The History of the End of the World: The Apocalypse in Popular Culture

By Stephen Basdeo

Introduction

I think I’ll start off by reading a poem, published in 1825 and written by Thomas Campbell, entitled The Last Man:

‘Go, Sun, while Mercy holds me up

On Nature’s awful waste

To drink this last and bitter cup

Of grief that man shall taste—

Go, tell the night that hides thy face,

Thou saw’st the last of Adam’s race,

On Earth’s sepulchral clod,

The darkening universe defy

To quench his Immortality,

Or shake his trust in God!’

In the poem, the last of Adam’s sons, the last human, looks on over the end of the world with a shaken trust in God. Throughout history, people have always imagined a ‘final end’ of some sort. And not without justification have some recent climate activists been likened to the millenarian ‘Hell Fire’ preachers of old, who preached in public spaces demanding that we change our ways otherwise people would be burned up in a ball of flame during a time of ‘great tribulation’.

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Engraving from Edward Young’s A Poem on the Last Day (19thc edition)

We encountered one such attitude already earlier in our module: on 17 April 2019, Robin Boardman, a co-founder of the Extinction Rebellion movement, which aims to draw people’s attention to the impending climate emergency, was famously told by Sky News’s Adam Boulton that the anti-climate change movement which Boardman helped to create was peopled by ‘the incompetent middle-class, self-indulgent people and you want to tell us how to live our lives’. After these words were uttered, the 21 year old activist walked out of the studio. Now, we have already encountered and discussed the class politics surrounding climate activism in a previous class, but I want to focus on another section of that interview. This is the part where Boardman stated that if governments do not take any action on climate change,

People are going to die and if we don’t disrupt that possibility, then we are failing as a species. We’re failing people. I care so deeply, so deeply, about the people in this world and all the lives on it and I will not see it die. I will not see it go this way.

In the same vein, on 23 September 2019, the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist, Greta Thunberg, gave an impassioned speech in New York and declared that ‘people are suffering. People are dying. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction.’ She then reprimanded us, her listeners, for only fixated on money—clearly the god of mammon is still at large!

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Robin Boardman of Extinction Rebellion

I used a Biblical term there, ‘mammon’, because, it may or may not have occurred to you that many of the speeches made by climate change activists do remind us of something we might hear in a church in the ‘deep south’ of America. We are constantly told in the media that climate change will lead to, if not the end of life on earth itself, then at least a significant catastrophe that will end our way of life as we know it. The people making such utterances are usually experts in their fields of study, and they, often like the ‘Hell-Fire’ preachers of old, proclaim to us that we are ‘sinning’ by using carbon and that we must repent of our use of it and change our ways.

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Greta Thunberg

I have no doubt that Robin Boardman is sincere—no doubt very sincere—in his beliefs, and I think we can all agree that the Sky News presenter could have treated the young activist with a tad more respect. However, his dramatic statement ‘people are going to die’ leads us nicely into our discussion today: a study of how people have envisioned, through fiction, film, and television shows, the end of the world through natural forces, with a focus on climate change but also accompanied with an analysis of other kinds of apocalypse, which will allow us to set some of the more dramatic pronouncements made by activists of all shades in their historical, cultural, and intellectual context.

In the Beginning…

Perhaps one of the earliest imaginings that people have of the end of the world, or an apocalyptic end of the world—which in reality means the end of human civilization rather than of the earth itself, which will live on long after we’re gone—through means of natural forces, and which also comes about through a change of weather is found in the ‘good book’: the Holy Bible. We are told that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth in seven days, which, if my theology is correct, is not meant to be taken literally but figuratively, and was in actuality over a period of many thousands of years—a day with God is like a thousand years, the Bible implies in another part. We are then told that God was pleased with everything he had created until the first humans, Adam and Eve, sinned against God by tasting of the forbidden fruit. From then on, it was a downward spiral. The ever-increasing human population became ever more sinful until one day, God decided that he was going to punish the entire human race: he would kill them off by means of a worldwide flood.

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Gustave Dore’s depiction of the Flood

That is, all but one family would be annihilated: Noah was a good, god-fearing man and so God agreed that he might be kept alive to repopulate the earth. Even if you’re not religious, you’ll likely know the story: Noah was ordered to build an ark which would house his family and the various types of animals which God decreed should survive the catastrophe. But while he was building the ark, Noah had to warn his fellow humans to repent so that they too might be saved. And it’s with the story of the flood that we see three motifs emerge that will reappear constantly throughout all end of the world narratives. The first, as we have seen, is the idea that it is primarily our actions as a species which have brought destruction upon us. In the case of Noah’s civilization it was their sin. The second is that of the lone voice warning mankind against an impending disaster: ‘they took no note until the flood came and swept them all away’ is how one Bible translation renders Jesus’ words about the ‘days of Noah’. These ideas will certainly be important going forward. The third is that of the small number of survivors, sometimes a sole survivor or ‘The Last Man’—the last of a race, who looks down upon a barren earth and alone reflects upon the fate of mankind. Although there are three variants of the so-called ‘Genesis Flood Narrative’, found in Mesopotamia, Sumer, and Babylon, Noah’s is the most important worldwide flood narrative whose influence has persisted in western popular culture.

