The apocalypse has different meanings to different communities, but these beliefs have become so engrained in the American psyche that there is now a sense of the apocalyptic even for those who do not necessarily hold to other religious beliefs. What American film history shows developing, beginning particularly in the late 1960s and up to the present, is the idea of a secular apocalypse. The short-lived series Carnivàle (2003-2005), created by Daniel Knauf and originally crafted as a feature film is aAn archetypal tale of good versus evil, the series periodically sat in a drawer and was edited and reworked until, ultimately, HBO decided to produce it as an episodic series after the new millennium. If you have not seen the series, we would implore you to watch, it just might save your soul.
Daniel Knauf uses the cataclysmic events of the 1930s to form the beginning point of his good-versus-evil epic, blending imagery and events from the Book of Revelation to drive home the point that the work is an apocalypse, but a secular one. Knauf’s work is rife with religious overtones, including his own construction of a dualistic cosmology, but the final outcome is that humanity is responsible for the light and darkness in the world, and if there is an eventual end of the world, it will be at the hands of humanity, who have “traded away wonder for reason.” Carnivàle is a concrete example of American apocalypticism in the 21st century: it encapsulates the development from a religious idea to a secular belief in end times, with a focus on the human causes of the final act in Earth’s history.
The opening monologue in the pilot episode of Carnivàle sets the apocalyptic tone for the entire series. Samson, the leader of the carnival troupe, looking old and battered in a close-up of his face, addresses the audience:
“Before the beginning, after the Great War between Heaven and Hell, God created the Earth and gave dominion over it to the crafty ape he called Man. And to each generation was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness. And great armies clashed by night in the ancient war between Good and Evil. There was magic then; nobility and unimaginable cruelty. And so it was until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity, and Man forever traded away wonder for reason.”
The protagonist of this drama is Ben, a poor farmer who has lost everything in the Dust Bowl. He comes into contact and ultimately joins a traveling carnival troupe, peopled with a cast of colorful characters, including Samson, the second-in-command to the mysterious unseen figure known as “Management”; a catatonic seer, Apollonia, who is only able to communicate through a mediator, her daughter Sophie; Jonesey, the manager of the roustabout, maintenance crew; Lodz, a blind prognosticator. Two other important characters who are not connected to the troupe are Brother Justin and Iris Crowe, siblings who lead a Methodist church community in Mintern, California, far from the carnival’s Midwestern meanderings.
As Season One of Carnivàle progresses, the stories of Ben Hawkins and Brother Justin Crowe parallel in their respective searches for meaning in life and exploration of mysterious, unexplainable powers. The two characters only intersect in their cryptic dreams that they share, despite being strangers to one another. Ben is led in his journey by clues about his past from members of the troupe. He discovers and harnesses a supernatural ability to heal by touch. Justin, meanwhile, must follow the visions of his vocation that he believes are sent from God. Initially his visions seem to be impelling him to start a new ministry for the migrant workers who are pouring into California from the Dust Bowl affected states looking for work. Brother Justin later gains celebrity by partnering with a popular radio personality and strikes a deal with him to broadcast his sermons. He also begins to give into the dark side of his nature. What began as a vocation to minister to the migrant workers becomes Justin’s building of a personality cult and a virtual army of those who are “wandering after him” and his Temple of Jericho ministry. His powers of dark omniscience, which at first plague him, are embraced and utilized to further his goals. Both characters’ situations lead them in polar opposite trajectories: Ben toward the light and Justin toward darkness.
Knauf’s structure of the cosmos for Carnivàle is Gnostic: in each generation a creature of light and a creature of darkness are born. The history of the world up until the time period in which the dramatic action takes place has been characterized by an overall balance of the two opposing principles. This theme of balance is integral to the continuation of the world, appearing in the light character’s ability to heal and give life only if they take energy or a full life from something else.The tension within Carnivàle, symbolized within the very name of the program, is the overturning of this balanced order, which endangers the perpetuation and well-being of the world. Throughout the two seasons of the program, the central question becomes whether Ben Hawkins will be able to hold the balance in place, or if Brother Justin will triumph and bring about an age of darkness, sending the world into a cataclysmic oblivion.
Co-Authored By: Seth Alexander and Erica Saccucci
 Carnivàle, Season I, Episode 1, 2003.