From Plato’s accounts of the demise of Atlantis in 360 B.C. to the recent Hollywood blockbuster 2012, Earth’s storytellers have used the apocalypse as a way to comment on their society.
With the alleged “Mayan apocalypse” looming on Dec. 21, Barry Vacker, associate professor of media studies and production at Temple University’s School of Media and Communication decided to find out why.
His research has culminated in a special class, “Media, Culture and the End of the World,” as well as a new book, The End of the World—Again: Why the Apocalypse Meme Replicates in Media, Science and Culture, which should be published just in time for our current “doomsday.”
“These films are not merely giving us warnings about what we might be doing wrong on the planet, but they’re also giving us a sense of what it means to be a human in the vast universe,” he says.
Vacker has noted several themes that permeate apocalyptic stories, such as humanity’s struggle to find cosmic significance to the yearning for a “clean slate” on which we could reboot our society and learn from our mistakes. Other stories will showcase some humans’ desire for cosmic murder or suicide (they’re the characters rooting for the meteor to hit Earth) or our fear of the future.
“As the films unfold, you realize there are people wishing the world was over because they can’t find any meaning in life,” he says.
Vacker’s interest in these tales of doom go back to his childhood. “I had a little portable TV in my bedroom and there was a TV station that showed these apocalyptic movies late at night on a Friday or Saturday night, like Dr. Strangelove or Planet of the Apes or Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” he says. “Every time a new Hollywood movie about the end of the world would come out, I’d always go.”
He has found the films strike a deep chord within our consciousness.
“Humans want warnings about what’s possible,” Vacker says. “Also, I think that humans want the idea that things could be better, we could be transformed, we could get a new beginning. Everybody in their life at some point in time has gone ‘Man, if I could do it all over again, I’d do something different.’”
For Genevieve Gillespie, a senior media studies and production major and an undergraduate teaching assistant in Vacker’s class, says the topic has hit home for the students.
“This course extrapolates and explores the histories and meanings behind the most basic, yet terrifying philosophical question for humanity in a post-modern society,” she says. “It forces students to question their assumptions regarding their own place in society, our planet, and space and time. It’s personal for everyone in that room.”
While he agrees the apocalypse makes for great Hollywood fodder, Vacker is continuously astounded by the number of people who actually believe the world will either end or transform on Dec. 21. A recent National Geographic survey shows that 27 percent of Americans believe the Mayan calendar prediction is “somewhat true.”
He says fictional portrayals of the apocalypse make it more plausible for some people. “The media perpetuate an anti-scientific outlook on the world. For every science show, there are 10 paranormal shows somewhere else.”
But he doesn’t see humanity’s longing for doomsday scenarios in fiction or real life diminishing any time soon.
“Once 2012 goes by, once Dec. 21 goes by, there will be another one,” he says.
End of the World Symposium
Vacker, through his think tank, The Center for Media and Destiny, has organized a three-day celebratory symposium on the Mayan apocalypse Dec. 19-21 at the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art.
It will include at art exhibit, film screenings, panel discussions and more. It ends with a countdown to midnight and a farewell toast.
For more information, visit www.philamoca.org or http://www.mediaanddestiny.