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It's the End of the World (At Least At The Movies)
Image: Jaap Buitendijk / Paramount Pictures

On April 15, the Boston Marathon was rocked by bombings that left three dead and 264 injured. Three days later, in West, Texas, a fertilizer plant exploded, killing fifteen people. The months before were filled with reports of mass, public shootings—including the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy—so numerous it's difficult, six months later, to even recall them all. And don't forget all the natural disasters and forest fires and global political unrest.

In the middle of that difficult week in April, the parody news site The Onion ran a series of articles with titles like "BREAKING: How's Everyone Doing?", "Authorities: Sadly, There Are Many People Who Could Have Done This," and "Jesus, This Week." But the most revealing and accurate pulse on everyone's nervousness was in a purportedly farcical Onion article titled "This What World Like Now," accompanied by a picture of the Boston bombings:

According to a majority of Americans, they have mostly come to terms with the fact that they now live in a world where, when an explosion happens, they immediately suspect it's the result of domestic or foreign terrorism and are fully aware that hoping people died because of an accidental gas leak is morbidly wishful thinking. The U.S. populace also said that seeing the photo of a vacant-eyed suspect appear on their computer screen or watching a recorded message made by someone halfway around the world hours or days after an attack no longer shocks them.

In fact, sources confirmed, the nation fully expects it.

What reportedly frustrates and angers them most, every citizen in America said, is accepting that there is absolutely nothing they can do to change it.

"The lack of control I have when it comes to something as basic as the safety of myself and my family is very upsetting," 42-year-old Pennsylvania resident Kathy Wells said. "I don't want to kill anyone. I have never wanted to kill anyone. And yet there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who desperately want to kill me. I don't know what to expect on a day-to-day basis, but I do tend to think that whatever happens will probably be bad."

Let's be honest: that "lack of control" is not just something some Onion writer dreamed up, just another fake quote from a made-up source played for laughs. We all feel it. Now that we all know what's going on everywhere all the time just because we fire up Twitter every ten minutes, our sense of safety is eroding. Danger lurks around every corner.

Perhaps it's true that it's just our turn—that we're just getting a taste of what it's like to live in, say, Afghanistan or Somalia—but that doesn't make it any less unnerving. The more senseless the act of violence is, the more we feel out of control, to the point where discovering that an explosion at a fertilizer plant is an accident, not an act of terror, actually makes us feel relieved.

It might be the end of the world. Who knows? But nobody feels fine.

In Hollywood's golden age, Americans went to the movies to escape the realities of what surely felt like The End was impending—the Depression, World Wars, that sort of thing. People relied on entertainment to help them escape the scary world outside, at least for a little while. They could sink into a glittering dance number, watch the pretty people live it up on screen, and forget about their troubles, at least for a little while.

But it's safe to say we're not so into that anymore. Hollywood now strikes box office gold over and over in end-of-the-world films involving a variety of causes both fantastical and frighteningly plausible: aliens, viruses, zombies, monsters of both the natural and mechanical varieties, asteroids, you name it. Post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories have long been the purview of myth and literature, but apparently we really love seeing it at the movies, too (preferably in 3D IMAX).

The most recent incarnation of this—for this month anyhow—is World War Z, the gazillion-dollar blockbuster based on the bestselling book and starring a rugged Brad Pitt. Here, people all over the world suddenly and inexplicably become infected with a virus that turns them into catatonic undead who become flesh-hungry banshees when they're confronted with an uninfected being. Nobody knows where the virus came from, or why it's here, but through a few twists of bad luck it becomes the sole responsibility of Brad Pitt, family man and loving husband, to go figure this thing out.

The movie is a solid action flick, mostly well-acted and eye-poppingly shot, even if it veers into corny territory by the end. It garnered a PG-13 rating largely because it's the least bloody zombie film you can possibly imagine (though you'll certainly hear a lot, and it's hard to get the sounds of screams and carnage out of your head). And of course, Brad Pitt is the hero, and so it's no spoiler for anyone who's ever seen a blockbuster to say that humanity is not wiped out at the end.

Yet, unlike its cousin, 2011's Contagion, World War Z leaves us with the uneasiness of a random attack. Nothing is solved. The war continues to rage precisely because nobody's sure what to do. All they can do is hide, and hope the evil doesn't get too close. As Pitt's final voiceover says, "This is not the end—not even close."

But what if it is The End? Like, the actual End of Time? With Revelations and the rapture and the antichrist and all of that? Will humanity survive, and if so—how?

