Rupert Cornwell: Wars, disasters, pestilence – and zombies. Is the end of the world nigh?

Out of America: A slew of gruesome murders, depressing world affairs and weird weather – it's no wonder the mood is sombre

Rupert Cornwell
Monday 11 June 2012 13:27
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Zombie evidence: Luke Magnotta, a Canadian porn actor, has been accused of sending murder victim's body parts to politicians in Ottowa
Zombie evidence: Luke Magnotta, a Canadian porn actor, has been accused of sending murder victim's body parts to politicians in Ottowa

I've got Apocalypse on the brain right now. Maybe that's because last week they opened a new rollercoaster of that name at the Six Flags America theme park in Washington's eastern suburbs. You hurtle along a stomach-detaching half-mile track, festooned with skulls and other end-of-civilisation paraphernalia amid exploding plumes of flame. Aficionados love these things. Me, I'm terrified just reading about them.

But it's not just the rollercoaster called Apocalypse. These days, surely, there are other good reasons for such eschatological musings. Take the "serious" news. We're presently submerged in the dreary middle game of the interminable 2012 election campaign, from which, at times, it feels that even the end of the world would be a welcome release. Then there's all the "declinism" talk, how the best days of the US are behind it, and all that remains for the 99 per cent of us is gradual descent into acrimonious poverty.

Tidings from the rest of the world are little better. Vlad the Bad is back in charge of Russia, while Europe's economy is going to hell in a handbasket. Then there's the ghastly mess in Syria that could plunge the entire Middle East into sectarian civil war – oh yes, just as Israel attacks Iran.

If the politicians seem to have lost control, then so too has Mother Nature. Maybe it's just the instantly transmitted images of the digital age, but aren't natural disasters – floods and heatwaves, tsunamis and tornadoes – getting more frequent and more disastrous than ever?

All of which only reinforces one's fears about global warming, rising sea levels and the rest. The problem is probably now irreversible, even if the politicians were brave enough to impose the draconian measures that alone might make a difference.

Here in Washington, this last winter was the warmest on record and spring came and left a month ahead of schedule. As a result we're promised a biblical infestation of summer mosquitos on the East Coast, thanks to a shortage of frosts that normally kill the larvae.

I'm not sure about the exact moment of final judgement – Meso-american scholars now have doubts about whether a Mayan calendar really does identify 21 December 2012 as the big day. But one's confidence that it's coming hasn't been diminished by a spate of recent astronomical phenomena, and Nasa's estimate last month that 4,700 "potentially hazardous" asteroids are out there waiting to hit us.

And what about the menace of our own species, the so-called "Zombie Apocalypse"? The zombies in question are not of the relatively benign Haitian variety, corpses brought back from the dead, their flesh continuing to decay even as they "live" on. No, these are the fearsome creatures of George Romero's 1968 cult film The Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, that feast on human flesh. And to judge by the headlines of late, they may already be among us.

First came that gruesome incident in Miami, in which "Naked Man Killed by Police was Eating Victim's Face". A day or two later we were treated to "Maryland Suspect accused of Eating Man's Brain, Heart". And now we recoil in horror at the tale of Luka Magnotta, the Canadian "Porn Actor Held in Mailed Body Parts Case", who is suspected of murdering and chopping up his victim before mailing off pieces of the body to political parties in Ottawa.

An interest here in zombies is nothing new. Like the ghouls and witches of Hallowe'en, they've been a growth industry for years, to the point that Americans today apparently spend $5bn a year on zombie-related products, from garden gnomes to guns.

And even the government's Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta jumped on to the undead bandwagon last year with a tongue-in-cheek "Zombie Pandemic" campaign, to promote emergency preparedness. But after Magnotta et al, the joke's worn thin. A few days ago the CDC felt constrained to issue an earnest statement saying it "does not know of a virus or condition that would re-animate the dead, or would present zombie-like symptoms". No, I haven't made that up.

All the above of course are crimes of an other-worldly awfulness, and stories of beheadings and cannibalism always exert a special mix of repulsion and fascination. But the attention may reflect something more: the sense that the proliferation of these unnatural deeds, like the seeming proliferation of economic, political and natural disasters, reflects unnatural times.

If so, then let's all take a deep breath. Yes, the weather's been freakish, and the news is pretty depressing. But like riders of the Apocalypse roller coaster, we'll come through the flames and live to tell the tale. And who knows? England may even win Euro 2012.

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