It’s The End(s) of The World As We Know It: Did Pop Culture Cause Mayan Apocalypse Panic?

What part did movies, TV shows and comic books play in making people believe in those crackpot prophecies?

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The ancient Mayan calendar runs out tomorrow morning, and some true believers are anticipating the end of time at 8AM. ‘If it ends, it ends,’ tryp guru Terence McKenna — whose fractal timewave graph also predicts the apocalypse — told TNN. It’s the sort of thing we thought went out of fashion years ago. But for some people, it seems, the apocalypse just never knows when to stop.

It was from those words, written 15 years ago, that I discovered that the end of the world had been forecast for this Friday, December 21, 2012. It’s likely that I wasn’t alone; the dialogue, spoken by some heard-but-unseen news anchor from the then-futuristic year 2012 in the sixth issue of the second volume of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, was one of the first instances of the conspiracy theories that declare December 21, 2012, as the official date of the apocalypse breaking out of the paranoid fringe and into popular culture. Published in May 1997, it may, in fact, have been the very first to reference the Mayans and self-styled psychedelic shaman Terence McKenna agreeing on the date, as if the mix of ancient prophecy and modern science was enough to lend the idea some credibility amongst the skeptical. As everyone is, by now, well aware, it was far from the last.

Not that that one reference made the 2012 apocalypse common knowledge to the world singlehandedly. After all, The Invisibles — which ran from 1994 through 2000 and served as one of the main inspirations behind The Matrix —  was a comic book in an age when that medium remained somewhat fringe itself. (Morrison’s mention may have inspired rock band Incubus to add a 2012 reference to “A Certain Shade of Green” on its 1997 album S.C.I.E.N.C.E., reportedly recorded just after the issue had been released, however). It would take another five years for the idea of a 2012 end of days to truly hit the mainstream consciousness—and it would do so, fittingly enough, through what may be the most paranoid and conspiracy-laden TV show ever to grace the cover of TV Guide: Fox’s The X-Files.

In “The Truth,” the two-part story that closed out the nine-year run of the series, paranoid FBI agents Mulder and Scully are told very plainly by the Cigarette Smoking Man (Remember him? Such memories!) that December 21, 2012, was exactly when the series’ long-running alien threat would arrive on Earth, heralding an end to life as we know it. The prospect of an alien invasion may not have been exactly the shift in consciousness that the Mayans promised or McKenna’s mathematically proven apocalypse (although, as Sacha Dedesche points out in “The 2012 Phenomenon,” the X-Files‘ promised invasion does bring “a number of essential ingredients of the 2012 phenomenon [together] at once: conspiracy theory, extraterrestrial intelligence, ancient calendars and prophecies related to the year 2012”) but, like the truth, the date was now out there—an estimated 7.5 percent of America’s households watched “The Truth,” and now they knew just when the world was going to end.

(MORE: Mayan Apocalypse Film Festival – 21 Films for Our Final 21 Days)

From that point on, the 2012 date became fodder for the sort of faux-“reality” reporting that periodically wonders about the existence of Bigfoot or whether the Illuminati are actually manipulating the world. The History Channel produced multiple shows that “investigated” the possibility of the world ending in 2012, including 2006’s End of Days and Last Days on Earth, 2007’s Seven Signs of the Apocalypse and Nostradamus 2012 in 2008. The Discovery Channel also decided to get in on the act in 2009 with the soberly titled 2012 Apocalypse, a one-hour special that looked into the possibility of solar storms, earthquakes, volcano eruptions and the reversal of the magnetic poles of the planet all happening during a one-year span—just in case you were concerned.

