Mitch Horowitz: Once More Awaiting “The End”

The real anxieties behind our fascination with apocalysm.

NewImageIt’s the end of the world. Again.

If 3,000 years of history tell us anything, it’s that December 21st, 2012 – a date associated by some with the Mayan apocalypse – will feel a lot like any other day of the year.

Human beings have never been very good at predicting the end of the world. Though one would never know given our current surge of enthusiasm for apocalyptic scenarios. Even firearms manufacturers today are marketing real-life (and deadly) weapons as “zombie apocalypse” guns. (We all know that zombies aren’t real. Right? Right?). And just consider the last dozen years: Public interest has lurched from Y2K to 2012 to solar flares. It’s easy to make light of these attachments. But recent events reveal a contradictory and troubling attitude at the back of our fascination with The End. TV viewership, radio banter, and online surfing reveal a perverse sense of wonder toward Armageddon. Yet at the same time, we as a society evince a peculiar denial toward predictable and increasingly frequent weather emergencies, such as Hurricane Sandy, which crippled power and left thousands homeless in parts of the northeast.

Why do we often balance between this odd fascination with fictitious apocalysm and a state of unpreparedness toward authentic urgencies?

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Journalists, scholars, and social scientists regularly look for geopolitical or social causes to explain our fixation on end times: Anxiety over economic conditions, the pace of technological change, or fears of natural disasters or environmental havoc are often trotted out. Of those culprits, extreme weather is the most justifiable cause for anxiety. Yet entertainment and consumption claim far more resources in our culture than safeguarding everyday people from weather emergencies. By the fourth night of the Sandy blackout, all but two of New Jersey’s Atlantic City casinos were up and running, while much of the city remained blanketed in darkness, shortages, and apprehension.

During the power outages in New York City my family – which fared better than most – lost power for about a week. We “fled” to a hotel in midtown Manhattan. We were the lucky ones. As I walked up Park Avenue looking at $25,000 wristwatches in boutique windows I wondered how much it would cost to provide better hurricane insulation at power plants; to install safer underground electrical lines; to purchase reliable generators for hospitals, nursing homes, and public housing; and to maintain a sound automated update system at our power companies. (Con Edison, which has no problem reaching us for interminable robo-calls, didn’t recognize our phone number when I tried to log into or call its automated information system).

The uptick of extreme weather events – Sandy was the northeast’s second hurricane in two years running – presents us with a “new normal” for which we’re not quite prepared. It is neither unreasonable, nor a side effect from too many apocalyptic-themed cable TV documentaries, for people to question whether industrialized civilization is like an inverted pyramid, balancing on a tip, with too many of our priorities and resources loaded at the wrong end. Some observers claim that we sublimate and vent these fears through our diet of zombie TV shows, apocalyptic video games, and day-after novels and movies. But look again. The screen entertainment that best captures our current mood consists of movies like The Truman Show, The Matrix, Vanilla Sky, and Groundhog Day. Each of these films suggests that we not living the lives we think we are: that we are not making independent, thoughtful choices, but rather are following a conformist pattern of consumption and unawareness.

And that aspect of human nature exposes the real impetus behind our childlike fascination with end times. People everywhere yearn for inner change – for a way to detach from the cycle of routine daily existence, with its conflicts, habits, addictions, worries, and boredoms. We’re surrounded by therapeutic and religious ideas – yet the wish for change and personal fulfillment is almost always unfulfilled. So, in our frustration, we look without. We hope that some kind of seismic shift will rescue us from the inability to alter ourselves. Scary as it may be, the end of what we know promises to rupture old patterns and push us toward something new.

Consider the much-hyped Y2K, when the calendar turnover to the new millennium was supposed to wreak havoc on our computer systems. A highly accomplished parenting author told me at the time that his wife insisted on their purchasing a gas-powered generator. As he related the story I detected no fear at all in him; rather he sounded like a guy planning for a vacation. The same attitude appeared in other adults: they sounded like kids who were hoping for a “snow day” to get out of school. The routine of work, the obligations to family, the anxieties of day-in-day-out existence – all of it can seem to grow lighter for people when they think, as some do every few years, that the end is near. Many people indulge in a semi-believable image of a future that, if nothing else, represents a radical departure from the present.