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The Revelation of St John the Divine

Of course, in the final book of the Bible entitled ‘Revelation’, for which the Greek word is apokálupsis, which means to ‘uncover’ or ‘reveal’, we have a sublime vision of the end of the world—and watch out for the word ‘sublime’ later as I’m going to come back to it. At the end of time, we are told in Revelation, God will judge the living and the dead. But before this, we have signs to look out for: as the Gospel of Matthew tells us:

For as the lightning came out of the east, and shines even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be … Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give its light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

The earth and everything on it will be destroyed after which He will ‘make all things new’ on the earth. Here again, although not directly related to our theme of climate change, we have two of those motifs reoccurring: end of the world brought about through sin, while of course people completely ignored Jesus’s message of repentance, for which they were judged accordingly.

So, according to Robert K. Weininger, we now have two types of ‘end of world’ narratives in Western culture that come from the Bible: the first is what Weininger calls the ‘semi-terminal’ narrative, where only a handful of humans are left alive, much like what happens with Noah’s Flood; the second is a terminal narrative which, as its name suggests, involves the complete destruction of life on earth, which ultimately happens with the Last Judgment. Likewise, with the prophecy that Jesus gives us about the end times in the Gospel of Matthew, only a few will know what the herald of the tribulation and end times will mean, much like only Noah and his family knew that a flood was coming.

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Fra Angelica’s The Last Judgment (c.1430)

And religious prophecies of doom still exist in our modern times. Anyone familiar with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religion may know that they live in constant expectation of Armageddon. Under this belief system, the whole of humanity will be wiped out, leaving only a faithful few thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses to populate the earth. This is indeed one of the reasons why they go door-to-door trying to ‘sell’ their message: they imagine themselves to be like Noah before the flood; they imagine that it is their duty to warn mankind and save as many people as possible from the coming annihilation at Armageddon.

A Picture of Doom

With most of the Western world being a predominantly Christian, it is no surprise that many of the end of the world scenarios recycle Biblical themes. These were most visible in the medieval era in churches, when aptly named ‘Doom Paintings’—images which depict the last judgement of Christ—adorned the walls of altars throughout Europe. A mural at Chaldon Church in Surrey, England, produced during the twelfth century, depicts the Archangel Michael, at God’s behest, judging the living and the dead. In the centre of the mural we see a ladder: the good people are floating up to heaven and the sinners are falling into hell, where demons are waiting to receive them. Similar scenes are found in Italy: the early Renaissance painter, Fra Angelico, produced a vision of The Last Judgement for the altar of San Marco Church in Florence, Italy. We see God and his angels sitting in judgement upon mankind: to the left-hand side we see the ‘good’ people inhabiting paradise; to the left are the evildoers who are about to be cast into hell where again demons are waiting to torture them for eternity. Perhaps the most famous ‘Doom Painting’ is Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, completed between 1536 and 1541, which adorns the altar of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. And notice that all of these frescos appear over the altar. As the Christian flock would approach the priest to receive the sacraments, behind the priest would be one very large, very graphic, moral message: avoid sin or at the end of time you will be judged. The priest could preach from the pulpit and rail against sin, but pictures paint a thousand words.

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Stefan Lochner’s Last Judgment (15thc)

But it wasn’t only the Last Judgement that was constantly reimagined through history, for the flood was as well. If one visits the Sistine Chapel, the main attraction is obviously Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. But if one stands there and turns their head upwards, we also find Michelangelo’s representation of Noah’s Flood. While the Bible text focuses upon the plight of Noah’s family during the flood, the foreground here shows us those who were not saved. It pulls no punches. A woman on the ever-dwindling landmass cradles her baby, while an older child clings to her leg, and the mother knows that all of them will eventually be drowned. Joining them at the top of what was probably high ground before the flood waters rose are other survivors with their few remaining possessions, but it is a forlorn hope. They, like the mother and her children, will eventually be swept away. We of course look upon such scenes today and view them as art; to people in the Renaissance, the events of the flood were real history—to them, this actually happened. While we may have sympathy for the survivors, medieval and Renaissance viewers of the aforementioned paintings would not have. More importantly for the Renaissance churchgoers’ sakes, they knew that a punishment even more unimaginable than drowning awaits them if they’re sinful.

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Michelangelo’s depiction of the Flood.

