Two-dozen little shoe soles squeaked and squelched across the linoleum of the hallway.The teacher at our church school, leading the way, walked backwards for a few steps, winding the cord of her whistle around her finger.The whistle clacked against her rings.She pivoted to lead us into the library, and the squeaks turned to shuffling on the carpet in the dark.We could see the shapes of things we moved between – tables and shelves.We could see the projector and the screen, and with a click of sound the screen held a square of light and the square of light held our moving shadows.When we lowered to sit on a cleared space on the floor, there was a tingle at my fingertips that traveled all the way up my arm, across my chest, buzzing in my rib cage.A movie.

Last time, we’d watched a teeny tiny animated submarine chugging through the currents of somebody’s animated blood stream.The time before that, Ben Hur (anything featuring Charlton Heston in man-sandals was a winner here). And before that, a cartoon tooth demonstrating how to brush himself.It didn’t really matter to me what it was.I could be in class braiding the strips torn off the edges of spiral notebook pages or I could be sitting here watching the film threading through the projector and producing dark blips on the screen.I loved the blips and I loved the pop of sound coming on and I loved the rapid clacking of the reels as the film, whatever it was, began in earnest.

Today, it was something quite different, as the teacher with her hand overlapping the other in the projector stream had told us, and what I remember of it I remember in a sort of grim collage: mothers and children running through woods, pant hems snagging on fallen limbs and twigs and making crackles of sound. They hold their faces and glance around in panic.A woman buying apples is asked to show a mark on her hand, but her hand is bare. The apples are yanked away. She is yanked away with her plain bare hands. Sunlight winks across an empty sky. Blank faces tip toward it. People in a slow moving line step toward a guillotine. A little girl goes first.The glint of the blade, a metallic swoosh, the thunk of a chop, and the little girl’s balloon drifts into the empty sky and gets smaller and smaller like a speck on the projector lens no one can wipe off.

The excited flutter in my stomach suddenly crumpled up into knot of anxiety that’s been there ever since.

“So that’s why you have to memorize your Bible verses, boys and girls, for the time when it gets taken away from you at the end of the world,” the teacher said, her body stooping slightly in our direction over the slack tangle of her hands. “It’ll all be in your head then.And no one can take what’s in your head.”

Not even when they chop it off, I thought.Not even when they chop it off.

The church school had a habit of inciting my obsessive interests, and not in the things they wanted to me to be obsessively interested in.For example, they played Alice Cooper’s “Cold Ethyl” for us once to exemplify that which we should never be obsessively interested in.A week later, I brought to my piano lesson the sheet music for “Welcome to my Nightmare” I’d discovered in my older sister’s Big ’77 Songbook.When I was punished with sorting the library’s record collection in afterschool detention for neglecting to turn in an assignment, I discovered the pleasure of filching albums via gaucho pant leg.Still in my vinyl collection to this day, their album covers affixed with the library slip:The Imperials, Sandi Patty, and Bullfrogs and Butterflies.I mean, they were no Alice Cooper, but they were shiny and they were mine, secretly mine.

Not that I’m a rebel or anything.You ask me to look at a spot in the center of something and I just instinctively wander away and find something different to look at off to the left.Maybe the church school simply wasn’t the right place for me, because instead of wanting to learn my Bible verses after the head-chopping film I wanted to explore every conceivable aspect of our inevitable apocalyptic demise.Fear muddled with fascination.A kid daring herself to shimmy on elbows across Boo Radley’s yard in the dark, take a peak through the tattered eyelet curtains of his house, and run away screaming.

Such has been the lure of the disaster film for me ever since.Mind you, I’m a paranoid sort.Maybe naturally.Maybe because of the head-chopping film.Maybe because my mom used to put rubber-bands around her wrists during lightning storms and hide.Maybe all of the above.For family trips as a kid, I’d always empty my toy doctor’s kit and fill it with crackers and jelly beans just in case the station wagon plummeted off the road and down a jagged hillside and landed in a creek with the only signs of life our plaintive voices echoing off the mountains around us as we ran away, me clutching my doctor’s kit, from the station wagon exploding into a massive black cloud scrolling out over our heads.When I’d moved to Binghamton, New York as a graduate student and heard blasts rattling the horizon past the dark hills around my house, I’d immediately dialed authorities.“I think we’re being attacked by rogue militia!” I’d reported.

“Try fireworks at the baseball stadium,” I was told flatly, “and word of warning, Chicken Little, they do this every week.”

On the eve of y2k, I’d stockpiled enough juice pouches and canned ravioli to run a daycare for a year.And right about now, I’m drawing up specs for a fabulous backyard bunker ahead of 2012.It’s going to have room for a ping-pong table.And a hand-cranked frozen margarita maker.