But neither fantasy nor denial will work anymore. We need to better understand what it is in ourselves that is so bored or disaffected with the present that we enjoy musing over imagined disasters – even while we as a society fail to sensibly prepare for altogether real and predictable ones. In the coming year – and there will be one – we must trade “The End Is Near” for an older and more productive principle: “Know Thyself.”

Published 12:01 am Fri, Dec 21, 2012

About the Author

Vice president and editor in chief at Tarcher/Penguin, Mitch Horowitz is the author of Occult America (Bantam) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown). He appears in recent mini-documentaries on the history of positive thinking; Ouija Boards; and occult New York.

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35 Responses to “Mitch Horowitz: Once More Awaiting “The End””

  1. Tribune says:

    So the take away message is not to go look up “zombie apocalypse” guns? 

  2. Rindan says:

    There is no place left to flee to.  That doesn’t stop us from trying.  I know a lot of people that moved out west from the northeast US.  Sure, some piece of that was deciding that winter sucks, but most of it I think was just restlessness and some pre-programmed (white) American fantasy that you need to go west and conquer new land.  If California could setup infinite supply of rocket ships to blast people off to a Mars colony, I think you would find a non-trivial portion of California’s population vanish overnight.

    Apocalypse fantasies are another way of coping with the need to find something new and change things, but there are lots of others.  I think most subcultures cater to the same need by setting up their own little fantasy land where the normal rules don’t apply.

    Yeah, apocalypse fantasies are a bit morbid, but they are a ‘realistic’ way people can imagine escape.  I know a tiny part of me sees declining population growth stifles a little tear that my Neuromancer or Blade Runner super cities of crushed humanity are never going to happen.  Oh well, as long as we avoid the suicide cults, I think a little fantasy is healthy.

  3. Bill Beaty says:

    These type-I civilizations, they always collapse their planet to an object the size of a golf ball during their attempt to measure the mass of the Higgs particle.

  4. turophile says:

    I like to think that while everyone is thinking that some world-destroying catastrophe is meant to happen today, what actually will happen is that we will silently pass a tipping point towards climate change leading ultimately to our demise, but we won’t recognise it for another 30-50 years..

    • Ipo says:

       Yes.  We may very well look back and find that by this date we had missed our chance. 
      The beginning of the end of the world (as we knew it). 

  5. The trouble with this theory is that it’s been espoused many, many, many times before. Near-countless times before. Over thousands of years. By millions of people. Ad nauseum. And yet, to state the thuddingly obvious, they’ve all been wrong

  6. Shinkuhadoken says:

    Why do we often balance between this odd fascination with fictitious apocalysm and a state of unpreparedness toward authentic urgencies?

    One word: Rapture.

  7. Larry Dixon says:

    I reckon it’s a Walter Mitty situation.

    When I raced cars in my mind, I was awesome and supremely skilled.

    When I raced cars for real, for years, the highest I ever placed was eighth.

    In doomsday speculations, whether it’s zombies or god-bombs, we somehow hold the idea that we’re gonna be the stronger one, the smarter one, the tougher one.  The one that actually makes it.

    Daydreams are like that.  They’re way sexier than the reality of mortality. 

    Fantasies have unlimited budgets.  The real world has bureaucracy, graft, laziness, factionalism and greed as constants, and somehow there’s never enough money, but someone’s always getting rich.

    I was a volunteer firefighter for years and worked Katrina and Rita relief and after all that, I’ve come to think this: the attraction of post-apocalypse fantasy is the idea that you, yourself, will somehow survive.  Walter Mitty of the Wasteland—because in the real world you have this aching awareness deep inside that in a real disaster, despite the trillions spent on military and agencies and infrastructure… heaven help you, you’re on your own.

  8. Eark_the_Bunny says:

    Well to the surprise of some folks, THE END has come and then it went away as we are all still here.  How boring!

  9. davnel says:

    I’m so sorry. It’s now 11:40AM GMT (29 minutes PAST the end of the world), and the world is still here. Maybe next time.

