The 2000s: Selling the Apocalypse, Now
The End of the World, Coming Soon
The financial success of the late-'90s death trip was not lost on Hollywood's money men, who realized that there was a lot of money to be made from showing audiences the end of the world. And just because Y2K went off without a hitch was no reason to let a valuable franchise die. Over the next decade, the apocalyptic hit parade continued, largely through an explosion in America's zombie-flick industry. in 2000, there were three U.S.-made living-dead movies. By 2008, there were 28.
But there were several other ways to die, as evidenced by eco-thriller The Day After Tomorrow, eye-opening Blindness, and the grim Children of Men. Even now, the genre is still going strong: the goofy 2012 and the suicide-inducing adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road should be in theaters until the end of the year.
In end-of-the-world books, religion reigned supreme, and the decade's clear winner was the Left Behind series, which follow the idea of rapture: the belief that the end of the world will be presaged by the disappearance of all righteous Christians, who will be called to join Jesus. The first book in the series was published in 1995, followed by a sprawling set of 15 sequels (and prequels), several movies, a video game, and a series of young-adult novels.
The real world offered enough horrors to sate most apocalypse junkies, starting with Y2K: the fear that our two-digit computer timestamp system would start over from scratch, rebooting computers across the world, draining money from accounts, sending airplanes plummeting, and collapsing the credit markets. Even those of us who didn't fear the end of Western civilization stockpiled fresh water and got a few hundred dollars in spare cash -- and when January 1, 2000, dawned with barely a hiccup, we breathed a collective sigh of relief.
But that was before 2001. The terrorist attacks of September 11 didn't spell global apocalypse, but they sounded a death knell for our long-held notion of American security. Suddenly, we were faced with the possibility that our massive military and economic might couldn't protect our strongest symbols of financial and defense domination against an attack by a small group of religious nuts from halfway around the world. For eight years and counting, lines at airports, security alerts, Patriot Acts and the ongoing war on terror -- not to mention the thwarted attack of Christmas Day 2009 -- have been constant reminders of just how vulnerable American safety can be.
The Politics of Apocalypse
Even politics has jumped on the apocalypse bandwagon. Eight years of claims that George W. Bush was Satan, Hitler, or at least the worst President since Warren Harding neatly segued into equal and opposite attacks on the Obama administration. Admittedly, politics has always been a tough business: As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin notes, Thomas Jefferson once called John Adams a "howling hermaphrodite," while Jefferson's opponents claimed that he supported incest and rape. But there's a world of difference between claiming that one's opponent is a sexual reprobate and claiming that he is the father of lies -- or, for that matter, that he isn't an American citizen. For much of the last decade, the battle hasn't been between right and left, liberal and conservative: rather, it has been framed as a steel cage match between God and Satan, patriotism and treason.
Interestingly, the language of apocalypse has been embraced across the political spectrum. While conservative politicians grumble about immigration, national security, and bankruptcy, their leftist colleagues have been quick to turn the conversation to Inconvenient Truths, peak oil, and the end of American hegemony. In all cases, voters are hit with desperate warnings and worst-case scenarios. After all, it's hard to sell voters on the joys of moderation.
Not surprisingly, this tone has bled out into the punditocracy. Keith Olbermann's soliloquies evoke John Galt's postapocalyptic radio scene in Atlas Shrugged, but they pale beside the end-of-the-Republic tone of his fellow broadcasters. Whether it's Sean Hannity's "tea parties" or Glenn Beck's claim that Congress is "approaching treason," political discourse over the last 10 years suggests that there's no longer any common ground, and that disagreement is almost tantamount to justifying a revolution. (Indeed, Texas Gov. Rick Perry indicated this year that succession may be an option for his state.)
The End is Nigh, so Pay Up
There's clearly a cultural basis for America's fascination with the apocalypse, but there's just as clearly a lot of money to be made by selling apocalyptic visions, whether through thrilling movie spectacles, a literary conclusion to the Biblical narrative, or ad revenue for syndicated talk-shows. The apocalypse always means big bucks, always translates to massive audiences and massive sales.
Little wonder, then, that publishers and moviemakers are eager to continue extending the expiration date on the end of the world to 2012, 2020, or whenever. Yet with the barbarians resolutely refusing to come -- almost 60% of respondents in a recent poll described the decade as "not so good" or "awful" -- it seems like even the apocalypse might have a limited shelf life.
Well, one can hope.