illustration by Brianna Ashby
I often say that the scariest horror movie is the one we’re all living in right now. There are no ghosts save the people you relied on who are gone. There are no monsters except the ones who take the corporeal form of daily mundane antagonists and interrupt your life, transforming it into a living hell. The scariest part of this “movie” is that it is incredibly nuanced and complex in its terror. It is real, and above all, inescapable. In the end, you will die. You’re the victim in this story. Bye.
A graduation of this disturbing thought entertains the notion that life is not only horrific but, in actuality, over. We just weren’t paying attention the moment it ended (whoops). About a year ago, I began to suspect that the post-apocalypse was already upon us. In the same way that an astronomer looks upon light from stars that have long since exploded, I started to wonder if some phantom hyper-consciousness of the future was in fact looking back on us, examining human existence through our limited vision and linear experience as a kind of post-mortem experiment to see where it all went wrong for Earthlings. If this is the case, we’re already dead and have been for thousands—if not trillions—of years. This thought first entered my mind because lately it’s been feeling to me as if we’re all caught in some glitchy instant replay, and what we’re missing (or cannot remember) is the Cataclysm itself—the moment it really ended and we became stuck in this purgatorial loop, collectively unaware.
It is said (at cocktail parties, not in science labs) that if one passes through the event horizon of a black hole, that individual will appear to be destroyed in an instant—but in that individual’s perception, time will stop, and his destruction will occur so slowly that it will feel like an eternity. So I wonder: what does an eternal destruction look and feel like? Are we even able to perceive such an infinite end? Do we become the frog who doesn’t know it’s slowly being boiled alive? Did the Earth slip into a black hole while we weren’t looking? Or did our civilization—our species—fall into some other kind of “black hole” (cultural, environmental, philosophical, undefined) of which we are equally unaware?
If so, when? How?
Perhaps it was the moment Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden, or maybe it was the Genesis Deluge that followed. Even if these examples are merely mythological stand-ins for the real Terminus, this specific “End of the World” might more accurately be called “The Loss of Innocence”—that instant when things changed and became self-aware, continuing forward but unable to shed the burden of What Once Was, now gone forever thanks to the Cataclysm, or in this regard, The Human Failure.
However, it’s my opinion that the world ended on one of the two following dates:
- April 19, 1993.
- April 19, 1995.
It’s a sweeping statement, but everything before those two bolded dates could arguably fall into the typical parameters of Human Strife. We can identify an expected pattern of trauma and catastrophe in our history: World War I, the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, the Black Plague, The Holocaust, all genocides, 200 years of the Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition, the Cold War, the invention of the atom bomb, the invention of gunpowder, the invention of the internet, all Diaspora(s), the expulsion of the Moors, the Military-Industrial Complex, the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, Stalingrad, the conquest of the American West, British Imperialism, the imposition of trade of the Japanese, the Ming Dynasty executions, AIDS, the crucifixion of Jesus, the Irish famine, William Jennings Bryan, Genghis Khan, the Dust Bowl, and so on and so on.
But I listed those two dates. Granted, those dates probably didn’t affect everyone. They’re both American events so I already realize their limitations in bringing about the End of the World for all people. So for argument’s sake, let’s for a moment shrink the World down to the pea-size of my experience.
I was 11 years old during the first event and 13 during the second. I’ll call the time immediately before this period the Pax Clintona because as a middle-class white kid things seemed pretty good. It had its robust share of Human Strife—Apartheid, Exxon Valdez, Rodney King, etc, etc. But for me, there was something called a Budget Surplus. The middle class still existed. Bruce Springsteen’s America was alive and well—and, at a showing ofJurassic Park, I saw my fifth grade teacher. Unity. Prosperity. All that. At least in my extremely limited, childish eyes, it was a nice time.
April 19th, 1993. The Mount Carmel compound in Waco, Texas burned to the ground. Four federal agents killed, 16 wounded, 87 Branch Davidians killed. I remember coming home from school and seeing the massive fire on the big-screen television my father had won in a sales contest at his job. He was sitting on our couch in shorts. “Holy shit,” he muttered.
To me this event defies explanation. Without even trying to assign blame, how can such an act ever make sense? Where is the logic? Where is the rationality? It is chaos.
April 19th, 1995. The Oklahoma City Bombing. 168 people killed. It was apparently a direct response to the government’s perceived culpability in the Waco Siege. But again… where is the logic? Where is the rationality? More chaos.
I don’t mean to put these events above any other tragedy that occurred before or after. But in my own life, in my own search for some sort of mile marker on the road we’re all on, I keep coming back to them. In my very limited world, this is when, at the very least, the World as I Knew It ceased to exist. Pax Clintona ended. Then there was Columbine, 9/11, the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, Katrina, the Economic Collapse. It was as if the progression up until then had been 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… and then was suddenly followed by ☉, then ⚗. I could no longer understand the pattern. Every moment suddenly had a new dreadful, chaotic flavor to it, and violent irrationally has been growing at an exponential rate ever since.