Here in England, John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, published in 1667, likewise contains a depiction of the flood—an epic is a long narrative poem which relates legendary or mythical events, so Homer’s Odyssey is an epic, as is the Iliad. Milton’s poem chronicles Adam and Eve’s descent into sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Towards the end of the book, Adam pleads with the Archangel Michael for forgiveness and Adam asks him how his descendants might regain God’s favour. Michael assures Adam that soon Jesus Christ will come to redeem mankind. The Archangel then shows Adam a vision of the whole of human history and Milton devotes over 200 lines of his poem to the story of the flood. Yet as Fiona J. Stafford observes, while medieval and Renaissance audiences had little sympathy with those condemned to die in the flood, Milton has a more sympathetic, more humanist attitude to the dying masses. When Milton was writing, the power of the Church was on the wane and secularism was on the rise. Milton’s poem was written to ‘justify the ways of God to men’. The very fact that Milton felt he had to justify something that was previously unquestioned is telling: people are no longer unreservedly accepting the traditional interpretation of God’s actions here being unquestionably right. And in Paradise Lost, when Adam sees the fate to which his descendants are sentenced, he is visibly pained and overcome with grief:

Where luxury late reigned, sea-monsters whelped

And stabled; of mankind, so numerous late,

All left, in one small bottom swum embarked.

How didst thou grieve then, Adam, to behold

The end of all thy offspring, end so sad,

Depopulation!  Thee another flood,

Of tears and sorrow a flood, thee also drowned,

And sunk thee as thy sons; till, gently reared

By the Angel, on thy feet thou stoodest at last,

Though comfortless; as when a father mourns

His children, all in view destroyed at once.

This is clearly a distressing moment. The children of Adam, like their father, have been sinful and made no attempt to mend their ways. And they are suffering for it.

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John Milton’s Paradise Lost

The End of the (Increasingly Secular) World

Thus far, then, the end of mankind has been envisaged in theological terms. Poetry sold widely in the period we call ‘early modern’ which, in a European context, stretches from c. 1500 to c. 1800. And I want us briefly now to turn to England and the work of a now little-known poet named Edward Young who in 1713 published A Poem on the Last Day. And what a spectacle we have of mankind’s ‘doom’, as he puts it, in this poem:

While others sing the fortune of the great,

Empire, arms, and all the pomp of state,

With Britain’s heroe [sic] set their souls on fire,

And grow immortal as his deeds inspire,

I draw a deeper scene that yields

A louder trumpet and more dreadful fields,

The world alarm’d, both earth and heav’n o’erthrown […]

Time shall be slain, all nature be destroy’d,

Nor leave an atom in the mighty void.

So, this is clearly taking its inspiration directly from the Book of Revelation. What we have in Young’s poem is the complete annihilation of mankind. It is a big event too—awe-inspiring. It is, in a word, ‘sublime’. Let’s interrogate what this means: the English politician Edmund Burke, in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757, defined the sublime as a spectacle which had the characteristics of ‘vastness’, ‘magnificence’; it was simultaneously a spectacle which was awe-inspiring and terrifying; it arouses a passion—the passion of fear—the fear of death; and yet we are fixated on the spectacle—we cannot stop ourselves from viewing it or contemplating it. One of the examples Burke used to make his argument was God’s final battle with Satan as depicted in Milton’s text. The natural world can also engender feelings of the sublime in us: most of you are from the USA, and we might point to the Grand Canyon—standing on the clear Perspex balcony overhanging one of the rocks, one might be fixated on looking down, yet also be terrified or awe-inspired; perhaps similar feelings come up when you might visit Niagara Falls—nature is vast, powerful, terrifying in some respects. Some scholars recently have also begun writing about the ‘nuclear sublime’—the mushroom cloud caused by an atomic bomb being, oddly, beautiful yet terrifying. And most disaster movies, in their spectacles of destructive nature, attempt to make us feel a sense of sublime terror.

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Edward Young’s Poem on the Last Day

But let’s return to Edward Young. Yes there was the spectacle of destruction but, taking inspiration from Milton’s depiction of the flood, who focused upon the sufferings of men and women about to be drowned, Young likewise focuses upon the suffering of mankind, detailing to us what they will experience at the end of time:

Now charnels rattle; scatter’d limbs and all,

The various bones, obsequious to the call,

Self-moved, advance; the neck perhaps to meet,

The distant head, the distant legs, the feet.

Dreadful to view…

Body parts have been flying everywhere. Some people have been decapitated, some limbless bodies attempt to claw their way back to their scattered limbs. It is, as Young tells us, ‘dreadful to view’. And it was not only Young who was emphasising the suffering of the individual in these portrayals of the end times. John Ogilvie in A Day of Judgment (1753) likewise draws attention to the fate of millions:

Now, man, if e’er (this awful scene survey’d,)

Thy soul stood trembling with unusual dread;

If e’er despair could touch thy throbbing heart;

If e’er thou shook’st at death’s approaching dart;

If, in some sight, thy pitying soul beheld

A murder’d host lie gasping on the field;

While ev’ry bosom pour’d a purple flood,

Wound following wound, and blood succeeding blood:

Attend an ampler scene!—more dreadful far!

There’s an interesting use of the word ‘murder’d’ there as well, given that this was supposedly a judgment given by God Almighty. So the focus is clearly shifting now from the actions of the deity to the human experience. Granted, humans are the ones who have sinned in these narratives, but their suffering can be sympathised with and regretted.

