There's a powerful scene near the end of The Road—the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel—where a father and son huddle together under soulless skies on a desolate, nameless beach littered with whale and human skeletons. They have finally reached the coast after traversing by foot a post-apocalyptic landscape fraught with unspeakable dangers, toils, and snares.

The boy, about age 10, has never seen the sea. "What's on the other side?" he asks. "Nothing," replies his father, suffering from malnutrition and weakness after fending off all sorts of evils. All along, he has encouraged his son to maintain hope—to "carry the fire"—but has slowly lost his own. The boy, who believes there's still goodness somewhere in this dark and dying world, looks out to the sea and says, "There must be something."

Wanting to keep his son's hope alive, the man relents. "Maybe there's a father and his son, and they're sitting on the beach too."

Like McCarthy's 2006 book, the film is both depressing and redeeming; it depicts one of the most loving father-son relationships to appear on the big screen. And this particular scene speaks volumes for all of us.

What's on the other side?

The question is nearly innate to human experience, and Hollywood knows it—as evidenced by the spate of spiritual-themed films to release after the blockbuster success of The Passion of the Christ (2004). As a fear-filled world of war, terrorism, and economic collapse bring the question of death and the afterlife to the forefront, the film industry has delivered more fodder to fuel the question—though not always providing answers.

A scene from 'Transformers 2'

A scene from 'Transformers 2'

The result in 2009 was a record $10 billion at the box office in the United States and Canada, where theater attendance was up 4.5 percent over 2008 despite an economic recession that saw cuts in consumer spending in almost every other sector.

Much of that record windfall came from a near epidemic of movies about the end of the world—from the explosion-driven drivel of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (where all life on Earth is in peril) and 2012 (global mayhem as predicted by the Mayan calendar) to the tongue-in-cheek Zombieland to more thoughtful fare such as Terminator Salvation, District 9, and The Road. The trend continued early this year with two end-times thrillers, The Book of Eli and Legion, both of which opened in January, plus two documentaries, Waiting for Armageddon and With God on Our Side, both exploring the State of Israel's role in ushering in the last days. January also saw the wide release of The Lovely Bones, depicting a teen girl's view of heaven (and our own longing for it). More such films—pre- and post-apocalyptic—are on the 2010 tap.

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Why are so many of us flocking to the theater when we're pinching pennies more now than in decades? And why are we spending our hard-earned money on movies about the end of existence?

Two things are at work: First, when the economy is down, movie attendance often goes up; it's happened several times before, especially during the Great Depression. And second, people are asking, perhaps more than ever, what happens after we die—whether by natural causes or some cataclysmic event. War. Terrorism. Armageddon. Teen-idol vampires, hell-bent robots, wandering zombies. Whatever.

Record box office

During the Great Depression, unemployment in the U.S. ran as high as 25 percent, and many wondered how they would afford their next meal. But even during the hardest times, 60 million to 80 million Americans—as much as two-thirds of the population—went to the movies every week.

A scene from 'The Book of Eli'

A scene from 'The Book of Eli'

President Franklin Roosevelt said, "When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles."

While many Depression-era films were escapist fare, Hollywood didn't completely deny the realities of the day; the films of Frank Capra and the Marx Brothers were social commentaries in the guise of the screwball comedy, while some were more overt in their social message (Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Even popular horror films such as King Kong and Frankenstein had underlying messages about societal ills.

It wouldn't be the last time Americans would head for the movies in hard times. During five of the past seven economic downturns in the U.S.—including the 1970s oil crises and the dot-com bust of the early 2000s—box office earnings went up. And now we have the record-setting year of 2009.

"When times are bad, our business seems to buck the trend," Dan Glickman, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, told Time magazine. "The movies are great therapy. It's a lot cheaper than a psychiatrist."

But a psychiatrist likely wouldn't have figured that such bleak fare—about bad things happening at a time when, in the real world, so many bad things are happening—would play such a major role in a record-breaking year.

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Meaning and escape

When 2012 released in November 2009, The Fresno Bee newspaper asked scholars and religious leaders what to make of moviegoers' fascination with the end times.

A scene from 'A scene from '2012'

A scene from 'A scene from '2012'

Margaret Gonsoulin, a sociology professor at Cal State, speculated that it reflected hunger for meaning in anxiety-ridden times: "They want to know about the future," she told the Bee.

True enough, but there's far more at work here. Brett McCracken, a critic for CT Movies, wrote for Relevant that we are "compelled" to watch these films because "[t]here is in each of us an innate sense of justice—a sense that all of us probably deserve calamity or worse. When an act of God is on display, we marvel at what we suspect (perhaps hope) is his sovereignty at work, wrathful and terrible though it may be."

While Depression-era moviegoers sought escape, recent recession-era moviegoers are going both to escape and to see films about escape—even bleak, scary ones—into another world, the afterlife, or the "other side."

The writer of Ecclesiastes says that God has placed eternity in our hearts (3:11). We are divinely wired to wonder what comes next, and in that wondering, we are acutely aware of our own mortality—whether our death comes by natural causes or the end of the world. The films discussed here feed that fascination—one that runs as high in Christians as in anyone else. (Look no further than the Left Behind series, which has sold more than 65 million copies.)

"In difficult times, [our] restlessness for more comes to the surface," Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, told Christianity Today. "These are difficult days, and it should not surprise us that yearnings for eternity—for a final resolution of all the struggle with good and evil—will come to pass."

What's on the other side?

Hollywood may not know that the answer has in fact been revealed, that there is a Father and his Son on the other shore.

This commentary appeared in the March 2010 issue of Christianity Today magazine.