Lonny Sundvall doesn't know what will happen on Dec. 21, but he's ready for the worst.
He's amassed a year's worth of canned and dry food, dozens of gallons of water, hundreds of water purification tablets, and a small cache of weapons in a old U-Haul truck outside his western Oregon home in preparation for "doomsday," the end-times scenario based upon the ancient Mayan calendar hitting a symbolic turning point this month.
"I do think it's possible that something catastrophic will happen," said Sundvall. He spends his free time monitoring the U.S. Geological Survey website, looking for reports of earthquakes and natural disasters, between reading news sites for virus outbreaks and worldwide climate fluctuations, events he sees as signs of pending destruction. "I won't say it's absolute, but it could happen."
Sundvall, a 50-year-old warehouse worker, husband and father of three kids, may at first seem extreme. But he's part of more than one in ten people around the globe who think the Mayan Long Count calendar, just one of many ways the millennia-old civilization kept track of time, points to Armageddon. A Reuters survey this year found that one in seven people believe the world will end during their lifetime, if not next week. In the U.S., NASA has dedicated a part of its website to debunk myths about the world's end. The Russian government has reassured the nation that life will continue, as has the Vatican to Catholics.
But like many theories of humanity's demise before it, the Mayan myth persists. Why is it that humans desire to know when they will die? What's so appealing about believing in a definite date to the end of life?
"I'm not fearful, but almost hopeful it'll come ... look at how perverse our society and culture is," Sundvall said, pointing to "hyper-sexualization, violence, the destruction of the environment." To him, humans have "drifted so far away from our natural state that it's mind-numbing. Something needs to happen to shake humans up."
End-times scenarios are almost as old as humanity itself, said Chip Berlet, a former adviser to the Center for Millennial Studies, which formed at Boston University as apocalyptic theories hit an apex ahead of the turn of the millenium. Berlet, an investigative freelance journalist, specializes in writing about about the use of apocalyptic scenarios in right-wing movements and political cults.
"We are almost pre-programmed to think of whether we need to prepare for the end. It's nearly genetic, the idea of fight or flight," said Berlet. "It's so rooted in western culture, and it long ago escaped any religious context. Look at film and TV, you'll come across apocalypse over and over. The idea of 'time is running out.'"
Historically, most apocalyptic movements in the U.S. have been rooted in Christianity, but it isn't the only religion that believes the world will end. In non-Abrahamic traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, the idea of death and destruction is more cyclical than finite.
Christian denominations differ on the exact chronology and length of Christ's second coming, but some believe in what's called millennialism, where there will be a destructive period of tribulation before Jesus returns to reign over Earth for 1,000 years before the current world ends and a time of paradise on Earth begins.
Dozens of end-times predictions have gone unfulfilled, but a few have had lasting outcomes. In 1844, Baptist preacher William Miller gained followers by predicting Christ's return. Dubbed the "Great Disappointment" when Jesus didn't come, the movement nonetheless grew into today's Seventh-Day Adventist Church. In the 1970s and 1980s, Hal Lindsey famously promoted in "The Late Great Planet Earth" the idea that end times would soon approach, set off by a Soviet invasion of the Middle East. The year 2000 went by without widespread digital breakdowns, and radio preacher Harold Camping recanted his prediction of the world's end in 2011.
The latest theory comes from the Mayan Long Count calendar, which counted the number of years since a mythical creation date of Aug. 11, 3114 B.C., written as 18.104.22.168.0. Nov. 13, 2720 B.C., is written as 22.214.171.124.0, while Feb. 16, 2325 B.C., is written as 126.96.36.199.0. On Dec. 21, 2012, the year is once again written once again as 188.8.131.52.0.
Geoffrey Braswell, an associate professor of anthropology and Maya scholar at the University of California, San Diego, said he's been surprised by the amount of interest in the Mayan "doomsday," and believes that it, too, will pass with people taking back their predictions.
"I think the Maya weren't sure how to best calculate or count either before creation or after Dec. 21, but that's not the same thing as saying the world is ending," he said. "There is a sense in most of these groups that the world and our culture are corrupt and evil and that this will be a cleansing. Maybe these kinds of beliefs give people a way out. At some level, it may be a cop-out. 'We don't have to worry about taking care of our world, because the end of the world is coming. Just wait.'"