Both Young and Ogilvie were writing during a period that would come to be known as the Enlightenment, which lasted from the late seventeenth to the beginning of the nineteenth century. There are of course debates among historians and philosophers about whether the period was truly ‘enlightened’. While Voltaire and Rousseau were writing, European societies were busy staging public executions, colonizing the world, enslaving black people in the Caribbean and the Americas, and most European countries still had peasants who toiled the land for a pittance—it depends, therefore, on one’s definition of what it means to be enlightened! However, intellectuals, scientists, along with poets, artists, and novelists—the leading cultural lights of the age—prided themselves on their rationalism. They sought to understand the natural world through scientific observation (empiricism) and formulate hypotheses about the workings of the universe. People without a doubt still believed in God, and there were only very few professed atheists during the eighteenth century, and Biblical literalism—the taking of the Bible at its word—persisted even after the 1850s and the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.

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The Lisbon Earthquake

But with increasing secularisation in the eighteenth century came the marginalisation of the deity in end-times narratives. The philosopher, Immanuel Kant, was one of the first writers to seriously grapple with God’s role in the imagined end of the world. The event which caused Kant to think in this way, so Weininger argues, was the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. The disaster and the human toll were unprecedented, and Kant wrote three essays on the event and Weininger notes that in all three texts, all references to God in connection with the natural disaster have vanished. Whereas in the medieval period, people might justified the earthquake by attributing it to divine anger, in Kant’s secular age, people sought ‘material, causal explanations’. The earthquake was not divine wrath; instead, the earthquake was a force of nature; nature itself is almost an actor in world affairs—God has nothing to do with it. This is not to say that Kant was an unbeliever, for to say so would be wrong; he could recognise, however, that not all disasters were the result of God’s sin.

Religion was truly being relegated in public life and popular culture. The famous poet, William Wordsworth, in The Prelude, published in 1799, was a long epic poem which was devoted to working out a philosophy of Man, Nature, and Society. He talks about vice and human error but he does not do so with reference to religion or original sin. It’s truly a secular poem.

So, let’s just take stock: the rise of secularism opens the way for the portrayal of non-divine means of destruction. Where God might have once been assumed to have been an active agent in the punishment of mankind—as he was believed to be in the medieval era—this was no longer so. So, artists, writers, and intellectuals—who we might call humanity’s secular priests—when they contemplated the end of the world, did so without reference to God. And why shouldn’t they contemplate the death of an entire species without reference to God? After all, the early nineteenth century was the period in which fossils were being examined for the first time, all of which gave clear evidence that certain species of animals had been wiped out before and could be so again.

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Weymouth Bay with Approaching Storm” Painting by John Constable (1816), (photo Victoria and Albert Museum)

Cultural influencers were aware that man was having an effect on the landscape even at this early point. John Keats’s poem ‘Robin Hood: To a Friend’, to take just one example, written in 1818 and published in Lamia, Isabella, and the Eve of St Agnes (1822), is not a friendly ‘merry men’ retelling of England’s most famous medieval outlaw’s exploits but a rather pessimistic one. Keats focused specifically, and with regret, on the deforestation of England’s woodlands, particularly in the name of commerce and big business, and how it harms people’s quality of life. The forests are felled to build ships for Britain’s expanding empire, which at this point was being driven by private trading corporations such as the East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company, and Marian can no longer enjoy the fruits of the forest for free. Were Robin and Marian resurrected in the modern nineteenth century, they would be horrified. This is why Keats looks back nostalgically to the medieval period because it was a time when ‘Men knew nor rent nor leases’ and England was truly a ‘green and pleasant land’ free of deforestation and environmental degradation.

It was also a period when the ‘strange signs were seen in the heavens’, so to speak, for the year 1816 is famously called ‘the Year without a Summer’; we still don’t know what happened, but for almost an entire year, weather reports read early winter style darkness for most days and freezing cold temperatures all over Europe and the Americas, leading to food shortages and, in some cities, rioting. Speculation by historians and scientists suggests that it may have been what is known as a ‘Volcanic Winter’, caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year. On 27 July 1816, the Columbian Register, based in Virginia, USA, reported that

It is now the middle of July, and we have not yet had what could properly be called summer. Easterly winds have prevailed for nearly three months past … the sun during that time has generally been obscured and the sky overcast with clouds; the air has been damp and uncomfortable, and frequently so chilling as to render the fireside a desirable retreat.

Meanwhile back in Britain, the London Chronicle struck a more apocalyptic tone:

The large spots which may now be seen upon the sun’s disk have given rise to ridiculous apprehensions and absurd predictions. These spots are said to be the cause of the remarkable and wet weather we have had this Summer; and the increase of these spots is represented to announce a general removal of heat from the globe, the extinction of nature, and the end of the world.

There were of course good reasons to panic. The Year without a Summer in 1816 has been called ‘the Last Great Subsistence Crisis’—people die during times of dearth, and this was, so some scholars say, the last time that humanity was threatened with extinction by famine. There has always been localised famines, of course, and still continues to be so until today. The darkness of the year must have been worrying, for there were no scientific means of investigating the year-long ‘darkness’.

