As we approach December 21, it is increasingly evident that a significant minority believe the world is about to come to an end, thanks to the mistaken interpretations of the Maya calendar and its alleged apocalyptic significance. NASA astrobiologist David Morrison sadly noted that children as young as eleven were regularly writing to him expressing sometimes suicidal thoughts that the world would soon end. “It happens often enough to disturb me … to hear that children are considering ending their lives,” Morrison told ABC News earlier this month.
A new report from China finds that a country that has never had an apocalyptic tradition [see correction below] is suddenly in the grips of 2012 panic as well. According to an article published in The Telegraph, China’s 2012 panic has a definite origin point: the 2009 Hollywood film 2012, which starred John Cusack and was directed by Roland Emmerich.
[Correction: The article I was referencing stated that China had no "history of preoccupation with the end of the world" which I apparently paraphrased poorly. Many readers have written to remind me that China has had several apocalyptic beliefs, including Buddhist-influenced belief in destruction at the end of a "kalpa." That's what I get for taking the article at face value! It is perhaps more accurate to say China did not have universal destruction as a foundational belief the way the West has the Apocalypse of Revelation.]
It’s not widely known outside of China, but the communist regime there significantly restricts the importation of movies from abroad, especially Hollywood releases. Until this year, that quota was just 20 films per year, expanding now to 34. (The United States produces approximately 600 films per year, according to MPAA statistics.)
As a result, official releases of Hollywood films become major events and receive significant attendance, and thus profits in a land of 1.3 billion people. In order for a movie to gain access to China’s lucrative market, it has to meet the very specific guidelines and requirements of the communist country’s film board. It doesn’t hurt to also depict the Chinese as heroic.
The film 2012 was able to do this because it showed the communist government and the People’s Liberation Army building arks to save large numbers of people from the environmental catastrophe unleashed during the apocalypse. That artistic and/or business decision led directly to China’s current 2012 apocalypse panic.
Although China had only 4,700 movie screens in 2009, only 150 films are shown in theaters each year and the average Chinese attends a movie once every five years. Even so, of the 350 million Chinese who can afford to attend movies and the 300 million who would have gone in 2009, a very significant number were exposed to 2012 during its theatrical release. And, of course, any movie that was screened in theaters also had a significant marketing campaign that helped drive interest in the film and the demand for pirated home video versions, massively increasing viewership.
This does not excuse the audience from deciding that the fictional film represented reality, but it is a very strong (if unscientific) indicator that popular entertainment shapes attitudes and opinions. We saw this just the other day with the 26-year-old man who shot his girlfriend because she refused to believe that the Walking Dead was scientifically possible and the parents who are teaching their kids that the zombie apocalypse is imminent.
These are questions I’ve wrestled with often: What is the obligation of art to its audience? What is the obligation of the media to define and defend truth?
On the one hand, I don’t think art should be limited to only what is true. China tried that by forbidding all depictions of time travel because the fantasy element was anti-communist. But much of what is beautiful and resonant would die with such a decree, for at heart all fiction is nothing but beautiful lies. I’ve always held that ancient astronauts, for example, were perfectly fine as subjects for fiction. But H. P. Lovecraft had to deal with the problem of art that is too convincing, repeatedly warning readers who wrote to him that Cthulhu wasn’t real. But what of the readers who never wrote in and went to their graves thinking the Old Ones were really out there? You can’t restrict art to protect the gullible, but I don’t really know what the answer is. Realism makes art believable, but it means that many will take it for truth even when it is concocted out of the thinnest veneer of truth over a superstructure of lies. The Exorcist was single-handedly responsible for an outbreak of thousands of “demonic possessions” (as documented in Michael W. Cuneo’s American Exorcism). And you also have people like Ridley Scott who tried with Prometheus to actively use his art to convince audiences of the reality of Erich von Däniken’s ancient astronaut hypothesis, his explicitly stated purpose.
On the other hand, I think anything that is labeled as nonfiction has an obligation to present the truth as its creator believes it. I don’t for a minute think that the producers of Ancient Aliens believe a word of it—if they did, they wouldn’t engage in fabrications, manipulative editing, and deceptive depictions of reality. (Note to H2’s attorneys: All of this has been extensively substantiated in my book, A Critical Companion to Ancient Aliens.) But not all nonfiction producers believe the same truths, which is where fairness also comes into play. Nonfiction has an obligation to present enough information for the audience to understand the issue and whether the producer’s view is well supported.
The only good thing about the 2012 hysteria is that it comes with a built-in expiration date. But what about the next media-driven panic? What about ancient astronauts, Atlantis, psychic powers, ghost hunting, demonic possession, and myriad other fantasies that continue to exist only because the media keep implying they are real?
I don’t really know what the answer is to the very real problem of a small but sizeable part of audiences taking whatever they see or read as truth. It seems like a failing of the education system and of culture, but there has never been a time when the lines between myth and reality were clearly drawn, and I doubt that time will ever arrive.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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