The Book of Eli.Terminator Salvation.Legion.9.The Road.2012.It would seem the new millennium has ramped up a taste for post-apocalyptic dystopias and massive destruction at the cinema, and none of them have done too terribly at the box office either despite the fact that we can get plenty of the real thing live on any twenty-four-hour news outlet.I suppose that, like me, people at this point want to have the sort of dangling-in-the-mouth-of-the-volcano kind of insider’s view of what’s in store that a good CGI-infused film can afford them.They want to “experience it” before they experience it.Because this is how lives are saved.

That’s my plan, anyway.When the world collapses like a folding chair and calls it quits I will defer to cinema for all-important lessons in survival, the first and foremost lesson being do not buy, barter for, steal, accept, or in any way have in my possession a balloon of any kind.Problem is, though I’m fairly certain I have it in me to avoid balloons, all other cinematic survival skills are a little outside my skills set (which includes, in case you were wondering, dangling a spoon from my nose while singing “Lonely Goatherd”).

The last time I held a rifle at a shooting range I ended up sprawled in the dirt with a bruised clavicle.I don’t run.Not even to catch a plane.In a rush, I lope, only faster, like a camel skittering over cobblestones.That’s my run.My diet plan involves being too disgusted to eat by watching Bear Grylls on “Man vs. Wild” thumb a little frog out of the muddy wall of an abandoned railway tunnel in Vietnam, pop it in his mouth and chew.Watching him drink his own urine means I lose five pounds.I once threw my favorite slacks away because the hems got muddy at a music festival.I’d spent hours squatted on folded-up legs in a random tailgate chair in an attempt to avoid said mud at said music festival.Then they made me climb down and go home, thus the muddy hems, thus the pants in the trashcan wadded up under a fan in the shape of a Heineken bottle.

That said, disaster films have taught me that whatever plan I forge in the bitter end must involve the immediate attachment of myself to someone who is the opposite of me (I’m taking applications).Someone without a balloon or a desire to purchase apples in a store run by the antichrist.So that’s my big plan.That’s all I got.That and my ping-pong table.And a margarita.Cheers!

TAGS: , , , , , , , , , ,

TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

33 responses to “It’s the End of the World! 
Margarita Anyone?”

  1. Richard Cox says:

    2012 will be a boon for the survival gear and canned food industries, that’s for sure. And then it’ll be on to the next corporate apocalypse.

    But if disaster does strike, I think I’ll take a nice brandy and listen to “Nearer my God to Thee” as the ship finally goes down.

    • I like your idea. But what if it goes down really, really slowly … like in The Road. How much brandy do you have?

      • Richard Cox says:

        Well, mainly I wanted to make a reference to Titanic. I don’t think I’ve ever even drank actual brandy before. 😉

        On a serious note, I’ve been doing some research for an upcoming disasterish type novel, and the thing that strikes me about apocalypse hoarders is their relative short-sightedness. Or maybe a better way to word it is their extreme optimism that order would be restored quickly enough that a two-month supply of bottled water and instant oatmeal would really be the difference between life and death. Unless you’ve got an underground cavern stocked with years of supplies, you’re just pushing back the inevitable, because any real disaster is going to upset the delivery of power and food and water into population centers, and 90% of us are going to die while people lucky enough to live near a Wal Mart distribution center will kill each other over Doritos.

        Hahahahaha. I mean, it’s not funny. Well, it is. But it’s also not.

        • Andrew Nonadetti says:

          Man, from Elizabeth’s “Zombie” piece to this. You’d think this week was Halloween.

          @Cynthia: Best of luck with the post-apocalyptic, balloon-avoiding, buddy-film survival plan. I would recommend checking out “Zombieland” for a practical guide and focus on shoring up the basics like cardio. You may also wish to befriend someone slower and meatier. Just being practical here – you don’t always have to outrun the bear. Know what I’m sayin’?

          @Richard: In fairness, everything we do is just “pushing off the inevitable”. 🙂

        • Thanks so much, Andrew! I wish I had your faith in me. During the summer, on one of the hundred degree days, we lost power for five hours. It wasn’t fifteen minutes before I’d stripped down to underwear, sprawled out on the floor, fanned myself with my daughter’s Mickey Mouse plate, and cried about how I couldn’t breathe. I’ll be the first one dead for sure.

  2. Gloria says:

    Oh my god! I SAW that movie. In about ’90 – when I was 13 or 14 – and it fucked me up! What a horrible movie. It’s no different in my memory than other scary movie I’ve ever seen. Just theater -but terrifying theater. Okay, so maybe it had something to do with my brief stint as a devout Christine during ’95-’96, but I was just kind of role playing. Now it’s just a film. A freaky, freaky film.