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Lord Byron

And so, it’s in 1816 when we see the first tale of the destruction of mankind through means of climate change: this was in Lord Byron’s Darkness, which describes not only a changing climate but also the ensuing social breakdown that Byron thinks could happen if the end of the world was caused by climate change, with men forced to hunt animals they’d never dream of eating, such as snakes:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars

Did wander darkling in the eternal space,

Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth

Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;

Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,

And men forgot their passions in the dread

[…]

The brows of men by the despairing light

Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits

The flashes fell upon them; some lay down

And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest

Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smil’d;

And others hurried to and fro, and fed

Their funeral piles with fuel, and look’d up

With mad disquietude on the dull sky,

The pall of a past world; and then again

With curses cast them down upon the dust,

And gnash’d their teeth and howl’d: the wild birds shriek’d

And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,

And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes

Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d

And twin’d themselves among the multitude,

Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food.

Men have lost all sense of manliness, bravery, and decorum in this passage: some ‘wept’—a sign of weakness in a nineteenth century in which men prided themselves on emotional restraint; ‘gnashed their teeth and howl’d’—obviously recalling the ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ in Hell from the Bible, yet there is no God or saviour in Byron’s climate apocalypse. To keep warm, later on in the poem, we’re told that men burn an altar piece—symbolic, perhaps, of the relegation of God in public life. Of course, 1816 was just one year after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had ended. The wars followed the French Revolution, which began in 1789, and a ‘world war’, involving Europe, Africa, India, America, and South America followed, lasting all the way until 1815. During this time, historic European royal houses and their aristocracies were toppled; even in Britain, the ruling classes were weakened; war scarred the landscape, evident by the Duke of Wellington’s first and very effective use of the ‘scorched earth’ policy during the Peninsula War. The Catholic Church in France was made subservient to successive revolutionary governments (priests who did not endorse revolutionary principles were named ‘refractory’ and put to death). It was a time when the world was truly being ‘turned upside down’. Thus, at the end of the poem, ‘darkness’, whom Byron calls ‘the universe’, spreads her ‘pall’—funeral shroud—over the earth.

Byron’s poem was a huge success and spawned several imitations, such as Thomas Campbell’s The Last Man poem, which I quoted at the beginning of this lecture (although Campbell asserted, after Byron had died and couldn’t defend himself, that Byron had stolen his idea for a ‘Last Man’ story). The celebrated artist J.M.W. Turner adapted the theme of Campbell’s poem in a painting entitled The Last Man, while another ‘Last Man’ story flourished in the theatre in George Dibdin Pitt’s The Last Man, or the Miser of Eltham Green, in 1826.

Yet at this point, climate change was not mankind’s main enemy: the nineteenth century saw the rise of a new enemy: disease. Several ‘new’ (I place ‘new’ in quotation marks) diseases came to prominence as a result of industrialisation and urbanisation, including cholera, diphtheria, typhoid, pleurisy, consumption. Now, these diseases had existed for millennia, but increasing numbers of people caught them as a result of living in unsanitary conditions; in the 1800s, a working-class family of 6 might live all in one room in a house with many other families, and the house itself would have no running water; people would empty their bowels in a bucket and then empty it out into public cesspits; it was a perfect breeding ground for these diseases.

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Mary Shelley’s The Last Man

So we find a new motif emerge from the truly ground-breaking writer: Mary Shelley. Now, she’s most famous as the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818. It’s not a bad novel, and is said to be one of the greatest novels ever written: it laid the groundwork for the motif of the figure of the mad scientist in literature and film, and explored what happens when scientists go ‘too far’, so to speak. But personally I think Shelley’s best novel is another, less well-known book, published in 1828, which has also inspired countless apocalypse books, movies, and TV shows: this was also titled The Last Man, but was truly ground-breaking compared to previous ‘Last Man’ texts. This is a brilliant novel—if you ever get the opportunity to read it, please do. The year is sometime after 2073 and England’s monarchy has been overthrown; it is a deindustrialised place with peasants tilling the land. One man, a shepherd and sometime bandit, named Lionel Verney, is the main character. Gradually, reports filter through to England of a plague affecting all parts of the world. People are dying in great numbers:

That word, as yet it was not more to her, was PLAGUE. This enemy to the human race had begun early in June to raise its serpent-head on the shores of the Nile; parts of Asia, not usually subject to this evil, were infected. It was in Constantinople; but as each year that city experienced a like visitation, small attention was paid to those accounts which declared more people to have died there already, than usually made up the accustomed prey of the whole of the hotter months.

The plague begins in Asia, spreads through to Constantinople—present day Istanbul—and makes its way through to Europe. In the passage quoted, at first the plague gives humanity no cause for alarm—after all, don’t people always get ill? As one of the nay-sayers in the novel says:

What is there inexplicable, pray, tell me, in so very natural an occurrence? Does not the plague rage each year in [Istanbul]? What wonder, that this year, when as we are told, its virulence is unexampled in Asia, that it should have occasioned double havoc in that city?

