Art: Patrick Moriarity


DURING A TAXI ride one day in February, a driver in Baltimore asked how I was doing. I told him my plans for the near future.

He turned around, gave me a very strange look and said: "I don't want to scare you, but the world is gonna end in seven months."

Hundreds of taxis, and I get this guy. But nothing about him seemed dangerous, so I engaged him in conversation. Apparently a disciple of a certain radio preacher, this cabbie could expound at length on why the world was expected to end that September. Drawing on my meager knowledge of eschatology, I asked, "Isn't the antichrist supposed to reign for several years before the world ends?"

"Oh, he's already here!" the driver assured me. "People just don't know it!" At my destination, he left me marveling at the vagaries of belief.

That was in 1994. Ten years later, the world is still here. How that driver explained its survival, I have no idea. If he truly trusted that seven-month countdown, then he must have been disappointed at the dawn of October 1.

The human brain appears to have a receptor for such stories, as for opiates, because the neo-doomsday crowd never lacks an audience. Just now, a lot of people again imagine the world ending very soon.

As I write, fears focus on the asteroid Toutatis, a mountain-sized planetoid that is expected to pass very close to Earth on Wednesday, September 29, 2004. For months, the internet has been abuzz with woeful speculation that Toutatis will hit us rather than miss by a few Earth radii. Depending on where such an object landed, it might devastate a hemisphere—or worse. An impact at sea might send colossal waves, or tsunamis, roaring around the globe to smash and drown coastal cities from New York to Singapore.

Yes, for some, for us, this could be scheduled for next Wednesday.

Well, relax. Not everyone anticipates "the end" tomorrow or next week. We might survive 2004, and maybe even 2005. But thereafter, doomsayers are having a field day. According to one Canadian website, the much-publicized "Bible code," which supposedly reveals future events as encoded in portions of the Bible, has been cited as warning of a global nuclear war in 2006.

But the big time for doomsday lovers is six years later. The other day, a friend who monitors end-times chatter told me, "They're predicting 'the end' for 2012 now." Specifically, "they" include:

• The Bible-code set, who also imagine the Pentateuch points to a comet striking Earth that year;

• Exegetes of the Mayan calendar, who appear to think it indicates something really horrible (conceivably the end of the universe) on December 21, 2012;

• An exponent of "novelty theory," according to which some unspecified but unpleasant "trans-dimensional" event is due on that same date, as the "center" of the galaxy rises;

• An unnamed doomsayer who puts the big event three days later, on December 24, when one-third of the Oort cloud, a giant swarm of comets circling the sun, supposedly will crash into our planet; and

• Another seer who suggests the sun and Earth both will undergo reversals of their magnetic fields in 2012, leading to tremendous geophysical upheavals on Earth.

The online literature about "earth changes"—from mammoth tsunamis to a runaway greenhouse effect—is extensive and lurid. At one representative website, a visionary who practices "dousing" [sic] presents maps depicting vast but vaguely defined changes affecting the U.S. Pacific coast, Georgia, South Carolina, and southern Japan by the year 2005. Even greater changes are projected to reach inland as far as the western borders of Kansas and Nebraska by 2010. Depending on whose imaginings you sample, there is a terrifying risk that rising sea levels caused by global warming will put present-day seacoasts under water…North America soon will look like a tattered croissant…the San Andreas fault will give, with calamitous results for California…Antarctica and the Arctic will wind up on the equator…the Yellowstone caldera will erupt again…a huge undersea landslide will send monster waves crashing into shores around the Atlantic basin…we will freeze and/or starve in darkness as global oil supplies are exhausted during the coming decades.

That is, if the sun doesn't go out, the arrival of a mystery planet in our solar system doesn't devastate the world and we somehow avoid extinction from pandemics or pollution or a great cosmic shift in something or other.

Yet no one I know is buying oceanfront property in Omaha. After all, we have heard such talk time and again before, without any of it coming true.

MY MEMORIES OF middle school in the early 60s include an end-of-the-world scare. Some would-be prophet had caused a stir by predicting the world would end at a particular date and time in, I think, 1964 (the year after singer Skeeter Davis, by coincidence, released her tearful song "The End of the World"). When the dread hour arrived, during a volleyball game or whatever, someone near me looked at the clock and screamed, "Aaaaah! We're gonna die in our gym class!" Nervous laughter ensued.

The game finished, the bell rang and school continued as usual.

So did dire anticipations. In 1968, a cult assembled its followers atop a mountain in Colorado to flee a perceived threat from the asteroid Icarus, which passed Earth at a distance of four million miles on June 14 that year. Icarus' visit, they feared, would coincide with California sliding into the Pacific Ocean.