  10. Marco Antonio Morales says:

    I think the high pace of today’s reality is leaving everyone wishing for a long, long holiday where they can simply stop what they’re doing and say ‘f*ck it dude, let’s go bowling’.   … and the End of the World sounds like the ticket out.  No more deadlines, no more complications. Nothing.

    Real life cataclysms on the other hand represent a lot of real hard work on an already saturated global mind…

  11. Funk Daddy says:

    Psssh don’t give up hope! 

    Maybe the Mayan calendar is both sentient and sensitive to our needs. Could be that it’s just waiting until all time zones have had an opportunity to have a nice brunch first, then die horribly.

    I’ve never cared much for the fools holding signs. I’m always wondering, if you know that shit, why aren’t you somewhere having sex, spending time with your wife/husband & kids, doing awesome drugs,, stealing nice cars, giving all your cool shit to poorer people, skydiving or killing people who once offended you? There’s LOTS to do if the end is coming, buckets of bucket lists.

    I’m getting ready for everyone else to go to hell too, I’m no exception.

  12. Jon Thompson says:

    Y2K was a non event _because_ of all the hype prior to it. If programmers hadn’t gotten their code in order by working their butts of for years ahead of time, the individual in the essay would have needed the generator.

  13. oasisob1 says:

    I’m ringing in the End with a few bottles of Shock-Top End of the World Midnight Ale. I can’t think of anything better to do, and I don’t have an arsenal of weapons to polish, or a bunker to go hide in.

  14. chris jimson says:

    If history (long count history) is any indication, the world as we know it WILL end at some point, probably by some meteorite collision like what wiped out the dinosaurs, but of course the world ends every day for millions of people anyway, so if you really want to know when the end is all you need is to remember “it could happen at any moment” and live your life accordingly.

    (…he says as he heads off to his crappy job.)

  15. anansi133 says:

    It’s hard to guess which is worse: The collapse of everything we know, or this whole mess lurching forward just like it is today. The fantasy is imagining we could pick and choose the things we leave behind and the things we get to keep.

    Come to think of it, the same trouble plagues my utopian dreams as my dystopian nightmares.It’s just not predictable.

  16. snagglepuss says:

    I think that people who glom onto doomsday predictions have some sort of psychological condition which creates in them an uncontrollable desire to tell total strangers “I TOLD YOU SO”, despite all evidence to the contrary.  A need to prove to people who don’t care that the afflicted has some sort of special, divinely-delivered arcane knowledge, and he’s just shitting himself to show it off.

    That, or a more garden-variety case of self-loathing that can only be satisfied by making as big a possible public ass of oneself as possible,.

    • sdmikev says:

      Based on the rubes I have seen who represent the “doomsday preparers” if there IS a doomsday, those dipshits will be the first to go because they’re so goddamned stupid.
      Clearly there are people who get off on the idea of an end of the world scenario, and the subsequent preparing that they can hyper-focus on.  We Americans love to hyper-focus on stupid crap.
      To the author’s note in the piece where he sez he “wondered how much it would cost to provide better hurricane insulation at power plants; to install safer underground electrical lines; to purchase reliable generators for hospitals, nursing homes, and public housing; and to maintain a sound automated update system at our power companies.”
      This is partly by design, and partly due to the largest wealth transfer in history from the entire world to a handful of people – the “one percent”.
      There is no place in their world for public infrastructure.  They will build their own in their jerk-off fantasy gilded age Ayn Rand world.  Public infrastructure is just another place to siphon off “profit”.

  17. brucebordner says:

      Reactions among those who experienced Apocalypse recently in NJ were weird.  People and entire towns lost everything in minutes and – for a short time – it was a great thing. A lot of it was crap anyway. Now we can re-do it properly!

      NJ now has to seriously look at infrastructure and all the boring and expensive stuff to prepare for our probable semi-apocalyptic future. Where are the Doomsday preppers – they can be consultants now! Fighting weather and water is really hard. Getting anyone to pay for it is REALLY hard.