International trade, through an interconnected world, helps to spread the plague which people gradually begin to take more notice of—there was

A hope that the visitation of the present year would prove the last, kept up the spirits of the merchants connected with these countries; but the inhabitants were driven to despair, or to a resignation which, arising from fanaticism, assumed the same dark hue. America had also received the taint; and, were it yellow fever or plague, the epidemic was gifted with a virulence before unfelt. The devastation was not confined to the towns, but spread throughout the country; the hunter died in the woods, the peasant in the corn-fields, and the fisher on his native waters.

The protagonists think England will be safe but eventually the plague reaches these shores. We see people selfishly stockpiling supplies, only to die later on. Lionel and a small group of his friends and family members decide to leave England for a warmer climate, believing that the plague is less likely to flourish in hot countries, so they attempt to make it to Greece. Along the way, members of the group die one by one until Lionel is, so it appears, the only one left alive in the whole world. He too will die soon and so will the human race. It’s not a hopeful novel. It is bleak and does not give the impression that ‘everything will be OK in the end’. Although Mary Shelley declared that it was her favourite novel, reviewers scorned it—to them, the contemplation of the ending of the entire human race, the first ‘terminal narrative’, with no one going to heaven and surviving, was something sickening. Reviewers said that Shelley had ‘a diseased mind’ for portraying such ‘inhuman cruelties’.

And it’s this period, 1816–1826, the latter year being the publication of Shelley’s novel, which William Lomax points to as being the period in which God figuratively ‘died’ in apocalypse narratives. The ‘death of God’ means, according to Lomax, that people seek out ‘new metaphors and new myths’ to explain the world:

With the collapse of the great mythic system of Christianity, new metaphors and new myths had to be found. They are necessarily located [in novels, poems, and art] in other worlds and future times, for those are the only places myths can settle … out of Romantic pessimism and its artistic demolition of the past [and God], science fiction arose.

This is not to say people stopped being religious, so let’s not make that mistake. But people had found new ways of envisioning the end of the world which did not involve a Book of Revelation-style ‘Last Judgment’.

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19thc slums were the perfect breeding ground for disease

The End of the Secular World

So, let’s take stock again and consider the motifs that have evolved and been adapted by various writers to explain what the end of the world may look like. The Flood of Noah was the first to depict the small group of survivors, as well as the idea that only a select enlightened few would know the end was coming. The story of Noah’s flood also gives us the image of an entire world coming to an end through immediate, catastrophic climate change, even if the flood is divinely ordained. The end of the world usually comes about through some kind of ‘sin’, although in later years, these are often ‘secular sins’. The Book of Revelation, medieval ‘doom’ paintings, and Milton give us an image of an earth consumed by God’s wrath. Byron gave us a world wracked by climate change and the ensuing social breakdown, and notably in his poem ‘Darkness’, God is nowhere to be found. And it’s in Shelley’s Last Man where we finally see the entire human race dying of disease—truly extraordinary because even modern worldwide pandemic movies do not depict everyone dying.

Other writers later on in the century pioneered further visions of the end of the world in science fiction novels, notably H.G. Wells in The Time Machine, published in 1895. A Victorian scientist builds a machine which can travel through time—wells invented the term ‘time machine’—and he travels into the future, to the year 802,701 AD to be exact. What he sees there is a picture of human degeneracy: there are two castes, or classes of humans: the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi are based upon the Victorian aristocracy, who have let their love of fine living and leisurely lifestyle sap their energy for any activity that is remotely scientific; they spend their days eating fine fruit, drinking, and playing games. The Morlocks are the descendants of the nineteenth-century working classes; having always lived in dark, polluted cities, by 802,701 AD, they are now a brutal, degenerate race who live underground, averse to sunlight. Yet it is the factories in their underground cities which make the leisurely lifestyle of the Eloi possible. The Morlocks are essentially feudal slaves of the Eloi. A dangerous encounter with some of the more brutal Morlocks means that the time traveller is forced to escape and travel 30 million years into the future. And here it’s a truly depressing sight: all that remains of life on earth are crab-like creatures and butterflies; earth’s rotation is gradually slowing and the sun is growing dimmer; the earth then falls silent and freezes over as the last living things on it die out. Again, there is no God in Wells’s novel; there is no sense that humanity will survive this; none of the Eloi or the Morlocks will be ‘saved’ by God and go to heaven even when the earth dies. God is dead and the human race will die. Pretty depressing stuff when you actually contemplate it.

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However, for most of the nineteenth century, since 1815 with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Britain was the America of its day: the world superpower. It had an empire upon which it was famously said that ‘the sun never set’. Yet by the late nineteenth century, Britain’s supremacy was challenged by new contenders: France had regained its imperial prowess by around the 1850s; Germany was unified under King Wilhelm I as had Italy; Japan was building its own empire in the east; America was rising as a world power; Russia was a thorn in the side of the British; and these empires were all scrambling for world domination. The rise of these new empires and the rivalry between them meant that new fears emerged: that of a worldwide war. And war eventually broke out in 1914—it was war on a scale which had never been seen before; truly industrialized war had come about and the carnage was immense. To add to the death toll of those years, in 1918, just as the war ended, the Spanish Flu claimed the lives of approximately 100 million people on earth, or 3–5 per cent of the world’s population.

