Watch out folks, the end is nigh … again

In case you may have missed the news, there’s an alien invasion trailing the heels of comet Hale-Bopp. Yep, that’s right, a spaceship four times the size of Earth is hiding in the comet’s tail, steering it on a collision course with Earth. NASA knows about the invasion ship, but is covering it up. Before we meet our certain demise this March, however, we’ll at least get the chance to enjoy “Asteroid,” an NBC sweeps month disaster miniseries.
Regarding comets as harbingers of doom is, of course, nothing new. From ancient Mayans to modern-day New Agers, the mythology surrounding the appearance of celestial bodies is long, varied, and almost always negative. No sooner was Hale-Bopp discovered in 1995, than the first wild story surfaced. The spaceship theory began last November when an amateur astronomer spotted a “Saturn-like” object in the comet’s tail. Rather than being subjected to scientific scrutiny, the “discovery” was instead announced on Art Bell’s late-night radio program.
Scientists, including the comet’s namesake, Alan Hale, soon determined that the object in question was the well-documented star SAO 141894, but that didn’t stem the tide of conspiracy theories from Bell’s UFO-obsessed fans. They’ve linked the comet to everything from Hopi prophecy to the book of Revelation, and of course the ubiquitous Nostradamus. These fringe Chicken Littles would hardly be noteworthy, were it not that the very same themes of mass destruction currently saturate popular culture.
In addition to NBC’s “Asteroid,” this year will see at least three more cosmic collisions on the big screen. If celestial carnage isn’t your fare, you’ll have your choice of big-budget volcanos, tornados, earthquakes and floods. Don’t like natural disasters? Try a few more alien invasions or watch the Titanic sink … four times. Clearly, catastrophe is trendy, but what’s behind our appetite for destruction?
The millennium is the easiest but most unsatisfying answer. Despite the hype, there has to be something more significant going on than a simple fascination with round numbers. The Internet definitely facilitates the speed and scope of UFO-conspiracy theories, but it’s a means, not a cause. Some suggest that we are merely searching for new demons in the post Cold War age. Close, but no cigar. The basic appeal of catastrophe may lie in the seductive notion of an all-or-nothing crisis. Why would we need new demons when we have AIDS, poverty, urban violence, drugs and Congressional ethics? What we long for is a problem that is at once simple and out of our control. Aliens, asteroids, volcanos and tornados all have three things in common: they’re big, they’re bad and they’re not our fault.
The apocalypse may be most attractive because it lets us off the hook. It’s more fun to watch Will Smith out there battling aliens than crusading for more mammograms. Natural disasters are just plain sexier than, say, heart disease. Likewise, forecasting the end of the world is easier than dealing with its confusing array of ills. The recent disaster obsession is just a new line to an old, pessimistic song. Ancient peoples may have looked to unusual events in the night sky with a sense of dread, but chances are they didn’t say: “Is that a sign of Armageddon in the sky tonight? Well then, no point in mowing the lawn.”