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Cepeda: Our love/hate relationship with the end of the world

First Published      Last Updated Jul 08 2015 06:00 pm

CHICAGO • It's summer, the perfect time for apocalyptic anxiety.

The season's hottest films so far — "Mad Max: Fury Road," "Jurassic World," "San Andreas," "Terminator Genisys" — have centered on drought after civilization's collapse, genetic engineering run amok, the mother of all earthquakes and cyberterrorism enabling the end of life as we know it, respectively.

And, in addition to real-life viral epidemic outbreaks, natural catastrophes and your basic religious/spiritual omen scares (remember the 12/12/12 Mayan doomsday predictions?), we can't forget the zombies: "Fear the Walking Dead" a spin-off of the hit TV show "The Walking Dead" is but weeks from premiering.




We sure do love our world-ending terror. What could be more fun than spending a few hours watching warring pockets of civilization's last survivors annihilate each other for a cup of water, or a giant earthquake-triggered tidal wave swallow up San Francisco?

I was pondering the delight with which some of us glom onto the latest threat and came to the conclusion that there's no better fantasy than the one in which all the lesser saps die, leaving the clearly superior survivors (we always include ourselves in this motley crew of undiscovered heroes) to rebuild an even better world.

But Dr. Shmuel Lissek, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Minnesota, and an expert on anxiety, stopped me cold "That is the religious way of looking at it," he said. "Christian, and other religions as well, see certain [apocalyptic] events as God's plan being enacted where the transgressors are punished and the faithful rewarded with a new, better life."

The nonreligious, lapsed Catholic in me recoiled. It seems unlikely that my fellow, arguably bloodthirsty, moviegoers are particularly religious. I was thinking more along the lines of being easily captivated by delusions of grandeur that come at the expense of, for instance, all the unlucky suckers falling into the San Andreas fault, but Lissek feels there's much more to it.

"One thing is just old-fashioned boredom. People go about their lives, their routines — they run to the grocery store, pick up the kids, etc. — the idea of something very different happening is exciting. Of course if something were to happen, it would quickly turn to horror, but this sort of entertainment breaks the boredom," he said.

"Some of the enjoyment is that when you watch these movies or consider [apocalyptic] situations, you have moments when you're genuinely scared thinking this situation could happen. Then you get the relief when you subject the threat to rational analysis."

Rational analysis was exactly what I had been looking for when I contacted Lissek, who comments on human anxieties regarding disasters and end-of-world scenarios, to see if he'd heard anything about the EMP.

The threat of an EMP — an electromagnetic pulse, or short, massive burst of energy (most likely caused by a nuclear bomb detonated above the earth's atmosphere) that would fry all our electronics and cause the end of practically everything — is, mark my words, the next hot catastrophe.

My husband, a connoisseur of zombie catastrophes, has been going on and on about an EMP after reading "One Second After," a 2009 novel by William R. Forstchen. He'd been half-seriously talking about constructing so-called Faraday cages in which to store a few essentials for the post-EMP apocalypse when I heard NPR's "On the Media," one of my favorite news programs, interview Rocky Rawlins, the editor of survivorlibrary.com, for a series on a potential Digital Dark Age.

Speaking specifically about the possibility of an EMP taking down our power grid, Rawlins said, "In 2001, Congress set up a committee primarily concerned with what would happen if a rogue nation ... or a [natural] solar-caused EMP" occurred. (Yikes!) Rawlins went on to talk about preparing to survive this cataclysmic possibility.

Suddenly my husband's Faraday cage didn't seem so kooky. It turns out, his response is simple evolution.

Lissek told me that "humans, and lots of other species, have been hardwired to take incredible threats seriously because over our evolutionary history, the cost of missing a threat is much stronger than that of a false alarm. People who worry less are less likely to pass on their genes."

So there you have it. Enjoy your delusions of grandeur or paranoia about the future. It's biological — just don't forget to have fun with it.

estherjcepeda@washpost.com

Twitter, @estherjcepeda

 

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