It's pitch-perfect for Hollywood - but this is real. Some of it, anyway.
An ancient Mayan prophecy suggests that December 21, 2012, is "doomsday." The mainstream media fuels fears in the gullible, leading survivalists to hoard candles, bottled water and canned food as the date of the "apocalypse" approaches.
Children sob. Teenagers contemplate suicide. Cultists travel to a flat mountaintop in France, hoping that when the world collapses, alien spaceships from another galaxy will miraculously arrive at the rendezvous point. The French government sends in the military.
But a few brave scientists - archaeologists, anthropologists and psychologists - fight back against the frenzy. The rumors aren't real, they say. Doomsday is purely an urban legend, based on a misreading of the Mayan calendar.
Sounds like a great sci-fi thriller, right? One part Roland Emmerich, with some Jerry Bruckheimer and Ridley Scott thrown in too, maybe starring Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks and Sigourney Weaver.
But it's the strange reality of what's actually happening right now, as worldwide many wonder if the sun will rise on Saturday, December 22.
"The popular media has gone to the races with this one," said Jaime Awe, director of the Belize Institute of Archeology, who holds a Ph.D. in Mayan history.
"While the Mayans had an incredible knowledge about our solar system and the universe, they could not accurately predict the future. No human can," Dr. Mark Hitchcock, author of 20 books including "The Bible and the End of the World," tells FoxNews.com. "It's critical to remember that the Mayans themselves never said specifically that the world will end on December 21, 2012. Others have extrapolated this meaning from the ending of their calendar. It's pure speculation."
December 21, 2012, is somewhat akin to December 31 on the Gregorian calendar - New Year's Eve, he said.
The Mayans and other advanced cultures throughout Latin America had an incredibly complex calendar that involved both a 365-day solar calendar like ours and a 260-day religious calendar. "The combination of the 260-day ritual count and the solar calendar produced a repeated cycle of 52 years," said Dr. Eleanor Harrison-Buck of the department of anthropology at the University of New Hampshire. "This is referred to as the Calendar Round. For calculating dates beyond the 52-year period, the Maya used a system called the Long Count."
At the end of the Long Count calendar of 5,125 years the Mayans simply started counting again, she said. "Rather than simply seeing the 'end of the world,' the Maya no doubt viewed the end of this great cycle as an important and powerful time of reordering and renewal of the world."
All cultures have cycles - days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia, Awe told FoxNews.com. "At the completion of the cycle, we start the meter all over again," he added.
Essentially, the global media have taken the Mayan calendar's routine ending and infused it with a new, spectacular meaning. "No society produces calendars indefinitely into the future," said Paul E. Langenwalter, an assistant professor of archaeology and anthropology and the program director of archaeology and anthropology at Biola University. "The claims of impending doom are just frauds."
Social media and the Internet have powered this urban legend as well, though it was not a widespread view by the Mayans in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and Mexico, who flourished from 1500 B.C. to 900 A.D.
"Google this and you will be bombarded with fantastical information," says Awe, in a telephone interview from Belize. "I use that word, 'fantastical,' with reason. This is not what the Maya thought would happen. They did not see a realignment of the poles, devastation as a result of natural events, or another catastrophe of galactic realignment. There is no fire and brimstone here."
This has not been good for the mental health of the population at large, especially children and adolescents. "About one in 10 Americans believe in the Mayan myth, and about one in 10 will actually take drastic action related to the myth," Dr. Robert Epstein, a psychologist, and former Editor-in-Chief of Psychology Today, told FoxNews.com. "They buy in to the Mayan prediction because it fits biases they already have."
Around the globe, panicked people have reacted to the coming date, reported the Telegraph.
Russians are panic buying kerosene to light lanterns, and stockpiling other food supplies, forcing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to speak out on the situation to calm fears.
Chinese are hoarding candles in the Province of Sichuan, and scammers are defrauding elderly of their pensions, asking them to donate all their life savings to help the poor now that the end is nigh.
Cubans and Mexicans are undertaking ancient, Mayan rituals in public to placate the ancient gods and forestall doom.
This kind of doomsday obsession is, itself, becoming a subject of scientific research. Researchers are exploring the history of doomsday myths, seeking to determine why it exists, and are offering college courses on the topic and writing scholarly articles about it as well.
"Our media and movie cultures are filled with apocalyptic scenarios," Barry Vacker, an associate professor of media studies and production at Temple University in Philadelphia, told FoxNews.com. "Amid the parade of catastrophes, humans still hope for some possibility of doing it all over again and correcting their mistakes."
"We yearn for a new beginning, and a better tomorrow, even if the immediate future seems depressing to so many people."