These days, the rise of apocalyptic thinking and entertainment is a sign of the times -- though not necessarily the end times.
Two recent events reveal our ambivalence about the apocalypse as entertainment: criticism of the hot new reality TV show Doomsday Preppers, and the stunning box office success of The Hunger Games.
A few weeks ago, The New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger chastised The National Geographic Channel for its presentation of Doomsday Preppers. Mr. Genzliner wrote that the show, which portrays a variety of individuals preparing themselves and their families for an anticipated cataclysm, too frequently devolves into a showcase of the vast arsenal of weapons that many preppers have stockpiled in anticipation of their personal end-of-the-world scenario. The end of the world, Mr. Genzingler wrote, becomes "a license to open fire."
Despite the howls of protest from the prepper community (who argue that the show deliberately sensationalizes an otherwise level-headed movement of people who are preparing their families for societal breakdown), Mr. Genzlinger's criticism was effective at marginalizing the prepper movement in the minds of many.
And on the margins is where we like to keep apocalyptic anticipation. As we write in our new book The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us About America, critics have long dismissed apocalyptic anticipation as "the hobgoblin of the conspiratorial mind -- a subject best treated with a dismissive shake of the head. Some people are just plain weird."
But just how marginal is apocalyptic thinking? While we might mock the prepper who builds a concrete bunker to protect his family from the unlikely scenario of a sudden shift in the earth's magnetic poles, it's hard to look around popular culture in 2012 and make the argument that our hunger for the apocalyptic storyline is anything but mainstream.
After all, the dystopic vision of the future portrayed in The Hunger Games, whose $155 million opening weekend surely turned an already ashen gray John Carter green with envy, doesn't exist in isolation. Though it's barely spring, the apocalypse in 2012 is already in full bloom: we've seen it in multi-million dollar Super Bowl ads (for Chevy trucks), hit pop singles (for Britney Spears), and in AMC's hugely popular zombocalyptic thriller The Walking Dead.
Worn out by the end of the world already? Well, buckle up for this summer's romantic comedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (starring Steve Carrell, Keira Knightley, and a Chicxulubian-sized meteor named Matilda) or the slew of media stories that are sure to greet (if nothing else does) the New Age anticipation of a Mayan apocalypse this December.
Indeed, rather than being marginal, the apocalypse in 2012 is firmly entrenched in mainstream popular culture. Why? Perhaps because the apocalypse serves as a form of daydreaming escape from a world that looks radically different from just a decade ago, and a future still marred by profound global uncertainties. Whether one is bunkering down in anticipation of the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano or hunkering down with a bowl of popcorn for the latest episode of The Walking Dead, embracing the apocalypse as entertainment or preoccupation allows us to turn away, at least for a moment, from the very real challenges confronting us, from climate change to energy scarcity to the decline of American influence and power.
Pass the popcorn.