    I’m a Chicken Little too. For sure.

    I will say this though – and I’ve said it other places to the point that I sound like a paid sponsor – but I got a great book out of the whole y2k thing. It’s called The Hippy’s Survival Guide to Y2K. It’s a handy, practical little (now out of print) book that I highly, highly recommend. It’ll help you out should The End come before you’ve had a chance to start on your bunker!

    • Surely someone will know the title of this movie. My younger sister and I still use “balloon” as a code word for the onset of a panic attack, heh.

      I am going to look up The Hippy’s Survival Guide. That sounds very handy! Although I didn’t do too well with the hippy situation at the music festival. I must be too prissy. I mean, I *am* wearing a tiara.

      • Gloria says:

        I’m pretty sure it was just called The Rapture. But IMDB tells me that is a movie made in the early 90s and starring Mimi Rogers. But maybe IMDB doesn’t know about this seminal piece of cinema!

      • Gloria says:

        I’ve called in back ups to find the name of the movie. It’s killing me.

        • Gloria says:

          Aaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnndddddddddd – KABOOM!.

        • Gloria says:

          My dear friend Jake Thomas – who, in addition to being a brilliant cinephile, is also the assistant editor to the X-Men line at Marvel helped me get this answer. Thanks, Jake!

          And now, I need to help Jake (It’s the least I can do). Jake needs a mop bucket for a film shoot that he’s doing this weekend. You know the type – yellow, on casters, industrial. He only needs it for a day. He lives in NYC. 😀

        • Hooray! This has to be it! It’s on Youtube. I’ll have to watch and see if I can find the headless balloon girl. I wish I could conjure an industrial NYC mop bucket and then some for Jake …

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Oh Cynthia!
    This was great..

    I can’t believe they showed you that film! In some ways, I’m horrified – but in a sick sort of way, I’m impressed at what a terrible thing that was to do to children! They must have known that would traumatise little kids!!!

    Don’t worry about being a Chicken Little. You keep good company. My Mum is a hybrid Chicken Little/Pollyanna. She filled up the bathtub with water for Y2K and she also once called 911 after someone stole the battery from her car – “This phone is for emergencies, Ma’am.”

    But when the apocolypse comes.. All you Chicken Littles are going to be ones laughing. You’ll be well-stocked and comfortable while all the rest of us nay sayers are going to having to make grovelling apologies. Ha Ha. That will serve us right.

    • I’m certain they thought traumatizing us into being good Christians was far better than letting us go straight to hell. I think playing “Cold Ethyl” for us was almost worse (need to go change that, have it titled incorrectly, hmph), or rather their commentary afterward: “It’s about having sex with a dead woman! Never listen to this song!”

  4. Matt says:

    I went to a Christian elementary school for Kindergarten and first grade, and they showed us some weird damn movies from time-to-time, stuff that, if it’s only half as odd and unnerving as I remember, I would still find deeply unsettling.

    About ten years ago I wrote a post-apocalyptic film script for my college screenwriting class, which was *almost* purchased by MGM in a student screenwriting contest. With the current trend in end-of-the-world flicks, I’m starting to thing I should dust it off and give it a couple of re-writes; bet I could sell it to Hollywood for a mint. Which I would then use to help finance Kimberly’s independant film, of course.

  5. Becky Palapala says:

    Oh man.

    Those kinds of movies…the apocalyptic ones…they give me anxiety attacks.

    I have been told by a facebook quiz that I can expect to live for quite some time during the zombie apocalypse, but I’m not so sure.

    But man, I loved Titanic. How I loved it. I loved the fancy clothes and the fancy ship and the fancy ocean and the love story and I loveloveloved fancy Leonardo DiCaprio.

    So I did like that one. As far as “everybody dies” movies go. I still ended up having the anxiety attack and weeping from it, but in that case, I was able to convince myself I was crying from the love story, not the terrible, tragic, bleak, and inevitable freezing/drowning deaths of a couple thousand people.

    Oh! And I liked the Volcano movie. With Tommy Lee Jones. Even though it was hokey. Tommy Lee Jones is the only human being I trust in a disaster scenario.

    • I don’t live too far from Tommy Lee Jones. Maybe he can be my go-to, end-times guy.

      Actually, before I saw the creepy church school movie, when I was even younger and even more impressionable, my favorite movie was Poseiden Adventure. It was on T.V. all the time, for one thing. I was always so happy when Shelley Winters finally dies. I couldn’t take her whining. Also true for A Place in the Sun. Poor Shelley Winters.