To be fair, by that time, you really might have been concerned. In 2009, the notion that the world would end — by natural disaster, a cosmic awakening, the Rapture, or any combination of the three — was everywhere thanks to Roland Emmerich. Not content with bringing a breathless panic and action movie sensibility to the dangers of climate change in 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, Emmerich turned his attentions to bigger issues with his follow-up, which went by the simple name of 2012. In Emmerich’s film, the Earth’s core starts to overheat, and the viewer discovers that the rich and powerful of the world have not only known about this for some time, but also prepared an escape plan that would leave them alive as untold millions perished. Classic disaster movie stuff, perhaps, but with one new twist: The movie’s promotion accidentally convinced people that it was based on fact.

The first trailer for 2012, you see, was a cascade of images of natural disasters intercut with text that asked — in upper case type, for emphasis — “HOW WOULD THE GOVERNMENTS OF OUR PLANET PREPARE SIX BILLION PEOPLE FOR THE END OF THE WORLD?” before answering its own question: “THEY WOULDN’T. FIND OUT THE TRUTH: GOOGLE SEARCH: 2012.” The problem with that type of tease, of course, is that you couldn’t predict what such a Google search would turn up, as The Guardian‘s film critic Anna Pickard pointed out at the time: “The first few hits are links to anxious tin-hat conspiracy sites where people earnestly discuss the impending end of the world and what possible connection that might have to giant lizards. Then there are a couple of links pointing to this very same teaser. Then there was finally something about the film itself,” she wrote. “Hoping that your film will always be top of the pile when anyone types in four digits — an upcoming year in which, let’s face it, quite a lot of things could be happening — is trust indeed.”

Perhaps hoping to learn from its mistakes, the next round of promotion for the movie centered around a fictional scientific research think tank, the Institute for Human Continuity, which encouraged visitors to enter a lottery that could allow them to escape the world’s destruction via a specially constructed Ark, while simultaneously offering faux “science” to explain why the world was, indeed, careering towards imminent destruction. Unfortunately for the movie’s producers, not everyone realized it was a joke, leading to NASA receiving more than a thousand requests for more information about the planet’s upcoming destruction. “I’ve even had cases of teenagers writing to me saying they are contemplating suicide because they don’t want to see the world end,” NASA scientist Dr. David Morrison said in response.

(MORE: Cinematic Visions of the Apocalypse)

Faced with an increasing number of requests for more information about our apparently impending doom, Morrison — who hosts the interactive “Ask an Astrophysicist” feature on NASA’s website — went on to create a special webpage debunking 2012 apocalypse mythology. NASA currently even has a “Beyond 2012: Why The World Won’t End” FAQ page on its site in which multiple scientists patiently explain why we really, really aren’t speeding towards extinction.

Fittingly, perhaps, 2012 the movie turned out to be the peak of popular culture’s obsession with 2012 as apocalyptic scenario. Although the idea still appeared from time to time — Luis G. Abbadie’s 2010 novel 2012: El Código Secreto del Necronomicón, for example, sees the author mixing Lovecraftian mythos with the familiar end of the world scenarios, while Jay Sean and Nicki Minaj tried to reassure us with their 2010 song “2012 (It Ain’t The End)” — apocalyptic themes slowly grew less and less popular until fading away almost entirely by the time the real 2012 rolled around, with the exception of reruns of rabble-rousing History Channel documentaries (even there, the date of the apocalypse has entirely been pushed back by a century or so). Chalk it up, perhaps, to others trying to avoid the mild panic (and scientific backlash) the movie had accidentally incited, or perhaps the realization that the actual 2012 was just a little too close for comfort.

I suspect that the slow end of 2012 hysteria in storytelling comes down to something far simpler: Maybe familiarity with the idea had finally bred contempt—or, worse yet, boredom. After all, how many times can you really show the same end of the world scenario before your audience yawns and asks what else you have? When it comes to popular culture’s take on what happens on December 21, 2012, things have somewhat unexpectedly turned out just as Morrison’s fake news anchor predicted 15 years ago: it went out of fashion years ago. Here’s hoping that the rest of Morrison’s prophesized events for December 21 turn out to be as off-base as that off-handed comment was on the nose.