A funny thing is happening since the millennium: the apocalypse is back. In the mid-1980s, sweaty people across the globe lay awake at nights thinking of a nuclear holocaust. As Reagan denounced his enemy as "an evil empire", popular culture became dominated by visions of destruction. Sting hit the charts with a prayer that "the Russians love their children too", cinemas showed the apocalyptic cartoon When The Wind Blows, and two of the most controversial TV films of the decade were the USA's The Day After, about a Hiroshima- style catastrophe in Kansas City, and our own Threads about a nuke hitting Sheffield. But then, for a decade-and- a-half, radio silence set in. The earth - refracted through the lens of movies, plays and songs - became safe again. Droughts, floods and AIDS ravaged much of the developing world, but the destruction of humanity disappeared from the Western popular imagination.
And then, and then... This year's surprise hit at the cinemas, 28 Days Later shows a Britain - and, it seems for much of the film, a world - destroyed by an apocalyptic disease. The wildly popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer ends each season with a narrowly averted apocalypse. In one episode, Buffy asks her mentor Giles, "How many apocalypses is this now?" "Oh, six at least," he replies. The best- selling fiction of Michel Houllebecq and Chuck Palahniuk is haunted by Revelation-style visions of mass destruction. One of the most popular US bands, Slipknot, has whole stadia screeching along to numbers which evoke the apocalypse. This list could go on. The lazy explanation for the recent sudden recurrence of these visions is 9/ 11. The Daily Mail headline on 12 September 2001, after all, was simply "Apocalypse". To be sure, the West was suddenly revealed that day to be vulnerable to attacks which seemed random and designed to cause as many deaths as possible. Tony Blair asserted - almost certainly correctly - that if Al Qaeda could have nuked, smallpoxed or poison-gassed Manhattan, they would have. But, curiously, most of the current apocalypse narratives were written or in production before the attack on America, and indeed the trend towards art- works about the ultimate disaster story was already underway. The under-rated Spielberg movie AI, for example, was withdrawn from circulation in US cinemas on the day of the tragedy, not least because it features, in a horrible irony, a post-apocalyptic New York City in which the only surviving human artefact is the World Trade Centre.
So what has caused this new wave of nightmares? Perhaps the answer lies not in a geo-political event but in a more nebulous philosophical trend. The new wave of end-of-the-world scenarios is markedly different to the 1980s variety, because there is now an attitude towards the end which is at best ambiguous and at worst openly welcomes mass destruction. The satirist-songwriter Tom Lehrer wrote a number in the 1960s looking on the positive side of a nuclear exchange. It was called "We Will All Go Together When We Go." We are humming his tune again, but this time without the irony. In the striking arthouse hit Donnie Darko currently playing in UK cinemas, the eponymous central character says of his apocalyptic visions, "When the world comes to an end, I can only breathe a sigh of relief." The Tears for Fears song played later in the movie says, "The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had." A significant chunk of Westerners are afflicted by this new, trendy nihilism which sees the death of humanity as a blessed relief.
French novelist Michel Houllebecq is the most extreme example. His break- through second novel Atomised argued that the only solution to humanity's unbearably bleak existence is the total extinction of human life, or, as he coldly puts it, our "metaphysical mutation" into total nothingness. His novel Platform, published earlier this year, extends this philosophy. …