“This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.”
I used to imagine the end of the world all the time.
To be fair, the first eleven years of my life were shaped almost entirely by a religion that grew out of apocalypse and failure, or rather, a failure to correctly predict an apocalypse. On October 22, 1844, thousands of people—then known as Millerites, after William Miller, the man who had predicted the Second Advent of Jesus Christ some eleven years earlier—sat anxiously outside their homes and gazed toward the sky in eager anticipation. Many had given away all their money and possessions, abandoning all vestiges of their life on earth, quietly assured of ascending heavenward on that fateful October day. At a certain point, though, the day grew long, and nothing happened. In time, they put a name to that day – The Great Disappointment – but even a name like that seemed quite an understatement. They were sure the world was ending that day, tens of thousands of them, but instead they were left to return to their lives. Some predicted different dates as a way of moving on, others left the movement entirely.
Religious or not, the end of the world has haunted all of us for as long as we’ve had the capacity to be haunted by it. Pattern-seeking creatures that we are, we know that every beginning implies an end, but just as we struggle to wrap our heads around how the world began, we often have just as much trouble imagining ourselves forward into a place where the whole thing simply…ends. We know many ways it could end, sure, but we are also quite invested in doing our very best not to think too closely about any of it. Because, whimper or bang, an end is an end. And to imagine a finite world reminds us that we are finite, too.
And so when the end of the world finally does come—and it will, whether in 1844, 2025, or 9820—it will be awful. Or spectacular. Or a million other things. What it won’t be, though, is something we have any frame of reference for. Which is perhaps why we’ve told ourselves so many stories about it over the course of human history. We’ve created apocalyptic tales—around the fire, on the page, and now on our screens—over and over again. We want to know what it will be like, but perhaps more importantly: we want to know what we will be like. When it happens; when it all falls apart; when everything collapses.
It’s safe to say that, when the end of the world approaches, we’ll still be telling stories. Even when we’ve run out of good water or clean air or electricity or nonfat lattes, we’ll have our stories—our histories and our imaginations—and a pressing need to share them with one another. Telling stories is a fundamental way we try to make sense of things, of the world around us, of where where we’re going and where we’ve been. Without them, it wouldn’t be much of a world to begin with. And when the whole thing draws to a close, we’ll need them more than ever.
With that in mind, we decided to take a closer look at films that deal with the end of the world—or the almost end of the world, anyway. Many of the essays in this month’s issue tackle movies that take place in post-apocalyptic landscapes (Sara Gray’s look at Planet of the Apes, Andrew Root’s unearthing of the mid–90s cult film, Tank Girl, and Fran Hoepfner’s experience with the waking nightmare that is Children of Men), while others wrestle with its imminent approach (Michelle Said’s imagining of what was being said on the other end of the phone line in Dr. Strangelove, Bob Schofield’s reflections on Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse). Chris Cantwell uses William Friedkin’s Sorcerer to prove that the world has actually already ended, and we wrap things up with Leslie Jamison’s prayer of thanks to the heroes of big budget apocalypse movies.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion once famously wrote. But in this issue—to twist Didion’s words in a way she’d likely enjoy—we tell ourselves stories in order to die.