Why we’re obsessed with the end and what you can do about it
Words | Aylish Dowsett
It’s a familiar scene: Two characters stand side by side, gazing out across the destroyed landscape of the earth. It’s grey, it’s dark and their loved ones have most certainly been killed. Yet we still watch, glued eagerly to our TV screens and the characters’ creeping demise. It’s all just a little bit strange, isn’t it?
Since the dawn of time, humanity has been obsessed with the end of the world and our own personal expiry. But whether we snuff it by natural causes or some gigantic catastrophic event, we will always be fascinated by the end: it’s final, it’s scary and it’s everywhere.
The concept of doomsday is nothing new and seems to play a role in much of recorded history. Religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism highlight this event in their beliefs, impacting much of the world’s population. In fact, doomsday predictions predate even organised religion with the oldest written story – a 5,000-year-old Sumerian text called The Epic of Gilgamesh – which describes how a Goddess wishes to raise the dead from the underworld in order to destroy the living. Yikes.
It’s clearly evident that our fascination extends across cultures and, in particular, contemporary popular culture. Everywhere you look from music, to books, to jokes, to cinema, we just seem to love death. I know some of my favourite films and TV shows – like Doctor Who, Brave New World, Harry Potter, The Matrix, Inception – centre their plots around death or at least have some main character tragically kicking the bucket way before their time. Doctor Who even has episodes named ‘The Unquiet Dead,’ ‘The End of the World,’ and ‘Doomsday’; and that’s only from season one.
So why are we so obsessed with our grim demise? Social psychologist Daniel Sullivan suggests that this fascination could be a way for us to cope with potential danger and evil in the world. “Obviously, the world is a chaotic place and people have trouble predicting what will happen to them,” he tells Newsweek. “Sometimes it is preferable to see danger as coming from one single identifiable source…than it is to simply imagine that danger is endlessly complex and simple.” Sullivan also says that we may make doomsday predictions in order to avoid randomness, an annoying basic human instinct. “When I think about doomsday predictions, it reminds me of a classic study in which participants were told they were going to receive an electric shock,” says Sullivan. “The majority of participants opted to receive the shock right away rather than wait for it to happen randomly.”
We humans also have a strange attachment to death because, well, it scares us. “It’s something we fear and things we fear we are also intrigued by,” says Dr. Jeff Greenberg, social psychologist at the University of Arizona. “There is a natural interest into the things that we worry about and that scare us. There is a fascination with us.”
Although we may love death in popular culture, we are actually terrified of admitting that we’ll die, even though it’s the inevitable. A 1987 study suggests that people born after World War II “generally lack firsthand experience with death” and that the concept of death and dying has become “abstract and invisible.” We have become a ‘death-denying culture’ where we politely say someone has passed away, that they’ve departed, gone to heaven, or, if you’ve ever euthanised a pet, been put down or put to sleep. To add to this, we generally segregate the dead and dying into hospital and nursing home environments, where we hand over the grim task to professionals, like funeral directors.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health in America, the average American will have seen 18,000 murders on television, all by the age of 16. It has further been suggested that violent death “befalls five percent of all prime-time characters each week.” This honestly shocks me. We see so much death, yet we still don’t accept that we’re going to die. What on earth is going on?
So, what should you do when faced with death and doomsday? Author Phil Torrens suggests that we should study basic epistemology – a fancy term meaning nature, origin and knowledge. “[It] may sound odd or pedantic, but we simply can’t expect to navigate the wilderness of big-picture risks before us if our beliefs about the world aren’t properly hinged to reality,” he tells Psychology Today. “Humanity must divest itself from change-resistant dogma and blind ideology, and instead embrace a philosophy of critical thinking. Evidence is our very best “guide to truth,” and without true beliefs about reality, our chance of dying in the wilderness could be high.”
Along with knowledge, I also believe we need to change our perception of death. Yes, it’s scary – I certainly think about my impending doom but, most of the time, it’s easier to just not think about. This, however, is not the healthiest mind set. We all push aside our own demise in favour of a bright future. But death shouldn’t be something we are scared of because we are all going to die. It’s what makes us human and our existence more meaningful. Thinking about death is uncomfortable, we just don’t know what will happen to us. But try, if you can, to cosy up to death. Get familiar with it. Try to embrace the idea and all its scariness; and be grateful for the time you have.