This line, from my favorite TV show, has been much on my mind lately. It’s impossible to talk about the apocalypse singular in American culture. There are more than enough to go around, ends of the world brought on by zombies, Mayans, killer robots, killer contagion and even evolution itself.
Indeed our fascination with social and global nihilism is in no way limited to books and film. The apocalypse has become our sandbox. In computer and console games like the Fallout series, you get to be Mad Max minus the Mel…stockpiling weapons, fighting off the inevitable mutated creatures and also dealing with your fellow survivors, all of whom seem to either want your stuff or to eat you or both. Lord of the Flies as eschatological schema.
Despite our need to be entertained by the end of the human race, it occurs to me that we may be less interested than we once were in a good old-fashioned religious apocalypse. Something funny happened on the way to the rapture, it seems. Worrying about the hungry undead and unstoppable disease vectors seems to me to have moved the rapture, the seven year period of tribulation, the antichrist, the second coming into the utility closet of cultural history, if not its dustbin.
Does this speak to a basic sea change in the American experience of religion? We’ve tended to think of the premillenial dispensational craze launched by Hal Lindsey in the seventies and given institutional support by the Christian Right as simply part of American evangelical’s long war with modernity. Their conflict with American culture resulted in their sense that the United States represented a new Sodom and Gomorrah, ripe for fire from the heavens.
But that never made much sense anyway did it? After all, much of the Christian right was postmillennialist in practice while remaining premileenial in loudly asserted theory. Why work so hard to get prayer back into school and take a way a woman’s right to choose if you could, quite literally, be snatched out of this world any moment…if indeed this car would have no driver in case of rapture to quote a popular bumper sticker. Any Geertzian thick description of a conference or prayer rally among politically involved evangelicals would be hard pressed to find apocalypticism as a key historically transmitted symbol of meaning.
This decline of the religious apocalypse, by the way, would not necessarily signal the end of evangelicalism in America as I would argue that what’s replacing the religious right is not a suddenly rambunctious religious left but rather a new hipster fundamentalism, an outgrowth of the mega-church phenomenon. And is this often tattooed and ironic Christian t-shirt wearing tribe an apocalyptic sect? In other words, who wants to think about seas turning to blood and locusts the size of apache helicopters if you get to drink a latte during church (made in your church’s own Starbucks or at least Christian knock-off of Starbucks)?
Why has this happened? Why has the Charles Scofield meets Hal Lindsey vision of the end of the world fallen on hard cultural times? In the aftermath of the runaway popularity of Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth,” The Omen became one of the top-grossing horror films of the seventies, a film that Daryl Jones has called “The Exorcist for Protestants.” By the same token, after the Left Behind series and concerns about the alleged Y2k meltdown, it would seem that such images had enough cultural energy to survive and thrive a long time.
And yet, today, it seems like so much cultural detritus. Telling the kids in my freshman and sophomore class, my Satan class as its known, about the Left Behind books feels like telling them about the treaty of Westphalia or the halfway covenant. It’s a long time ago for them.
Perhaps, and this is a big perhaps that I present to us as a question to consider, our American need for monstrosity has overtaken millennial hopes. Our love of zombies has trumped our interest in the rapture. Our pessimism has caught up with us and made the world seem messier than something that can be organized on one of those dispensational charts of old.
Is there a connection between this sense of being collectively hanged in the morning and our monster du jour on the apocalyptic menu? Perhaps zombies have struck you as the perfect embodiment of the end of human society since the very mechanism that animates them seems like a transparent metaphor for destructive human drives that could easily end with barricaded houses, all the electricity off and even the most pacific of us developing an interest in shotguns and machetes.
But why the zombie? This is an even more pertinent question when we consider that, in popular culture, the vampire apocalypse has better traction as the monster of the apocalypse. You are probably aware that Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (and the film Last Man on Earth) is part of the immediate background for George Romero’s vision of survivors battling it out against hordes of the undead. Why did the vamps turn into zombies?
I think there are lots of reasons for this, an not to be ignored is the fact that tortured, brooding and very pretty vampires of Anne Rice came along in the same decade as Hal Lindsey’s proclamations of doom delivered west coast idiom. Vampires ended up with a different, and way sexier, cultural trajectory. But maybe the elision of the vampire from our apocalyptic scenarios also has to do with what makes the zombies such good monsters.
There is something basically pathetic about the zombie that we find both humorous and very recognizable. Yes, zombies are us…they are the monster that we could be in some way. But in so many narratives, such as the Walking Dead, Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead and Colbert Whitehead’s Zone One, they are vestiges of a world that never was, representations of loss that we don’t even have time to mourn.
In Whitehead’s brilliant novel there are two kinds of zombies or “skels”-the violent primal hungry kind and the “stragglers.” The latter wander the streets of lower Manhattan, going to fast food places and standing in line or standing at copy machines or ricocheting off the walls of a Human Resources meeting rooms. They are less apocalyptic monsters and more just us, wound down by ennui and pretty damn tired of the whole mess.
This brings me to the final depressing topic I’d like to mention. With comets colliding into us, seas rising and the cable going off, the epic nature of the apocalypse has always haunted most religious visions of the end. But I wonder if we need micro-histories of the apocalypse, histories of these imaginings that will contemplate its sadness? Could we as scholars explore the feeling of the apocalypse? What would a history of the “inner life of the apocalypse” or “the emotion of the apocalypse” even look like? I don’t know. But it might be another way to explore what we need these ideas for, why we hold them close.
We certainly know what it is looked and felt like in popular culture. Its been Jason Robards at the end of 1983s The Day After, weeping in the arms of another atomic survivor as they die of radiation sickness. And it’s a feeling that Colson White head has one of his characters communicate. “What does apocalypse mean?” a small child asks his dad. “It means that in the future things will be even worse than they are now” his father responds.