Apocalypse not


Remember the end-of-the-world scare linked to a Mayan calendar cycle that is scheduled to come to a close on Dec. 21? It’s back, with a vengeance.

Strange things are happening around the globe. Female inmates in a Russian prison reportedly suffered a “mass psychosis” too serious for the staff psychiatrists, who called in a priest to calm the women. People in towns and cities across Russia are hoarding food, candles, and kerosene. Residents of one southern city are building a Mayan-style archway out of ice, perhaps as a cosmic escape route.

In cynical France, the government plans to block access to Mount Bugarach to stop New Age believers who are expected to flock there to escape the apocalypse. Some New Agers believe that aliens who live beneath the mountain will emerge to save them in the end times.

In the dark ages before the Internet, doomsday predictors stood on street corners carrying placards that warned sinners to repent because the end was near. In today’s digitally connected world, any fantastic theory can spread from Versailles to Vladivostok in seconds. Repeated enough times, the story takes on a life — and truth — of its own, because, well, it was on the Internet.

Russia, where people often are drawn to pessimism and mysticism, is taking the growing hysteria seriously. The minister of emergency situations, the nation’s top doctor, a high official in the Russian Orthodox Church, the Duma, and even a psychic former disc jockey all are reassuring people that the end of everything is not mere days away.

America’s top space experts are involved as well. NASA says it has received thousands of letters from people who are concerned — or frightened — that the rumors of impending doom are true.

“Many of these rumors involve the Mayan calendar ending in 2012 [it won’t], a comet causing catastrophic effects [definitely not], a hidden planet sneaking up and colliding with us [no and no], and many others,” the federal agency says.

But fear persists in the face of facts. A Reuters poll of 16,000 people in 21 countries found that 10 percent of respondents are genuinely concerned that the world will end four days before Christmas.

That fear is encouraged by people who are eager to profit from it by selling doomsday survival kits or books that describe how to prepare your own kit.

This display of collective neurosis would be amusing if only adults were affected. But NASA says many of the letters it gets are from children who are too young to separate fact from fantasy.

For the sake of children, the space agency insists that “the world will not end on Dec. 21, 2012, or any day in 2012.” There it is. No comets streaking toward Earth. No planets on a collision course. And definitely no aliens hiding beneath mountains in France.

Maybe just a rotund old man in a red suit riding across the night sky, in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. That ought to be enough weirdness for anyone.