      As said above, it’s fun while it’s in your head. In reality, we found that as soon as the power came back on we had to go back to work and the same old grind.  Just start rebuilding your life…

      There was some looting, but almost no “apocalyptic” survival fights. We did have some tense moments in line for a generator or gas… but we knew help was coming. That’s the real American Dream.

      In NJ we know that none of us should live alone.

  18. Peter Shultz says:

    In many ways the apocalypses people consume as entertainment, and Global Climate Change are exactly opposite. 

    The entertaining apocalypse is about the destruction of society and an accession of the individual so great that genocide of anyone not like the hero is justifiable (zombie apocalypses or alien invasions—and their historical roots in “yellow menace literature” where the brave, rich, white man had to fight  hoards of Asians, Mexicans, Africans, or the poor) 

    The real climate apocalypses must be dealt with as a society, through strengthening our common efforts and working together. The individual will be asked to make sacrifices for the common good. And they won’t be the “sacrifice yourself to save the blonde haired, blue eyed child” kind of sacrifices. They will be the “you will no longer receive subsidized gas, so you will no longer be able to drive the exact car you want to drive, and will instead be forced to think of your impact on others for once” kind of sacrifices.

  19. IanM_66 says:

    Bored or disaffected? I don’t think so – try anxious and scared. I think people genuinely fear that our civilization is fragile and getting more so, and all the imaginary end-of-days scenarios we entertain are ways to mentally prep ourselves for the real-world collapse that, in the back of our minds somewhere, we believe may come.

    Yes, people know zombies aren’t real, but I think a lot of my peers (20-somethings in NYC) talk only half-jokingly about being ready for the zombie apocalypse because it’s a proxy for the sort of event, whether it’s 9/11, a financial collapse, a hurricane, that seems to threaten stability and security. Add major trends like climate change to these specific events, which have defined a lot of our youth and young adulthood, and there’s a general sense that we shouldn’t be shocked if the next thing, whatever it is, really does bring things crashing down.

  20. Nell Anvoid says:

    You know, every time we leave this “end-of-the-world” stuff to work out on its own in the real world,  it just fizzles. Hollywood needs to step in.

  21. wysinwyg says:

    I thought this was a great read.  Thanks, Mitch.

  22. Gordon Stark says:

    I keep seeing all these people who do not believe the world is ending, who are going on like lot’s of people believe the world is going to end, but I don’t see them anywhere.  They are writing all these hype articles as though people believe the world is going to end on Dec. 21st, and yet I only see those who don’t believe it.  Where are all the theorized people who imagine the world were about to end this month?  

    I am tired of reading hype stories by people pretending that others imagine the world is going to end.  Such hype is being created by the nay sayers, not by actual people believing the world were about to end.

    Why don’t we next pretend that “lot’s of people” believe the sky is going to turn red, next year, and start writing articles to debunk that BS, to make it seem like people actually believe it.

  23. Larry Dixon says:

    We were on watch for Y2K—all the emergency services and volunteers in Rogers County, Oklahoma—because we didn’t completely know where the bug would crop up. We knew that it could be in things like hospital, power station and water pump control systems.

    To be utterly blunt, there were not enough experts alive here who knew exactly where the code glitch might show up in our county’s many technologically “ancient” systems.  The engineers and programmers who had originally used that code were largely fired, retired or dead. 

    We didn’t know where or how to fix it, so instead, we prepared to bypass or repair what life-threatening things could go wrong.  We had volunteers with radios to call in to the Emergency Ops center (where Mercedes Lackey and I were charting & tracking), in key locations across the county.  We had a network of electricians, doctors and utility specialists awake and ready.

    So, you can imagine how tiresome it is to hear “See? Y2K was nothing, they were so gullible and stupid!” year after year. 

    With the (rightful) rage millions have over poor disaster responses and preparedness when horrors like Katrina and Sandy hit, you’d think people might instead be proud that we saw a danger coming and were ready for it.  We were ready to respond in scores of ways. 

    To me, Y2K was one of our finest hours, because we were aware of a technological danger that could result in disaster, and we were prepared to roll out.

    We’ve been endlessly mocked for doing so.

  24. Rad Hall says:

    The thing about commenting this late …

  25. timquinn says:

    the thing about commenting this late, no one will read it.

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