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H.G. Wells’s Time Machine

And so we return to H.G. Wells who wrote another ground breaking novel titled The Shape of Things to Come, published in 1933. Wells had witnessed one world war, and through his novel, which was written as though it was a history textbook covering the years from 1933 until 2106, he showed how a worldwide war might decimate societies worldwide. The year 1933, of course, was a pivotal one: Adolph Hitler had recently been appointed as Chancellor of Germany; Franklin D. Roosevelt was struggling to revive the American economy after he failed to implement his New Deal in the wake of the Great Depression; and in October of that year, Germany announced its withdrawal from the League of Nations and its abrogation of the Treaty of Versailles. So, in Wells’s novel, we see the rise of dictators, and the use of large-scale aerial bombing and weapons of mass destruction in war, which destroys human civilization. In the wake of the destruction, a worldwide pandemic ensues and out of the ashes, a narrow elite emerges to rule over what is left of mankind. The new governing elite formed out of the remaining stronger nations, including Britain, use their remaining air force, through which they enforce the use of the English language worldwide, depose the dictators, and engage in selective breeding to create a race of super humans each with their own unique talents—and this was presented as a peaceful utopia! Wells’s novel bears some resemblance to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, published the year before in 1932, but the social engineering in the aftermath of a great war takes a more sinister turn: set in the year 2500, babies are born in incubators and genetically engineered from birth to occupy the place in society that the elites say they must, and the story is about one man trying to escape from this world and its restrictive social roles.

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Morlocks from a movie version of the Time Machine

Of course, a Second World War did occur between 1939 and 1945. Truly different to all other wars, it witnessed ethnic cleansing and the murder of 6 million Jewish people, as well as the first true weapon of mass destruction: the nuclear bomb. Two bombs were tested on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It was clear that mankind had entered into the Atomic Age. So, we begin to see a proliferation of films—film by this point had overtaken literature as the main vehicle of mass entertainment— which express fears of a worldwide nuclear war, which would render the planet completely uninhabitable.

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Dr Strangelove

One such film was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, released in 1964, which was two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis—one of the times of that the world came very close to all-out nuclear war. In the aftermath of the crisis, there was a general anxiety in some nations that the nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands, and that people in general were ruled by powerful but unaccountable elites who could effectively steer the world into a nuclear apocalypse. Dr. Strangelove, then, expresses western people’s anxieties; it depicts a mad scientist—a trope made famous by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein—and sinister U.S. Army generals who succeed in provoking a worldwide nuclear apocalypse. A number of movies followed, and they were usually released, much like Dr Strangelove, after some tense moment in international relations between the USA and Soviet Union.

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For example, in 1983, the world came close again to nuclear war. President Ronald Raegan was belligerent in his early years, describing the Soviet Union as ‘the Evil Empire’ and his promotion of the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) or the ‘Star Wars’ programme. Although it sounded brilliant, being a series of satellites that could intercept any incoming threat to the United States, in the words of the historian Marc Ambinder it was ‘an instance of exceedingly expensive technology sold privately to an uninformed leadership by a tiny group of especially privileged outsiders’. Raegan appeared to be easily led by his generals, who convinced him that the way to win a nuclear war would be to strike the Soviets first.

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Raegan’s Star Wars programme

In 1983 and 1984 two films appeared in the USA and the UK: The Day After and Threads. The Day After depicts life in Lawrence, Kansas, in the lead up to and the aftermath of nuclear war. Threads, set in the UK, tells much the same story, and I’ll focus here on Threads because the movie is set in Sheffield, Yorkshire. A young woman, Ruth, lives a normal life, having a child, planning to get married. Slowly, we hear in driblets on the news and the radio of tensions building between the USSR and USA over the oil fields in the Middle East. Life around them quickly begins to change: local officials in the city council are invested with emergency powers; people’s use of petrol is restricted; there is panic buying and the government begins to broadcast the famous nuclear war infomercials Protect and Survive, which instruct householders on the kinds of shelters they should construct in their homes. And then the nuclear strikes happen: in a terrifying montage, we see Sheffield and other cities in the UK fall and burn. For those who survive, the situation only becomes bleaker: immediately after the blast, fallout, which is irradiated dust that is sucked up from the ground by a nuclear mushroom cloud, which you cannot see, smell, or taste, begins to fall. Many people get radiation sickness—a painful death which is caused by cellular degeneration. Even though Ruth avoids getting radiation sickness herself, she does contract Radiation Induced Cataracts and while her baby is eventually born, like many other children born after ‘the bomb’, her child is born with severe learning difficulties. Society itself does not break down as such, for there is still a government of some sort, but there is little in the way of healthcare or welfare and England’s population declines to about 4 million people—the same as in medieval times. And Threads also depicts the theoretical concept of the nuclear winter: in such a scenario, the dust clouds caused by the destruction of major cities around the world would block out the sun; it would be dark and exceedingly cold—this in turn will lead to famine, while most wildlife, and the bees upon which we rely to pollenate our food will also be killed off. This is what we see in Threads—perhaps one of the bleakest films you could ever watch.

