At the root of the hype is a rare galactic alignment and a broadly interpreted end of the ancient Mayan calendar. Some interpretations: It's the grand finale. A signal to aliens. The start of a transition for better or worse. Or nothing at all.
Oddly enough, it's a Western preoccupation.
David Carey visits Guatemala, home to millions of modern Mayans, for field work every other year. Mayans he's met aren't preparing for the end.
"I hear much more about it here than I do there," said Carey, a University of Southern Maine history professor.
"When they're amongst themselves, they're not looking at it quite as seriously as they might otherwise convey to tourists who want to hear them talk about 2012 as this propitious date."
Nonetheless, his prediction: "It could be the end of the world for certain individuals who plan on it."
About 2,000 years ago, the Maya, skilled stargazers, figured out when the December solstice sun would line up with the center of the Milky Way galaxy, according to Colorado author John Major Jenkins. It's an alignment that only happens every 26,000 years.
Mayans took that date - Dec. 21, 2012 - and used it as the end of their Long Count calendar, a measure of 5,125 years.
It was intended to be very important. The ends of cycles of all different lengths have significance for that culture.
"Among the Maya there was worry that when the end of a particular cycle would happen, that the world could potentially end because it was a time of a lot of transition. If something major was likely to happen, then it could conceivably happen" then, said Steve Whittington, former director of the University of Maine's Hudson Museum.
There would be ceremonies and often sacrifices to make sure things went smoothly. Any bad happenings were often self-fulfilling, he said. For instance, nervous that you might be attacked, you might do something that triggered it.
At the end of a major cycle like the Long Count calendar, "They'd really be nervous. But what's happened is New Age people and people who are looking for more mystical things in their own lives who belong to our own society have taken on this idea of the danger of the end of a Maya cycle.
"The fact that they know at some point Maya civilization collapsed, there's a lot of mystery surrounding that. I think they've sort of projected their own need for something strange and dangerous onto somebody else's calendar," Whittington said. ... "