Those questions—ones that look to the actual prophecies in the Bible for their source material—used to show up mostly in evangelistic films. But Hollywood is suddenly all over that, too.

Take, for instance, Rapture-Palooza, released in early June, a comedy starring Anna Kendrick and John Francis Daley as two star-crossed teenage lovers whose romance is blooming amid the events foretold in Revelation, who must also defeat the antichrist (Craig Robinson). Talk about relationship challenges.

A week later, the very funny, very raunchy, very insistently titled This Is The End came out, written and directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and starring nearly all of Judd Apatow's band of merry players (though Apatow himself was not directly involved), including Rogen, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson (this time just as a regular guy), Michael Cera, and Jonah Hill. (Emma Watson, Mindy Kaling, and Rihanna, among many others, also make appearances.)

In this end of the world scenario, everyone who is anyone in young Hollywood—all playing themselves, or at least versions of themselves—shows up to a housewarming party at James Franco's house. Then all hell literally breaks loose, and the survivors are left to hole up in Franco's home, eating and drinking and smoking whatever was in the building, dodging the dangerous, terrifying hell-beast outside.

The guys slowly realize that what's going on out there, quite literally, the events from the book of Revelation, and that they're all doomed since they're pretty bad people. Reading the Biblical text only increases their terror. Is it too late to be saved? And what must they do? (It will not surprise you if I say that the conclusion is hardly, uh, orthodox, but it stops just on this side of blasphemy, and, sadly, aligns closer to a lot of Christians' lived theology than the actual Scriptural concepts of grace and redemption.)

But that's not all. The television show Supernatural has been working its way through all the Bowl Judgments foretold in Revelation. Dexter's plotline last season hung on a serial killer's obsession with recreating grisly images from Revelation. The World's End, the third film in the "Blood and Ice Cream" trilogy (which also includes Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) is out this August, featuring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as part of a pub-crawling herd of friends (sound familiar?) who suddenly find themselves in the midst of, yes, the apocalypse.

And let's not forget about the impending remake of Left Behind starring Ashley Tisdale, Chad Michael Murray, and—I am not making this up—Nicolas Cage. Due out in 2014, the film has reportedly streamlined its narrative from the earlier books and film franchise, and now is more focused on the events just following the rapture, hoping to appeal to an audience broader than the evangelicals who comprised its viewership the last time around.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? And why are we doing it at the movies and on our TVs—the places we once went to escape life for a while—when we could just turn on the news or scroll through our Facebook feeds to see things just as frightening?

Maybe it's this: experiencing the end of the world over and over again, controlled and scripted, makes it less terrifying. We start to get our own script in our heads for how we'll survive, too. Eventually, we might even be able to view it ironically, like the guys in This Is The End, who make jokes during an exorcism conducted with the help of two kitchen utensils lashed together in the shape of a cross and lines remembered from The Exorcist.

The more of this supernatural horror we encounter on-screen, the more we can regard The End and its manifold terrors with the "cool smile" of knowingness that the postmodern critic Jean Baudrillard said was part of our ironic, self-aware culture. You don't have to stay awake at night worrying about the end of the world if you can just make jokes about it when it gets here.

No worries, guys. We've totally got this.

Perhaps rightly, that attitude toward The End might upset some Christians, who—though famously divided on what all the cryptic prophecies mean—still take the book of Revelation to mean something very important. But there's a few good things here, too.

Because the thread that holds all of these films together is that when The End hits (whether it's zombies or the antichrist)—or when the events of the week of April 15, 2013 happen and we wonder if the world's gone mad at last—people turn to one another and there, sometimes, encounter grace. The stories of destruction in Boston were sprinkled with stories of ordinary heroes. Brad Pitt might be the best hope of mankind, but he's also a loving and attentive father and husband. The guys hole up in James Franco's house start to vaguely understand the concept of sacrificing yourself for your friends. Tragedy and suffering can bring people together. God works through ordinary people.

And the plethora of stories like these, which point beyond rational explanations and toward a presence that's mysterious and greater than humanity, might indicate that the door to belief in a world bigger than the material might be creakily, finally cracking open. If people are watching movies and TV shows about ordinary people caught up in Biblical prophecy—well, maybe they're getting interested in what's actually in the Bible. Maybe not. But it wouldn't be a bad thing.

For now, though, Hollywood seems primed to keep making those movies, and we seem eager to keep watching. So crunch on some popcorn, grab a mammoth Coke, and settle into your theater seat: it's the end of the world as we know it, and by hook or by crook, we're gonna make ourselves feel fine.

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It's the End of the World (At Least At The Movies)