July 10, 2014 at 7:17 am

Doomsday scenarios: Apocalyptic culture preys on our worst fears again and again

The end is near.

It’s at your local movie theater, it’s on your TV. It’s streaming into your computer, on your phone, on your tablet. Apocalyptic culture — books, movies, TV shows that deal with the end of civilization or the world — seems to be coming at us non-stop.

Consider this: The three weeks leading up to this weekend have seen three apocalyptic films released — “The Rover,” “Snowpiercer” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction;” and two new apocalyptic TV series — “The Last Ship” and “The Leftovers.” This weekend, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” in which human civilization is overrun, comes to theaters while “The Strain,” a show about a vampire plague, debuts on FX.

“The world right now is kind of scary and seems constantly on the verge of some sort of ending,” says Kathleen Battles, an associate professor of communication and media studies at Oakland University.

How pervasive are apocalyptic worries these days? Oakland University announced a new bachelor’s degree in “Post-Apocalyptic Survival Studies” on April 1. It was an April Fool’s joke, but it still reflected what’s become a constant consideration in modern culture.

“You have religious groups who keep proclaiming the end of the world, the rapture. There was the Y2K scare. You have all these wars all over the world that most of us don’t really understand,” says Battles, who last year published “War of the Worlds to Social Media: Mediated Communications in Times of Crisis,” which studied Orson Welles’ grand apocalyptic radio scare in 1938 about an alien invasion of Earth.

“You’ve got outbreaks of real viruses. I think there’s still anxiety in the wake of the AIDS crisis, but then you have reports of Ebola,” Battles says. “I think the world is kind of a big scary place and because the mass media lets us know that all the time we generally have a sense of the world as scary.”

And that scariness can be turned into big profits.

Apocalyptic stories generally either tell a tale of impending doom, show the big event itself or follow a post-apocalyptic world.

Two of the top three all-time worldwide box office champions are apocalyptic in nature: An apocalypse is halted on another world in 2009’s “Avatar” ($2.7 billion earned) and stopped on Earth in 2012’s “Marvel’s The Avengers” ($1.5 billion).

AMC’s zombie apocalypse show “The Walking Dead” averaged more than 13 million viewers in its recent fourth season, consistently beating even its broadcast television competition.

And the biggest box office hit of 2013 was the post-apocalyptic “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the second installment in Hollywood’s biggest current movie franchise.

Fans can’t get enough of the end of the world.

“Even though it’s sci-fi and fantasy, it’s based in reality,” says fan Matt Munerantz, a 31-year-old project manager from St. Clair Shores. “I really enjoy those kind of stories.

“It’s fun to see the reaction of how people adapt. Most of the time it seems like everyone just goes insane when things are going bad,” Munerantz says. “Are we so unprepared for anything that might happen that we’re just caught with our pants down?”

The end of the world has probably been fodder for worry since the beginning of the world. The stakes were raised with the advent of the nuclear bomb. And as technology has advanced, so have concerns. Now we have so much more — terrifying diseases and failing antibiotics, nuclear proliferation, the constant cloud of climate change and artificial intelligence, among others — to work with.

“It’s a reflection of the world in which we live. People basically realize that society is fragile,” says Gary Hoppenstand, who teaches film, literature and pop culture at Michigan State.

“The apocalypse in film and television and fiction is something that’s very meaningful for people right now because it expresses deep-seated anxieties about how the world is going along,” Hoppenstand says. “I mean, they see the news every day.

“Popular culture reflects our nightmares as well as our dreams. We confront our fears in an entertaining way.”

And the abundance of apocalyptic culture may itself be a warning sign.

“Popular culture taps the collective conscious and the collective unconscious. It’s not only reflecting our nightmares, but it’s also serving as a kind of warning that we’re all recognizing that we’re at a tipping point in a variety of ways,” Hoppenstand says. “We sense that we are in a dangerous place. Everything could fall apart and it could fall apart pretty quickly.”

Apocalyptic culture fan Munerantz isn’t all that worried about the world actually ending. But if it does he hopes it will be colorful.

“For me, it’s just entertainment. If the world ends one day, it ends one day,” he says. “If it ends in a cool fashion where there are zombies, at least the end of the world will be a little more fun.”

tlong@detroitnews.com
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