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5 Pop Culture Apocalypse Scenarios and How They Might Happen

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Since the earliest days, humankind has pondered the end of the world. We’ve imagined messianic judgment days, cataclysmic comets, hyperspace bypasses, and Mega Maids. Here are a few apocalyptic scenarios from recent popular culture, how they might happen, and how likely they are to occur.

1. Subterranean Apocalypse

Some existential threats are waiting quietly beneath the surface of the planet, as we learned in Tremors, Gears of War, and the 2002 dragon apocalypse film, Reign of Fire. Is it possible that lurking horrors are underfoot, slumbering or tunneling, waiting for the right moment to strike?

Probably not. But there’s still a lot going on down there. For example, xenophyophores are extremophiles that live at the bottom of the ocean, to include the Mariana Trench, which is 6.6 miles below sea level. While it’s unlikely that these four-inch, single-celled organisms will rise up and enslave humanity, they do have a Wolverine-like resilience. The pressure in the Mariana Trench is eight tons per square inch.

The deepest land creature is 1.23 miles beneath the planet’s surface. Plutomurus ortobalaganensis was discovered eating decaying matter in the Krubera-Voronja cave in Abkhazia, according to Terrestrial Arthropod Reviews, which is an actual publication. But unlike its locust brethren in Gear of War, plutomurus ortobalaganensis is eyeless, giving humans an advantage in the inevitable conflict.

(Lest we become complacent, the Los Angeles Times reported on January 29, 1934, that Lizard People might once have lived in catacombs hundreds of feet beneath the city. It is unclear where they are today.)

2. Alien Apocalypse

If there’s one thing Independence Day taught us, it’s that Bill Pullman can give a pretty stirring speech. If there's a second thing the movie taught us, it’s that when extraterrestrials come, they won’t be looking for Reese’s Pieces. In 1960, astrophysicist Frank Drake estimated the requirements for detecting alien civilizations in the Milky Way. The Drake Equation examines such things as the rate of star formation, the number of planetary systems with life-sustaining worlds, and the number of those worlds that eventually produce life. Although the number is conjecture at best, Drake estimated that there are between 1,000 and 100,000,000 extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy.

They can’t all be Vulcans out there. What would happen if aliens found Earth? According to Stephen Hawking, the best model we have for the discovery of Earth is what happened when Europeans discovered the New World. "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach."

Presently, the Voyager 1 space probe is approaching the heliopause, where solar winds give way to interstellar winds. It will be the first manmade object to leave the Solar System and enter interstellar space. (It’s traveled 11.1 billion miles so far; it moves at 38,000 miles per hour. Its battery will allow for data transmission back to Earth until around 2030, but inertia will keep it moving through space until the crack of doom.) The probe will be like a signal flare to the rest of the universe. And considering the mind-boggling technology required for galactic exploration, at best we’re insects to our alien overlords. (Hail Skroob.) At worst, we’re dinner.

3. Zombie Apocalypse

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has a website devoted to emergency preparedness, with a section for zombie attacks. (“Get a kit. Make a plan. Be prepared.”) The top-selling product by ammunition maker Hornady is a green-tipped bullet called Z-MAX. (Its slogan: “Make dead permanent.”) The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, by Max Brooks, remains a bestseller nine years after its debut. Clearly there is some anxiety about “walkers” and the threat they pose.

With good reason. In June 2012, a naked, growling, incoherent woman was arrested in Syracuse, New York, after attacking her family. A woman in Kansas City, Missouri, bit her neighbor, dropped to her knees, and began “digging in the ground, like a dog would.” She then fought against police, kicking wildly, with clods of dirt in her mouth. Only days before, a naked man in Miami was shot dead by police as he chewed the face and eyes off of a homeless man. (The first bullet didn’t stop his gnawing.) In Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, a man was arrested after he “bit a chunk of the victim’s face off.” Each of these grisly incidents, and many others across the United States and around the world, make 28 Days Later seem like a documentary.

