathic healer, instructs the young girls of The Bathtub in caring for “people small and sweeter than [they] are.” And despite The Bathtub’s use of less constructive coping mechanisms (like alcohol) and a questionable attack on the city dwellers’13 levee, the community-based healing seems to ease the pain of the catastrophe, if only for a time.
When Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy flooded swaths of New York and New Jersey’s coast, many offered immediate assistance to the victims, from places to stay to food and blankets. Of all places, New York, the nexus of American capitalism and competition, revealed a hidden community-mindedness. A more obvious example of this phenomenon occurred during the World Trade Center attacks. Firefighters, on or off duty, rushed to the scene; stories of heroism in the face of panic and chaos abound. The structured, official response to September 11, and the Bush Administration’s use of it to justify the “War on Terror,” are also the efforts of human beings, but in these responses we witness not immediate, community-based care and assistance, but the twisting of the narrative of the attacks to identify enemies (not just al-Qaeda, but eventually the Iraqi state) and present a flawed method for achieving “victory.” When apocalyptic mythologies simplify the discussion of the causes of disaster and the path to redemption, they become powerful tools to influence populations seeking answers in the midst of fear and grief.
Patterns in Chaos
Hurricanes are a phenomenon that result from a confluence of many factors. We’ve named them hurricanes because we’ve seen them before — they’re a pattern of weather that recurs, with specific characteristics we can identify, having recorded them during past storms. Other crises may be just as predictable when the occasion for their arising matches past circumstances. But by the very nature of an apocalypse, we have never witnessed one. The screen attempts to remedy that, but can only work in the imagination. In allowing projection of the mythical pattern of apocalypse on the formless noise of the crises that threaten us, we open ourselves to narratives that scapegoat certain groups or offer us protection at heavy costs. These stories divide to conquer. Instead of fleeing in panic or resignation, we must temper that fear with a rational assessment of each crisis phenomenon as it develops or else we face a descent into the very hysteria that appears on the screen.
Perhaps that descent has already begun. The camera now points backwards to document apocalypse culture. Reality shows depict a growing subculture of “preppers” that are planning for the day the “shit hits the fan.”14 You can watch families spend tens of thousands of dollars each year on the belief that disaster looms, planning to isolate themselves from the world at large with huge arsenals of weapons and ammunition. While some of these folks wisely promote sustainable, off-grid agriculture, others cling to a radical selfishness and a feedback loop of paranoia. Businesses see this phenomenon as an emerging market, happily selling potentially unnecessary products to compulsive buyers, marketing them during the commercial breaks. The epitome of this tendency is a product called Quantum Sleeper. For just $150,000, you can own a bed designed to withstand natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and home intruders, equipped with everything from a refrigerator to a DVD player and television (I’m sure they could build in a shelf for your laptop too). You can watch whole seasons of The Walking Dead fully insulated from the mythical zombie apocalypse. It is the ultimate doomsday cocoon, a final refuge in a constructed reality for those paralyzed by fear.
This fear is ultimately a response to change. Crises are inevitable, and in our media-saturated, globalized world, we are constantly aware of the proliferation of potential catastrophes and the complexity of the realities we face. Any covering of the flux of reality with an all-consuming apocalypse narrative can become a tool to create fear and insert ideology in the minds of a consenting audience. This is an ever-present danger in the mass spectacles of film and television. To recover the reality of our future from the illusions of our end, we must be willing to suspend the projection and confront complexity, lest the Pale Horse of resignation rear its powerless head.
1. Though often, as discussed later, these causes collapse into a good vs. evil scenario as in the Christian Judgment Day.
2. This section is a structural homage to Slavoj Zizek’s “four riders of the apocalypse” from his 2011 book Living in the End Times, though this article does not address the work.
3. See his famous Timewave Zero software, hosted here, a numerological schema involving the King Wen sequence of the I Ching.
4. Former Atlanteans, Quetzalcoatl, the returning Annunaki, Engineers, the infamous grays, or shapeshifting reptilians. See Zecharia Stichin’s book The 12th Planet or any of the nonsense David Icke writes.
5. Who, by the way, has nothing to do with Maya mythology and belongs to an altogether separate culture.
6. This is not to suggest anything about the belief in a god, but is a response to literal interpretations of eschatology.
7. Note the facile resonances with the nuclear power issue in Iran — Wayne doesn’t want this power to fall into the “wrong hands,” while Bane was born in a “prison” somewhere in “a more ancient part of the world,” i.e., the Middle East.
8. T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men.”
9. An attempt to reclaim, not to endorse.
10. Translation by Dennis Redmond, 2005, located here.
11. On Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s tour this year, a film loop featured the word Hope scrawled into the emulsion. The message was empty of content, but the simplicity of the assertion was powerful. Since the word had been co-opted by Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, it feels drained of significance, but the use transcended its potential corniness and felt like a reclamation.
12. I should here note (after dealing with the ideologies of the above films) that, in my estimation, the film is problematic in its construction of race and gender politics (see bell hooks’ scathing critique of the film here), but that these issues are beyond the scope of this article.
13. We see here, even in a narrative that abstains from the apocalyptic/world-ending scenario, that the us vs. them paradigm still holds sway.
14. See National Geographic Channel’s reality show Doomsday Preppers or the Spike TV’s forthcoming The Last Family on Earth.