There's a powerful scene near the end of The Road, the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize—winning novel, where a father and son huddle together under soulless skies on a desolate, nameless beach littered with whale and human skeletons. They have finally reached the coast after traversing by foot a post-apocalyptic landscape fraught with unspeakable dangers, toils, and snares.

The boy, about age 10, has never seen the sea. "What's on the other side?" he asks. "Nothing," replies his father, suffering from malnutrition and weakness after fending off all sorts of evils. All along he has encouraged his son to maintain hope—to "carry the fire"—but has slowly lost his own. The boy, who believes there's still goodness somewhere in their dark and dying world, looks out to the sea and says, "There must be something."

Wanting to keep his son's hope alive, the man relents. "Maybe there's a father and his son, and they're sitting on the beach too."

Like McCarthy's 2006 book, the film is both depressing and redeeming; it depicts one of the most loving father-son relationships to appear on the big screen. And this particular scene speaks volumes for all of us asking a universal question.

What's on the other side?

The question is innate to human experience, and Hollywood knows it—as evidenced by the spate of spiritually themed films to debut after the blockbuster success of The Passion of the Christ(2004). In a fear-filled world where war, terrorism, and economic collapse bring the question of death and the afterlife to the fore, the film industry has delivered more stories to fuel the question—though not always providing answers.

The result in 2009 was a record $10 billion at the box office in the United States and Canada, where theater attendance was up 4.5 percent over 2008 despite an economic recession that saw cuts in consumer spending in almost every other sector.

Much of that record windfall came from a near epidemic of movies about the end of the world—from the explosion-driven drivel of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (where all life on Earth is in peril) and 2012 (global mayhem as predicted by the Mayan calendar) to the tongue-in-cheek Zombieland and more thoughtful fare such as Terminator Salvation, District 9, and The Road. The trend continued in 2010 with two end-times thrillers, The Book of Eli and Legion, both of which opened in January, and the documentaries Waiting for Armageddon and With God on Our Side, both exploring the State of Israel's role in ushering in the last days. January also saw the wide release of The Lovely Bones, depicting a teen girl's view of heaven (and our own longing for it). More such films—pre- and post-apocalyptic—are on the 2010 tap.

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Why are so many of us flocking to the theater when we're pinching pennies more now than in decades? And why are we spending our hard-earned money on movies about the end of existence?

Two things are at work: First, when the economy is down, movie attendance often goes up; it has happened several times before, especially during the Great Depression. Second, people are asking, perhaps more than ever, what happens after we die—whether by natural causes or some cataclysmic event. War. Terrorism. Earthquakes. Teen-idol vampires, hell-bent robots, wandering zombies. Whatever.

Record Box Office

During the Great Depression, unemployment in the U.S. ran as high as 25 percent, and many wondered how they would afford their next meal. But even during the hardest times, 60 million to 80 million Americans—as much as two-thirds of the population—went to the movies every week.

President Franklin Roosevelt said, "When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles."

While many Depression-era films were escapist, Hollywood didn't completely deny the realities of the day. The films of Frank Capra and the Marx Brothers were social commentaries in the guise of screwball comedies, while others (Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) were more overt in their social message. Even popular horror films such as King Kong and Frankenstein had underlying messages about societal ills.

It wouldn't be the last time Americans would head for the movies in hard times. During five of the past seven economic downturns in the U.S.—including the 1970s oil crises and the dot-com bust of the early 2000s—box office earnings went up. And now we have the record-setting year of 2009.

"When times are bad, our business seems to buck the trend," Dan Glickman, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, told Time magazine. "The movies are great therapy. It's a lot cheaper than a psychiatrist."

But a psychiatrist likely wouldn't have figured that such bleak fare—about bad things happening at a time when, in the real world, so many bad things are happening—would play such a major role in a record-breaking year.

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Meaning and Escape

When 2012 came out in November 2009, The Fresno Bee asked scholars and religious leaders what to make of moviegoers' fascination with the end times.

Margaret Gonsoulin, a sociology professor at Cal State, speculated that it reflected a hunger for meaning in anxiety-ridden times: "They want to know about the future," she told the Bee.

But there's far more at work here. Brett McCracken, a critic for CT Movies, wrote for Relevant that we are "compelled" to watch these films because "[t]here is in each of us an innate sense of justice—a sense that all of us probably deserve calamity or worse. When an act of God is on display, we marvel at what we suspect (perhaps hope) is his sovereignty at work, wrathful and terrible though it may be."

While Depression-era moviegoers sought escape, moviegoers during the most recent recession want both to escape and to see films about escape—even bleak, scary ones—into another world, the afterlife, or the "other side."

The writer of Ecclesiastes says that God has placed eternity in our hearts (3:11). We are divinely wired to wonder what comes next, and in that wondering, we are acutely aware of our own mortality—whether our death comes by natural causes or the end of the world. The films discussed here feed that fascination—one that runs as high in Christians as in anyone else. (Look no further than the Left Behind series, which has sold more than 65 million copies.)

"In difficult times, our restlessness for more comes to the surface," Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, told Christianity Today. "These are difficult days, and it should not surprise us that yearnings for eternity—for a final resolution of all the struggle with good and evil—will come to pass."

What's on the other side?

Hollywood may not know that the answer has in fact been revealed, that a Father and his Son wait on the other shore.

Mark Moring, senior associate editor, oversees movie coverage for CT.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today has reviewed many of the films mentioned in this essay, including The Road, The Passion of the Christ, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Terminator Salvation, District 9, The Book of Eli, Legion, 2012, and The Lovely Bones.

Previous articles on eschatology include:

Doomsday at the Cineplex | A new "artquote"buster says the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012. But pastors and scholars say hold the phone, and seek the signs in Scripture instead. (November 10, 2009)
Christian History Corner: How Will It All End? | Left Behind is neither the first nor the last word on last things. (March 1, 2004)
Is Revelation Prophecy or History? | Some events described in Revelation occurred contemporaneously with the prophecies themselves (October 25, 1999)

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