Why Americans embrace on-screen depictions of the end of the world
American television and movie viewers love watching the world end.
In “Independence Day” and its new sequel opening June 24, aliens arrive on earth with seemingly unstoppable weapons. On “The Walking Dead,” zombies take over.
Superheroes like Captain America, the X-Men and Iron Man have kept supervillains at bay so far, but not without the (scripted) loss of thousands of lives.
The threat of the apocalypse, which has long been a part of religions like Christianity and Islam, is more than just a plot device. It’s become a way for TV shows and movies to explore the deep questions people ask themselves about societal and technological advancement, according to experts on religion and pop culture.
“I think people are worried about things today like, ‘Will the internet or medical advances be our downfall?’ They are religious concerns, but I don’t think religious traditions, in a broad sense” have figured out how to address them, said Alissa Wilkinson, co-author of “How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith and Politics at the End of the World.”
And so depictions of apocalyptic anxieties in pop culture dominate public discourse.
“Pop culture is the currency of our time. … It’s what people look to for communal experience,” Wilkinson said.
Depictions of the apocalypse in TV shows and movies are often totally divorced from religious teachings, but faith communities should still engage with them, experts say. By responding to the fears depicted on screen, people of faith can spread a message of hope and spark meaningful conversations.
There is something undeniably appealing about watching a movie in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance, said Kelly Baker, a historian of American religion.
“It’s a good story. When the world is at stake, the stakes of the story get so much higher,” she said.
It’s also soothing to see the good and the bad in the world so clearly organized, Baker added.
“There is a moral clarity that doesn’t exist for people otherwise. The lines between good and bad are clearly defined,” she said.
Apocalyptic stories have been told for centuries. Long before audiences in movie theaters worried about bombs dropping from alien spaceships, members of early faith groups prayed to gods who could protect them from bloodshed and famine.
“If you look at the history of literature generally, human cultures told stories about the apocalypse almost as soon as they told any kind of story,” Wilkinson said.
This storytelling continues with a newfound urgency in the modern world, as Americans worry about atomic bombs, robotic technology, diseases like Zika and climate change, noted Sean McCloud, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Around 22 percent of U.S. adults believe the world will end in their lifetime, and not only because of religious teachings. “Some are thinking about environmental or political disasters,” McCloud said.
When faced with a challenge like political unrest in the Middle East, it’s natural to want to escape into a TV show or movie that mirrors real life without the real-life consequences, Baker said.
“The problems are so big. How do you wrap your mind around what an individual can do to solve some of these problems?” she said.
Responding with faith
Although the world of pop culture often borrows the concept of apocalypse without any of the accompanying theology, apocalyptic TV shows and movies can be valuable resources for faith communities, Wilkinson said.
“If a show or a movie is interested in the end of the world, it’s asking some important questions. That’s a good thing,” she said. “What do these shows tell us about how we, as a culture, think of ourselves?”
Americans are worried about how quickly the world is changing, and faith communities don’t always know how to effectively respond to that anxiety, she added, noting that it might be helpful for a church to have a discussion group centered on apocalyptic movies and TV shows.
They can talk about pop cultural renderings of the apocalypse “not in the sense of what’s wrong with (them), but in the sense of the different ways they might respond to the situation,” Wilkinson said.
It’s essential for faith groups to engage with popular conceptions of the apocalypse, because in the absence of religion, people enjoy the drama without pausing to think about how they can work to make the world a better place, Baker said.
“I’m always bothered by people who love this stuff. What, does that mean that the only way we can make a change in the world is through violence or death or genocide?” she said. “The ethical complications aren’t thought through in the secular component” of the apocalypse.
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