Actually, no danger existed. Four million miles is 1000 times Earth's radius. That was a very comfortable margin of safety. Still, the cultists were not alone in their apprehension, groundless though it was. Harvard University astronomer Brian Marsden, for example, reported later that he had to spend time on the telephone reassuring a woman whose mother was afraid the world was about to end.

Warnings about another close encounter with Icarus in 2006 have been circulating online. One newsgroup posting about "Doomsday Icarus" cited an article in a Costa Rican newspaper to the effect that Icarus' next visit to our vicinity might be its last. The article quoted scientists as saying an impact was all but inevitable and discussed a proposal to shatter the asteroid with nuclear explosions.

If this plan sounds familiar, then perhaps it should. Similar schemes were formulated more than 30 years ago and have been dramatized in science fiction movies including Japanese director Kenji Fukasaku's The Green Slime (1968), Ronald Neame's Meteor (1979) and the more recent Deep Impact and Armageddon (1998).

What if Icarus misses us? Then there will still be plenty of "Earth-grazers" out there, because more than 100 "potentially hazardous asteroids," or PHAs, zip past us on a regular basis. Though minuscule by planetary standards, PHAs still would cause tremendous destruction in the unlikely event that one of them struck Earth. A PHA discovered in 1997, XF 11, led to a scare the following year when it was projected to pass within 600,000 miles of us in 2028. One astronomer attributed that flap in part to "overeager" internet use.

Planetoid impact lore is a particular interest of mine, and tracing its history can be a colorful exercise. The trail leads back to 1910, when fears about Halley's comet had much of the world cowering. According to one local report, a 20-pound blade came loose from a cooling fan at a company on 8th Ave., flew through the air, and shattered windows in a passing trolley car. "The comet!" passengers screamed as they ran from the car.

Over the next half-century, works of science fiction such as When Worlds Collide (both the 1934 novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie and its 1951 motion-picture adaptation) and the classic 1955 film This Island Earth capitalized on fears of spectacular impacts. The latter depicted meteorite impacts used as weapons during an interplanetary war.

In the factual realm, a projection of a planetoid strike's effects—everything from tsunamis to severe climate change—appeared in the March 1966 issue of Analog magazine, supported by maps and figures. Such serious treatment gave the topic legitimacy. Soon, it was almost fashionable to imagine giant rocks dropping from space. Tales of that kind became television fare by 1978, when the tv movie A Fire in the Sky depicted a comet destroying Phoenix. Clearly, end-of-the-world scenarios sold.

Sell they still do, especially when linked to prophetic texts. The Japanese went into a tizzy five years ago after an alleged Nostradamus prophecy foretold a conqueror descending from the skies in 1999. This was interpreted as an invasion by space aliens. In Korea at that time, a tongue-in-cheek magazine illustration showed a monster with a flying saucer for a mouth that was devouring humans. (Koreans often enjoy a chuckle at the expense of Japan, as their memories of the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945 remain bitter. Indeed, one wonders how much Japanese fears of invasion from space in 1999 may have reflected a guilty conscience, much as H.G. Wells' fantasy The War of the Worlds a century earlier appeared to be a parable about the British rape of Tasmania.)

Though the 1999 Nostradamus ruckus in Japan may have owed something to the 1996 movie Independence Day and its vision of extraterrestrials devastating Earth, that invaders-from-space scenario was circulating long before. I recall reading it around 1968. Now I wonder: Had someone back then watched the 1953 movie adaptation of The War of the Worlds—or The Mysterians, a 1957 Toho Corporation epic about invaders from another planet—and based a similar scenario on Nostradamus' murky quatrains?

Impact scenarios such as the one involving asteroid Icarus have added to the apocalyptic religious fervor of our day by providing a plausible mechanism for certain "last days" expectations among evangelicals. Consider the events mentioned in Luke 21: 25-26:

And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring;

Men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.

Read those lines carefully. A planetoid impact in mid-ocean indeed would set "the sea and the waves roaring." The tsunami from such an event in the mid-Atlantic might come ashore at New York as a breaker the height of Manhattan's tallest towers, roll over Long Island and inundate much of the eastern U.S. coastal plain. Ejecta from the impact would obscure the sun, moon and stars. So, one easily might interpret those two verses as describing the aftermath of a planetoid strike at sea, a prospect to make even the stoutest heart falter. Is it any wonder then that projections of planetoid impacts have reinforced the apocalypticism of recent years?

AS IMPRESSIVE AS the scope of world-enders' thinking these days is its overwhelming detail. Everything from events in the Middle East to the technology of cloning has been worked into one end-times commentary or another.