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It was fears of worldwide radiation sickness inspired by fears of nuclear war that also gave rise to the zombie apocalypse movies which we enjoy today. The first person to use the word ‘zombie’ in the English language was my favourite poet: Robert Southey. In Southey’s History of Brazil, published in 1810, he said that the Portuguese word ‘zombie’ signified someone who was a devil and whose life force had left the body. So, we’re already seeing signs of an ‘undead’, ghoulish kind of monster emerging (Southey was also the first to introduce the vampire into English popular culture). When, in the nineteenth century, European colonialists observed the way in which some shamans in the Caribbean were able to seemingly hypnotize people and turn them into unthinking drones, they were also described as ‘zombies’. So we have a motif of a ‘devilish’ and ‘unthinking’ ghoul-like creature emerging. And they were monsters perfect for cheap horror films, especially given that, in the era of black and white movies, producers need not pay for elaborate sets—zombies did not require large gothic castles like Dracula or Frankenstein movies did—and the actors’ makeup could be relatively cheap (it rarely mattered much in black and white films anyway). So, with all the fears of worldwide apocalypse and radiation, two pioneer film-makers produced the following films: The Creature with the Atom Brain, in 1955, and Zombies of Mora-Tau, in 1957. Both of these movies see irradiated corpses come to life to feed upon the living. The zombie apocalypse genre then took a further step forward with the release of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968, and Romero always acknowledged his debt to the two films that immediately preceded his own. Zombie apocalypse movies continue to be popular, although they are now divorced somewhat from their atomic beginnings; zombie movies and TV series now, more often than not, serve as a vehicle for trying to work out how humans would treat each other in the aftermath of a worldwide pandemic—would people band together or would it be a ‘survival of the fittest’ type of scenario?

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With the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, it seemed as though the threat of all-out nuclear war began to recede. But in 1990s, a new phrase became a household word: ‘global warming’. The term had been used by scientists as early as the 1960s, but it was found mainly in scientific journal articles. However, as scientists increasingly sounded the alarm about a global rise in temperature, so too did journalists. Some, arguably wild, claims were made in the media at the time which have proven to be rather unhelpful to later activists; by 1988, climate science, which had previously been accessible to specialists in scientific papers, became part of mainstream political discourse, according to Ruis and Nerlich. In fact, those researchers date the rise of what they call ‘climate alarmism’ in the press to the appearance of an article in Washington Post, written by physicist and climatologist, James Hansen, titled ‘I’m not being an alarmist about the greenhouse effect’. We should say, however, that our simply recognising that certain media articles on climate change are ‘alarmist’ does not mean that climate change is not a problem.

Almost as soon as the media began promoting climate alarmism, so too did the movie industry. Waterworld, released in 1995 and starring Kevin Costner, was perhaps the first time that the issue of climate change entered the Hollywood mainstream. It’s a post-apocalyptic tale in which all the ice caps have melted; humans live on boats and makeshift islands, and humanity itself is slowly evolving and adapting to these new circumstance—some are developing the ability to breathe underwater, for instance. And the movie industry did not stop there—when writers and producers wanted to present the public with a new pessimistic tale, they could turn to climate change—something that it seemed everyone who had any sense agreed was an urgent problem. One of the most famous climate change apocalypse movies is The Day After Tomorrow, released in 2012; it was the sixth-highest grossing movie of that year and depicts the aftermath of a sudden climate emergency and the beginning of a second ice age. Yet the movie is also political: the countries most affected by the second ice age in this movie are western countries in the ‘global north’, or developed countries, as we see on one of the weather maps shown during the movie, as if to say that when a climate apocalypse comes, the West will simply be reaping what it has sown since the industrial revolution. Of course, The Day After Tomorrow uses the same motifs as that found in the story of Noah’s Flood: where in the Bible it was one man who knew the truth and preached to others, and they kept no note until the flood killed them off, so too in The Day After Tomorrow do we see a modern-day Noah in one of the protagonists who is a climate scientist—he spends a significant amount of time warning the dignitaries at the UN that urgent change needs to be made. In the movie, and in the media-at-large nowadays, humans are guilty of committing the secular ‘sin’ of global warming—‘unbelievers’ scoff at his predictions! Yet they take no note until the new ice age dawns!

Conclusion

So, what I hope you’ve learnt from this is that humans have always expressed a ‘fear of the end’ in literary and artistic terms, and hopefully this lecture has helped to put the alarmist fears expressed in the media and popular culture in their long-term historical context. The first apocalypse stories in Western culture came to us from the Bible, with Noah’s Flood giving us the archetypal ‘last man’ or ‘small group of survivors’ motif that has persisted in many retellings of the end times. When Western civilization was more religious, God was an active agent in bringing about the time of the end. As the role of religion declined in public life, and secularism and atheism were in the ascendant, depictions of the apocalypse likewise become secular. Yet always the final end comes about through our ‘sin’—religious or secular. In most of these retellings, there are ‘prophets’ who warn us about what will happen if we do not change our ways: the end will come, in some form or another.


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