‘Rapture bombs’: Clothes at the end of the world

As I have explore previously, empty clothes can act as a stand-in for the absent body. Empty-shoe memorials, for example, can signify the tragic loss of the body that once wore them. It seems that ‘isolated clothes create for us a mystery we must solve’ (Tallichet, 2014). These mysteries may be widely mythologised, as in the Rapture. Depictions of the Rapture ranging from HBO’s television series The Leftovers (2014) to Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkin’s Left Behind novels (1995-2007) stress the significance of empty bundles of clothes as reminders of absent wearers (notably, the cover illustration for Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (2012), the novel on which the television series is based, depicts an empty pair of shoes and a puff of smoke).

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LaHayle and Jenkins’ fictional tale of Rapture survivors, Left Behind (1995), which Amy Johnson Fykhom (2004, p. 3) credits with bringing Rapture theology into mainstream American culture offers clothes as evidence of the Rapture. LaHayle and Jenkins describe how the colleagues, friends and family of those who have vanished remain alongside the personal ‘artifacts of the vanished’, most notably, the clothes that ‘lay crumpled in homes and on the streets’ (Baker, 2011, p. 110). These individuals find themselves suddenly faced with bewildering piles of empty clothes where living men, women and children had recently been standing. Kelly J. Baker argues that these piles of clothes are necessary to provide survivors with tangible evidence that the Rapture has occurred, and that they, the survivors, have failed in their religious duty. The empty clothes are a ‘rebuke, and the unrepentant remain fully-clothed in their religious impurity’ (p. 110).

Prompted by calculations made by Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping, real-life believers in the Rapture anticipated a date of 21 May 2011 for the ascent of all deserving believers to heaven. Harold Camping’s followers shared the common belief that raptured souls would leave their worldly possessions behind, including clothing. When the Rapture failed to transpire, pranksters were prompted to stage mock evidence in the form of piles of clothes evidently left behind as bodies ascended towards heaven.

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These so-called ‘Rapture bombs’ – piles of clothes laid as false evidence of the sudden disappearance of the wearer – reflect both a desire to ridicule belief in the Rapture, and a need to compensate for the lack of occurrence of such a widely mythologised event. Historian Daniel J. Boorstin’s (1992, p. 9) exploration of America’s insatiable desire for news observes a need to ‘provide synthetic happenings to make up for the lack of spontaneous events’. We demand, he writes, ‘more than the world can give us, we require that something be fabricated to make up for the world’s deficiency’.

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Such is the excitement of anticipation for some predicted events that if they fail to transpire, suggests Boortsin, there is a need to compensate with illusion (p. 9). On the day of 21 May 2011, as it became apparent that Camping’s predictions were incorrect, photographs of ‘rapture bombs’ began to litter the web. In these images, clothing is neatly arranged in the form of an absent body, typically consisting of an entire outfit, including shoes and sometimes tools or accessories. They are laid as if to suggest that the owner was engaged in everyday activity before he or she was raptured: a child’s baby-grow positioned half-way down a playground slide; a family’s clothes dotted around a picnic mat in the park; jeans and t-shirt draped over a toilet seat with empty shoes laid side-by-side in front of the pedestal.

These photographs inspired more elaborate fakery, including Capitol Improv’s rapture prank video, staged at the Washington monument in 2011. The film is recorded from first-person-perspective, presented as found footage from a tourist’s camcorder. In the footage, the tourist chats casually to his friend, pans around to film the monument, and then back to find his friend mysteriously vanished. The evidence of his friend’s disappearance is a pile of clothes left on the ground. Panicked by his friend’s sudden disappearance, the tourist races through the Mall to find other piles of clothes similarly strewn on the ground, alongside other tourists who appear similarly shocked and dismayed at their own friends’ sudden rapture. Those who remain fall to their knees and wail in mock anguish, or wander bemused, as if unable to comprehend the scale of the tragedy.

The scale and sophistication of Capital Improv’s hoax is revealed in behind-the-scenes footage, released on YouTube. The footage reveals how the prank was staged, with a series of carefully timed undressings. The actor in the role of raptured tourist is shown hurriedly undressing while the camera is directed at the monument. He strips to reveal a second set of clothes hidden beneath the first, so that his undressing leaves him transformed but not naked. Having laid his first set of clothes on the floor, he ducks behind the cameraman’s back to avoid being filmed as the camera pans around to survey the scene. Meanwhile, extras positioned in the surrounding field pull garments from their rucksacks and litter the grass with this false evidence to complete the hoax.

The separation of body and clothes has become such a pervasive symbol for Rapture that it has been parodied in cartoons by David Hayward. The cartoon Reverse Rapture (2012) depicts four individuals who suddenly find themselves naked as their clothes are miraculously stripped from their bodies and float heavenwards (below). The figures display both surprise at their sudden denuding and shame at their unexpected nakedness. Their shameful poses are particularly noteworthy given the historical association between shame and Christianity.

David Hayward’s Reverse Rapture (2012) depicts an alternative Rapture scenario, in which clothes float skyward leaving their shamefully naked owners behind. © David Hayward, www.nakedpastor.com

David Hayward’s Reverse Rapture (2012) depicts an alternative Rapture scenario, in which clothes float skyward leaving their shamefully naked owners behind. © David Hayward, http://www.nakedpastor.com

Hayward’s image references the particular kind of undressing that characterises Rapture: a mysterious separation of clothes and body that suggests the extraction of body from clothes: not, as in other forms of undressing, clothes stripped from people, but rather people stripped from clothes. Garments become ‘flotsam’ (Tallichet, 2011) as the body spontaneously evaporates from within them.

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