A designer drug called “bath salts” has been blamed for each of these zombie attacks. It’s sold at head shops and smoke shops, and is marketed exactly as it’s described: as bath salts. (Don't worry, you won’t accidentally pick up a bag at the local grocery store and turn into a zombie. This stuff isn’t exactly brewed by Proctor & Gamble.) There’s no test for the drug, it’s unknown whether it’s addictive, and according to one former junkie, it makes you feel “like the darkest, evilest thing imaginable.” Like the undead. Praise the Lord and pass the Z-MAX.

4. Asteroid Apocalypse

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1998 was a great (well, terrible) year for Doomsday asteroids in film. Both Armageddon and Deep Impact promised us that if Lucifer’s Hammer came hurling toward us, all it would take are a couple of nukes and a plucky team to save humanity.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. First, it’s unclear whether we actually could blow up an asteroid that’s large enough to end the world. It’s also unclear whether we would want to. Any asteroid over 6.2 miles in diameter is considered “extinction-class.” The only thing blowing one up would do is turn one giant problem into a bunch of smaller problems. The Earth’s atmosphere would still have to absorb all that kinetic energy, which would probably end human life anyway.

But what are the odds that we might one day live out the video game Rage? There’s a 1-in-1000 chance that asteroid 1999 RQ36 will collide with the Earth in 2182. Those are the same odds as winning the Pick-3, only instead of taking home $600, the world ends. There’s a 1-in-250,000 chance that asteroid 99942 Apophis will impact the planet in 2036, which means you’re more likely to die from an asteroid than you are in a plane crash (1-in-11,000,000). The good news is that the dinosaurs took one for the team 65 million years ago. As Garp might point out, the world has been “pre-disastered.”

5. Thermonuclear Apocalypse

The post-apocalypse might be like the video game Fallout, with great music and the occasional mutant, but it would probably be like the novel The Road, with cannibalism and freezing, sunless days. One cause of such a climate is nuclear winter. (Other causes: impact winter, from an asteroid strike; and volcanic winter, from a super-volcano.) Theoretically, if the world’s nuclear powers decided to let the ICBMs fly, most major metropolitan areas would be targeted. The result would be a lot of smoke. Once the smoke reached the stratosphere it would remain there, as it would be above the clouds, and thus above the rain. This would block the sun, which would almost instantly plunge the planet into a perpetual winter. Without sun or heat, there would be no crops to feed boys or their dogs. This would last for years, though it’s doubtful we’d live long enough to know how many, exactly.

Nuclear winter isn’t the only problem. Contrary to the playground scene in Terminator 2, relatively few people are actually vaporized by the Bomb. (Those who are, though, wouldn’t even know it. They’d simply cease to exist, except for their shadows, which would be imprinted on stones and brick by thermal rays.) Survivors would be treated to searing heat, hurricane winds, and awesome firestorms before things like radiation poisoning or nuclear fallout would even cross their minds. (Essentially, “fallout” is the radioactive dust that’s created and dispersed by the blast. As dust is everywhere and never seems to go away, the resulting problem is self-evident.) Then there would be “black rain,” which is just what it sounds like—dark, radioactive rain.

How likely is this to happen? According to Martin Hellman of Stanford University, there’s at least a ten-percent chance that a child born today will die an early death from nuclear war. But on the plus side, the Mad Max dune buggies are going to be great.

Bonus: Matrix Apocalypse

It’s possible that the apocalypse has already happened, and this is all an elaborate game of The Sims. Dr. Nick Bostrom of Oxford University estimates a 20% chance we're actually living in a computer simulation. As Moore’s Law extends to infinity, it stands to reason that a hundred years from now we could computationally approximate the lives of trillions of people. For all we know, this is a lousy simulation, but it’s beyond our programming to see it. And because it’s hard to imagine things getting much sharper than Apple’s Retina display, maybe the program is coming to an end. As we’ve seen in Sim City, three of the five apocalyptic scenarios listed above are a possibility.

If reality really is just an advanced version of Sid Meier’s Civilization, there is hope yet. A Reddit-user called Lycerius recently posted to the site that he has been playing the same saved game of Civilization II for over a decade. (May our own computer deity have such devotion.) Lycerius reports that the year 3991 A.D. is a “hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation.”

But at least humanity was spared asteroid 1999 RQ36, and the Lizard People never returned.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
Michael Campanella/Getty Images
Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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