As one might expect, 9/11 has acquired apocalyptic dimensions of its own, explained at Boston University's Center for Millennial Studies website. In that specific context, the level of detail may extend even to the frequency of individual words in the book of Revelation. A pious acquaintance, apparently aware of Manhattan's equation with mystery Babylon, tried to relate the fall of the WTC's two towers to the repetition of the two words "is fallen" in Revelation 14:8:

"And there followed another angel, saying, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication."

Being no biblical scholar, and certainly no eschatologist, I can only make a guess (albeit uninformed) that the words are repeated for emphasis and not to represent a specific number of buildings destroyed.

The detail of these scenarios reflects more than just zeal and fascination. It also serves two important purposes. One, to overwhelm the reader or listener with information. Presented with countless particulars and tiny specifics, one simply cannot investigate, much less evaluate, all of them one by one. Potential critics are swamped. That effect accounts, at least in part, for the success of many end-times models. Doomsday artists are well aware of this principle: The more detail, the better, for the same reason that a hurricane is more powerful than a single raindrop.

Now for the second, less evident but equally important purpose of abundant detail: It provides a doomsday scenario such as a conspiracy hypothesis about the "last days" with countless points of attachment to other scenarios. Together, they support and reinforce one another in the same manner as the interconnected girders of a building.

A well-built steel-frame structure can survive even a nuclear blast, as happened at Hiroshima. In like fashion, a conjoined set of end-of-the-world scenarios, attached by countless shared details, may resist even the strongest factual rebuttal. The techno-paranoid culture of our time, with its innumerable high-tech conspiracy scenarios, illustrates this principle. Paranoia about the "face on Mars" reinforces UFO paranoia, which in turn reinforces "black helicopter" paranoia. And so on.

A similar interdependency helps make the neo-doomsday movement so powerful. No one can break all its countless links or disprove all its little particulars. No one has the time or energy. Ergo, the movement both survives and thrives. Like a tsunami, it just rolls on.

If we cannot stop it, can we at least, then, understand it? How is one to interpret such neo-doomsday enthusiasm?

Doomsday scares are diversions meant to take our attention away from things that we are not meant to contemplate. When something sinister and shadowy is happening of which alert minds might become aware and warn others, excitement and fear about another issue or event (scary prophecies, killer asteroids, invaders from space) are effective distractions.

Preferably, the threat should be something recurrent, so that frequent scares can be manufactured. Toutatis and other "hazardous" asteroids serve this purpose well. They return every few years. Better yet, their putative menace can be emphasized with eye-catching graphics such as computer-generated images of a tumbling rock the size of Ellis Island, or a miles-wide crater where Manhattan used to be. And when that particular scare turns out to have been unjustified, no problem. There's always another Earth-grazing asteroid on the way—the sky is, almost literally, never far from falling.

A scare from space makes a great diversion from dark doings on Earth, doesn't it? "Look! Up there!"

WHAT IF FORECASTS of imminent doom are, as techno-paranoids call them, "psy-ops"? That is, psychological operations designed to redirect popular thinking in certain ways? What if we are being conditioned to live in fear of some world-ending super-menace—from outer space or wherever—that could be simulated and then seemingly averted at the last moment by a "miraculous" rescue? Whoever "saved" the world through such global stagecraft would acquire unprecedented influence. Dictators have risen to power and even claimed divinity for themselves using much more modest ruses.

Fantastic though such a scenario sounds, something like it probably could be done with technologies of the very near future, if not the present. One easily can imagine a tyrant with worldwide ambitions and high-tech capabilities scheming even now to pull off the greatest hoax of all time, after years of conditioning the public to anticipate precisely such a crisis. This may sound like the ultimate techno-paranoid nightmare, yet it's consistent with the high volume of current warnings that the end is nigh. Quite a large number of people around the globe believe that the world is in its sunset years.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the appeal and distribution of such a belief. Note how often it turns up in everyday conversation. At a cookout I attended some years ago in Maryland, a young woman startled me when she said about the world in general, in a glib evangelical manner, "It's all going to burn up anyway!" Even modern legends are changing to reflect belief in an imminent apocalypse. The old tale of the "phantom hitchhiker" who vanishes from a motorist's vehicle now includes accounts of mysterious travelers, sometimes identified as "angels," who say something like "Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ is coming soon?"—and then disappear.

Hoaxes or not, on both the secular and religious levels, someone is successfully inciting fears about "the end" arriving very soon. Even in the years before 2000, and accounting for religious and non-religious prophecies (Y2K), the neo-doomsday chorus has never been louder than right now. Is it all the buildup to some contrived mega-fright?

Proof is lacking. But so many scaremongers are screaming at once about a planetary upheaval within the next several years that even taxi drivers, famed for their skepticism, can be persuaded that the world has only a few months left. o

Volume 17, Issue 38

© 2004 New York Press