Mass Media Shapes Apocalyptic Cultures in America;
A look at Magazines, Movies, and the Internet.
Apocalyptic cultures are formed by a fear, uncertainty and pessimistic views about the future. Our American society is part of the apocalyptic culture. We surround ourselves with visions of impending doom. It is reflected in the literature we read, the movies we watch, and the growing number of websites dedicated to the apocalypse within the Internet. "In some ways, millennial thinkingóthe belief that a great upheaval or change is just around the corneróis as American as apple pie." Ė(Michael Rust).
People usually see religious groups such as the Peopleís Temple, Heavenís Gates, and other groups that are considered "cults" to be apocalyptic when they end in mass suicide. The reason for this is the coverage the media gives these "cults" when mega death occurs among its members. Sometimes the media will exaggerate the facts to make a story more intriguing. In some cases, there are cover-ups and fabrications added to the stories. Yet, the American public, is fascinated by the apocalypse, otherwise there would be no market for it.
One example of a story covered that emphasized apocalyptic events was the story regarding the Peopleís Temple. After the Jamestown incident during November of 1978, Times Magazine gave the story front cover and plenty of details during December of the same year. The cover of the magazine used the title Cult of Death, a misleading title, leading the reader to believe that the Peopleís Temple surrounded themselves constantly with images and thoughts of death. The cover also pictured people lying upside-down, cups thrown about, along with a box of medicine in the middle of a paved road along with a huge bucked of purple Kool-Aid. Within the magazine one encounters tons of festive advertising of unrelated products along with descriptive stories about the mass-suicide, "expert" advice on why this incident happened, a short biography of Jim Jones, and even some history on other "doomsday" events.
The story is still covered by current magazines, one article I came across was featured in USA Today, this story suggests that, "while the deaths were real, the stories were fabrications." (Jeff A. Schnepper) In this story instead of a mass-suicide the occurrence becomes a mass murder by corrupt politicians. The article even mentions that ABCís associate producer, Courtney Bullock of 20/20, feared for her life because she had received anonymous threats; therefore, she didnít tell the "true "story but did what others may have done and "retold the lies". Usually mass suicide is what attracts reporters to such stories, and although there have been many occurrences throughout history; the media portrays this "act of self-destruction "as a unique and outstanding event. This isnít the only story accused of being fabricated, a quote from Pitcavage in the New York Times stated, "The Waco documentary was highly publicized, but the inaccuracies were not, I don't think the McNulty Waco documentary could even remotely be considered objective."(Branch Dividians)
Movies feed off apocalyptic fears, many movies have been made dwelling on the near worldly apocalypse. These movies take religious and non-religious doomsday prophecies to play on the viewersí inner fear, which is actually the fear of death or the unknown, since filmmakers are showing the world during or after an apocalypse the film leaves plenty of room for exaggeration. These themes are abundant in science fiction books and movies, a few movies that came to mind where; Deep Impact, Armageddon, Jurassic Park, Panic in Year Zero, 12 Monkeys, The Terminator, Soylent Green, and Omega Code. These movies use the fear of vulnerability, chaos, and lose of control of humanities otherwise seemingly controllable world. End of Days and Omega Code both dealt with the "questions of God, evil, the apocalypse, miracles, fallen angels and salvation". Omega Code was a Christian thriller about the coming of the apocalypse. The story consists of a villain, or the Antichrist, that attempts to steal the secret Bible code to take over the world, and it contains plenty of quotes from the Scripture. This movies required a budget of $7.2 million dollars which came from Trinity Broadcasting Network, "carries a distinctly apocalyptic religious message", and was targeted at the religious majority through the recruitment of 2,000 volunteers and "a network of churches across the country to promote the film"-Omega Code, all this and a costly publicity campaign, as if this would be the final chance to declare the end of the world prophecy. The implication is that "moviesóespecially those with apocalyptic themes and a religious messageómay be a cultural wave of the future."-Omega Code
The Internet brought with it apocalyptic visions as well, but not just the Internet, the fear of rapid growth in technology also helped to encourage that anxiety. Fear of the millennium was re-awakened by the infamous Y2K bug. "Apocalyptic visions of the year 2000 computer glitch, fed by religious and technological fervor, have created a cottage industry catering to Americans who fear big trouble."- (Rust)
Everywhere on the Internet one could come across warning about the Y2K bug, including suggestions on how to prepare for and survive the coming disaster. These websites are still up and defending their prophetic doomsday notions. Books and magazines made quite a profit during this hysteria, along with several stores that ran out of supplies. In New York City alone one could listen to people talking about withdrawing money from their bank accounts, buying kerosene lamps, and obtaining canned goods, "just to be on the safe side". But if an apocalypse occurred, what safe side would there be? Bomb shelters? And where do people get these ideas that there will be survivors? All these views come from the strong influence of movies.
