Apocalyptic Fever

I can see by your coat, my friend,
you're from the other side,
There's just one thing I got to know,
Can you tell me please, who won

-- “Wooden Ships,” Lyrics by
Paul Kantner and Stephen Stills

Growing up in Columbus, Ohio in the 1950s, I spent many Saturday afternoons at the Boulevard Theater, where you could see a double feature and a cartoon for 25 cents. Apart from an occasional western or Martin and Lewis comedy, I mostly lived on a steady diet of horror films: Frankenstein and werewolf remakes, movies about malevolent creatures from outer space and generous helpings of cheesy Japanese imports. But, hands down, the scariest film I saw growing up was an animated short about nuclear annihilation. Oddly enough, it first aired on Ed Sullivan’s variety show. This was in 1956, when there were only three TV networks and no cable outlets, so all programming had to appeal to a broad audience. The Ed Sullivan Show mostly featured holdovers from the heyday of vaudeville: Borscht Belt comedians, ventriloquists, animal acts, jugglers and acrobats -- pretty tame stuff. Consequently, when Ed Sullivan warned that the film he was about to show might not be appropriate for younger children, I remained glued to the set. I don’t remember now whether my parents were in the room; if so, they didn’t object. After all, the film was billed as a cartoon. And even though I was only nine years old, I had already sat through Godzilla and the Creature from the Black Lagoon without lasting trauma. How scary could this one be?

Pretty scary, as it turned out. The six-minute allegorical film, entitled A Short Vision, was the work of a British husband-and-wife team, Peter and Joan Foldes. There is no explicit reference in the film to nuclear weapons or to nations at war. You see a shape-shifting object flying overhead. It flies over mountains and fields, and wild animals flee in terror at its approach. The object reaches the city. It is night, and people are asleep. Their leaders and wise men look up. The film’s voice-of-God narrator intones: “…but it is too late.” There is a fireball in the sky and a mushroom cloud. You never see city the destroyed, only tears flowing from the eyes of those who looked up, then blood streaming from their eye sockets as their flesh is burned away from their skulls. This is the image that seared itself in my memory from nearly 60 years ago. The narrator drones on, “When it was all over, there was nothing else left but a small flame. The mountains, the sea and the earth had all disappeared. And it was cold, except for the small flame.” The flying object reappears in the form of a moth and briefly circles the flame before it, too, is consumed. Then the flame is extinguished, and all is darkness.

The New York World-Telegram and Sun ran a story the next day with the headline "Shock Wave From A-Bomb Film Rocks Nation's TV Audience." Letters poured into the network. There were comparisons to the panic caused by Orson Welles’ “live” radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938. Unchastened, Ed Sullivan ran A Short Vision again two weeks later, albeit with a stronger warning to parents to send their kiddies from the room. The apocalyptic fever continued unabated, and not just on The Ed Sullivan Show. End-of-the-world dramas were a staple of popular entertainment – not the least in many of those horror films I saw at the Boulevard Theater in Columbus. Godzilla was a mutant amphibian that rose from the murky depths after A-bomb tests in the South Pacific. In The Amazing Colossal Man, an army officer grows to be 60 feet tall after accidental exposure to radiation at a nuclear test site in Nevada. In Them!, the action shifts to New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945, and this time the landscape is overrun by gigantic irradiated ants.

Although the prospect of nuclear annihilation is a relatively recent wrinkle in apocalyptic thinking, preoccupation with the end of the world is nearly as old as civilization itself. Stories of a cataclysmic flood, similar to the biblical account of Noah’s ark, are a staple of ancient mythologies in the Middle East, Mesoamerica and the Asian subcontinent. In most cases, civilization is destroyed after having run afoul of the reigning deity. Threats of divine retribution were commonplace among the Old Testament prophets, culminating in a “great and terrible day of the Lord” in which “the sun shall be turned into darkness.” The New Testament picks up where the Old Testament left off, ending with an extended riff on doomsday and its aftermath in the Book of Revelation.

Devout souls who yearn for the Second Coming have long turned to the Book of Revelation for clues as to exactly how the Lord will ring down the curtain on mankind. Its prophecies are highly allegorical, leaving plenty of room to read into them anything you want. A case in point: the so-called Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who loose various scourges upon the world as harbingers of the Last Judgment. According to some interpretations, they represent pestilence, war, famine and death itself. These scourges are hardly new, and by most reckonings are even in abeyance. Pestilence, famine and human mortality have all declined thanks to advances in hygiene, farm production and medicine. The threat of nuclear annihilation has likewise receded, although warfare is one area where technological advances tend to work against you. In any event, Armageddon will ultimately be fought not on the battlefield but in the human heart, and our enemies won’t be defeated by waging war against them. You can't innoculate people against hatred, the way you can innoculate them against small pox or polio. We don’t yet understand that we are defeated the moment we take up arms against other human beings. We are defeated the moment we begin to think of our brothers and sisters as enemies. So where does that leave us? Jesus of Nazareth had some unorthodox views on how to deal with enemies. He said we should love them.

Joel 2:31
Revelations 6:1-8

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