Have you noticed that in the last ten years or so there are a lot more pieces of fiction dealing with the apocalypse? While it is true that these kinds of stories have been produced en mass since the 50’s, they haven’t been a bigger part of pop culture as they are now. One of the highest rated TV shows on right now is The Walking Dead about the zombie apocalypse, and a few years ago, The Road won the Pulitzer. Why have these stories captured the minds of so may people?
In the 1950’s, when a lot of this kind of fiction got started, it made sense. We’d just created the bomb and were trying to use stories to explain to ourselves what that meant. But the cold war is over, sure there’s still a mild treat that one of these things is going to go off, but it doesn’t seem like the entire world is going to get vaporized at the drop of a hat. I don’t think the current fiction about the end of the world has much to do with nuclear war scares.
In the 50’s the world ending was a scary thing and the stories had a horror edge to them. Our current crop of apocalypse fiction serve as a kind of empowerment fantasy. Yes, scary things are still going on but I think the stories are hitting a different nerve in the reader or viewer.
One thing you’ll notice about shows like The Walking Dead is that there are a lot of people still alive. Thus increasing the likely hood that you the viewer would actually survive something that would end civilization. The world is not empty. Sure the government is gone, but a lot of people would say that’s a good thing. Now the characters are free from any legislation or person telling them what to do. Also, all that technology that no one understands is gone. Now things can get back to “good old days,” where people had to do hard work for their dinner and we as a people understood where things came from.
Spoiler alert: none of that is true. If even the power grid went out, no one, including you, would be able to figure out how to keep themselves alive long enough to even survive the rampant looting that would happen. If you look at a lot of the characters in stories like this, they just so happen to have every skill they need to look after themselves or others. They can hunt, shoot, fix electronics, fight, bater effectively, build tools, hide in the woods, or anything else that happens to come up. Even if you know some of those things, your not going to know the one thing that is going to save your life. If society falls apart you’re going to be sold as food just like everyone else. That’s assuming you even make it past the initial event.
Another reason the end of the world is such a sexy concept is that if it were to happen, it would forgive the debt record. No need to pay some who is already dead. Your student loads are now gone. Enjoy the five seconds you have left to live.
Finally, I think people like the apocalypse because it’s an ending. If you talk to any historian, they’ll tell you that all human history is, is a collection of stories. If all of human history is one serial story then the apocalypse would be an end. Sure, it’s “and then they all died,” but it’s still an ending. Humans love narratives and any good story ends. It doesn’t keep going into infinity which is the much more likely outcome to the human race.
Because if we where going to end the world, we would have done it in the 1940’s when we made the bombs in the first place.