Movies are not alone in their portrayal of survivors, computer games also make a profit by dwelling on the fantasy of an apocalyptic future, one game, aptly called Apocalypse features a "fearsome force unmatched by evil" that launches a sneak attack on the world. Some games are post-apocalyptic and so are many of our famous movies, on of them is Mad Max. One would say this would be one of the ways to influence youth with apocalyptic thoughts.
"The Internet has become the medium of choice for millennialists concerned about Y2K, and that enthusiasm spilled over to print and electronic media". (Rust) Actually, print media and electronic media have been covering such events for years and continue to thrive off it, the difference now is that the Internet provides instant information and the paranoia spreads faster while further enhancing peopleís fear of some sort of apocalyptic event. It is believed that those who feared the millennium were primarily religious, mostly fundamentalist-evangelical Christians.
Newsweek magazine went a step further to verify this by conducting a survey, the poll was part of the cover story, Prophecy: What the Bible Said About the End of the World. According to the magazine, a significant percentage of the American population believe that natural disasters, diseases, scientific advancement, and increasing violence in our society are signs of the "second coming" or "final judgment". They also pointed out that, "The largest segment buying into such an apocalyptic scenario is Evangelical Protestants (71%), but only 28% of non-Evangelical Protestants and 18% of Roman Catholics share this belief." (qtd. In Omega Code) To make matters confusing another poll conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University state the opposite, they say that most Americans donít believe the world is going to end soon despite the media hype about doomsday. The reason for these results was that most of those surveyed where either atheist or agnostic.
Things became rather comical when reading past predictions, one author, Jeff Brailey stated, "This is an incredibly interesting time to be studying the religious cults, I think there are at least two dozen groups in the United States that are going to act violently in 1999, with violence either to themselves or ... to others". His prediction didnít happen and shows the misconception brought upon these groups of people. Another interesting fact that makes these past predictions somewhat laughable is that the millennium doesnít actually start until the year 2001, the western calendar is based on the year "1" not on the year "0". Concerns of the Y2K bug where so strong that 50 U.S. governors became involved creating emergency operation centers. The Internet is definitely filled with intriguing stories, articles, humor, history concerning the apocalypse and it gives a good perspective of our culture as apocalyptic. Itís unavoidable, American history shows us that we are a product of puritan, fundamentalist, protestant societies that dominated and still dominate most of what is believed today.
Our apocalypse culture changes and it adds different catastrophic ideas to its myth. Adam Parfey states, "Apocalypse ups the ante. Easier to lose one's trail in the hubbub. An opportunity to put an end to the nightmare of abundance before the teaming masses jealously strip away all trace of biodiversity. It's Gaia going rope-a-dope with the imperium of overpopulation, capital and stupidity." Fear of overpopulation, technological warfare, nuclear holocausts, and death cults only add to this picture.
Now that people think that the millennium has passed and another New Year approaches, they seem tranquil and festive in their moods. The media does manage to sensationalize certain aspects of the apocalypse but isnít the sole reason for this phenomenon. Our historical background and our fear of death under such circumstances, rapid and abrupt within changes our society, and what some consider the downfall of civilization leads people to believe that the apocalypse is near. If anything, this serves to show how stories can be changed, manipulated, exaggerated and how it affects people. Media does the same thing the radio show War of the Worlds once did, it creates panic even when itís meant to entertain or educate.
Fortunately, there are people who are calm and logical and help prevent these apocalyptic thoughts from taking place. It makes me wonder, do people want to die and why do they want to take everyone else with them? Is it instead a fear of dying alone and not knowing what is beyond? To some degree it is possible to say that those are the some of the reasons. Then again, all these apocalyptic thoughts might give people a reason to live life to itís fullest.
American Atheist, Inc. Omega Code Strikes Fear of End of Times Poll; 40% Expecting Armageddon, 45% Jesus Due in their LifetimeÖ Oct. 1999. Online: December 8, 2000. http://www.atheists.og/flash.line/apocl.htm
Apologetics Index. About the Branch Davidians, Waco, and the FBI Online: December 9,2000Cult of Death. Time Dec. 4, 1978: 16-30
Kurtz, Paul. Fears of the apocalypse: the escape from Reason. Skeptical Inquirer
Jan.-Feb. 1999. Online: Nov. 11, 2000. Find Articles.com http://www.findarticles.com
Parfey, Adam. Apocalypse Culture. Amok Press. Venice California. 1987
Rust, Michael. Prophets of Doom Profit from Y2K. (Year 2000 transition).
Insight on the News March 1, 1999. Online: Nov. 11, 2000. Find Articles.com
Schnepper, Jeff A. Jamestown Massacre: The Unrevealed Story,
USA Today Jan.1999. Online: Nov. 11, 2000. Find Articles.com