And this brings me to William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. Four men come from separate lives, separate worlds. One is an Irish gangster in Elizabeth, New Jersey. One is an assassin in Vera Cruz, Mexico. One is a wealthy businessman in Paris. One is a Palestinian terrorist working underground in Israel. These are all sinful men living in their own paradises. They do what they do and they do it well, and they enjoy the security of a status quo.
But they are sinners, and so each of their worlds end. They are cast out. They all end up in Porvenir, a tiny village in South America. It is the worst place on Earth. Its ashen, gray landscape is everything “post-apocalyptic” should be.
Here, the world as a whole ended a long time ago. This is Purgatory. This is the place where unclean souls toil and labor and dwell in misery forever. Our four souls want to escape, to get back to the world they knew, but the cost is too high. They literally don’t have enough pesos. They will never have enough pesos, and the more this dawns on them, the more they realize that they are doomed to Porvenir for all eternity. The world that once was is a dream more hazy to them by the day, and any hope of going back becomes futile and absurd. The four souls lose their very identities and grow more comfortable with the names assigned to them by fake passports. This is existence now. This is life After the Fall.
A dangerous opportunity to transport extremely unstable dynamite through two hundred miles of the jungle gives these souls hope. The payment promised to them could be enough to escape Porvenir. That hope is enough to motivate the men into action, become echoes of who they once were. In order to escape Purgatory, they’re willing to travel through Hell.
Hell is exactly what they find in the jungle. They encounter madness, chaos, hopelessness, isolation, nihilism—all of which could arguably be fates worse than death. Every triumph is marked by the larger notion that none of it will likely matter in the end (because the End already happened, remember?). They detonate a fallen tree in their path. They survive crossing a rope bridge in a storm. But what is the point? The arcade screen already reads GAME OVER. As the men push on, it’s a breathtaking and heartbreaking illustration of humanity’s unwillingness to accept that.
It is said that the universe is moving from order to entropy, and that this is why we can remember the past, but are unable to see the future. What lies ahead is too opaque, too complex, too disordered. Too utterly chaotic to make any sense of it. As Dominguez (Roy Scheider, playing the anti-hero of all anti-heroes) progresses further, he drives into entropy. It’s no coincidence that one of his compatriots is violently killed the moment he fondly remembers his wife back in Paris.
Dominguez is Dominguez; he calls himself only Dominguez. There is no New Jersey. There is only what lies ahead on the road. By the time he reaches the badlands two miles outside his destination, he IS entropy. Chaos is all around him and within his mind. He—for lack of a better phrase—completely loses it.
The truck, a machine built of ordered logical parts, fails. Dominguez is reminded of the end of his world over and over (a brutal car crash in Elizabeth) as he stands at the edge of time and space itself. This is not the jungle. This is the Endless End incarnate, hewn into lifeless stone. It makes no sense to him. It cares nothing for him. His mind particulates into madness.
There is a theory crafted by Ludwig Boltzmann known as the “Boltzmann Brain.” It states, (if I’m understanding it correctly), that within the current constraints of our natural order, it is highly improbable that we as thinking beings actually exist. How can organized, self-aware entities exist within an organized, low-entropy environment? It seems improbable that two low-entropy states could co-exist. There actually is a much higher probability of an individual human consciousness existing much farther into the future, when the universe reaches a higher entropic state.
But the fact is, we do seem to have individual human consciousness, individual psyches. How is this possible? According to Boltzmann, these separate souls should theoretically exist trillions of years into our future, untethered to any physical body, alone in the entropy of the time/space universe. But each consciousness will have the memories and experiences of a human lifetime lived on Earth, even though it never actually was there. The Earth of course, and any life that may have existed on it, will have long been destroyed.
This means that I (and You) are actually memories of a life that never happened, that we are reflections of thoughts belonging to a future cosmic consciousness. The End? According to Boltzmann, we never even started. Maybe the World never was, and Dominguez never was. What’s worse: the World ending, realizing the World already ended, or realizing that there never was a World in the first place?
Dominguez (either a human or a Boltzmann Brain, you choose) eventually recovers, and hand-carries the dynamite the last two miles to a roaring spout of flames of an exploded oil derrick. The dynamite will be used to put out the flames so that production can resume, but in this moment, what is Dominguez seeing in that big spout of fire?
The Devil? The Big Bang?
Perhaps he’s seeing Uriel’s Flaming Sword. From Genesis: “So He [God] drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.”
Whatever the moment or reason of Cataclysm, there is no way back. It’s over.
And as I watch the fiery blaze on the big screen, I can only mutter “Holy shit.”
Christopher Cantwell is a filmmaker and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He is the co-creator, writer, and showrunner of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, which is currently in production on its third season.