      Those films are all about inducing anxiety attacks, though. That’s all there is to it.

  6. Irene Zion says:

    You know, Cynthia,

    I went to a convent school in Italy, run by actual nuns, and I was never frightened by them at any time, about anything except getting my schoolwork done and not fooling around during class.

    Here in a seemingly safe Episcopal Sunday school, I was told terrible things.
    But, seriously, I think my Sunday school teacher was a flake, the church was fine and totally unscary.
    There are always going to be flakes, unfortunately, and most people meet one or another growing up.

    • This is true. My mom read this earlier and called me to say (once again), “I’m so sorry I put you in that school!” I told her, “Are you kidding me? I love that I went to that school. It’s given me something to write about, and it’s all hilarious.” There are, to be sure, many unscary and unextreme (inventing words, I know) religious-based schools out there, and had I gone to one of those I’d be less interesting. And I’d have to write about something else. Like watching movies. Oh wait …

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    Man. The scariest thing we were ever shown in primary school was the Life Education videos.

    ‘You want me to put my what in her WHAT?’

    OK. That never happened. But there was one memorable afternoon when the male toilets ended up strewn and scattered with pages from a mature-age Playboy special, courtesy of my friend Paul, my friend Robert, and Robert’s enterprising approach to selling off his dad’s adult magazine collection.

    I have only this to say about the whole Mayan 2012 prediction:

    This is a people who didn’t have toilet paper.

    I don’t know how well-informed they possible could have been.

    Find me a millennial Xbox, then we’ll talk.

    • In all seriousness, I don’t have much stock in any of these end-of-the-world scenarios or predictions. I mean, how many times before did we expect the world would end and it just didn’t? So anticlimactic. I’m jaded I guess. But I’m still digging. Just in case.

      You’ve reminded me of something else just as anxiety inducing, the field trip we took to the nuclear fallout shelter after watching an instructional film about how to deliver a baby in one. It actually had a little news desk so they could keep broadcasting somehow. And it was well stocked. This wasn’t even the church school. This was later, after I’d convinced my parents to put in me in public school. I loved it though. It was the best day ever! I remember thinking, well, I hope they let me in *this* one because it’s pretty nice and I want to be a journalist.

  8. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    I don’t think I ever saw this movie, though I was once shown the end-of-days-fetishizing film Seventh Sign, with Demi Moore and a fairly scary Jurgen Prochnow, as part of a church youth group activity. It was maybe with less direct fear-mongering than you experienced, more like the youth minister saying “Hey, let’s get together for pretzels and Pepsi and talking about Jesus, followed by a viewing of how the world is ending and any non-believers among you will perish in flames for all eternity! Yay!” It’s made apocalypse an absurdly funny thing for me ever since, so that John Cusack in 2012 leaping over crumbling buildings in a limo seems appropriate.

    • No more souls in the Guff! I’ve seen that movie many times. Too many. And, oh, I have a completely separate story about the Seventh Sign that has nothing to do with the end of the world. I think I won’t reveal the gist of it just in case I ever get brave and put it on TNB, ha.

  9. M.J. Fievre says:

    I love disaster films, particularly those involving some kind of rapidly spreading virus. An outbreak causing the end of the world… Dawn of the Dead. 28 Days later. The Crazies. I always feel a bit guilty watching these movies because there’s something very… cheap (?) about them. But what can I say… Guilty pleasure.

    • Loved 28 Days Later. It has these great layers of story to it that set it apart from other zombie-esque films of late. But I pretty much love anything Danny Boyle does. I even loved The Beach when no one else seemed to. And Sunshine.

  10. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    “When I’d moved to Binghamton, New York as a graduate student and heard blasts rattling the horizon past the dark hills around my house, I’d immediately dialed authorities. “I think we’re being attacked by rogue militia!” I’d reported.”

    That’s very funny, and yes, that would be my second reaction (the first one being “The Russians are coming). Beautiful essay!

  11. angela says:

    whenever i watch a post-apocalyptic film or show (or now as i’m reading The Hunger Games), i can’t stop imagining if i’d survive. answer? prolly not. like you, i’d want to attach myself to someone much more adept and able-bodied, such as my boyfriend who was in the miliatry and knows kung fu.

    “And you’d probably die trying to protect me!” i said to him recently.

    “Think again,” he said.


    • My husband was in the military. I hope this counts for something too, but he never fails to point out all of the instances in which I would perish right away. And I mean this is when we’re just watching “Survivor.”

  12. Marni Grossman says:

    Cynthia- I think you’re disaster bunker sounds like a serious good time.

    Of course, I went to Hebrew school in a fall-out shelter, so there you go…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *