Wandering in the Land of What If

Picture taken by Christian Koehn (Fragwürdig), from Wiki Commons

Picture taken by Christian Koehn (Fragwürdig), from Wiki Commons

Lately, I’ve been wondering what the American appetite for post-apocalyptic stories—both movies and books—says about our culture. We are constantly bombarded with The Hunger Games, Children of Men, Book of Eli, Matrix and similar stories. And there are more on the way. I recently saw trailers for After Earth with Will and Jaden Smith and Oblivion with Tom Cruise. What attracts us to these themes?

It Could Happen

At first, I thought it meant that many people felt powerless and doomed—maybe we aren’t headed for irreversible damage right this minute, but it could happen in the near future. The idea that we could be nearly destroyed via nuclear holocaust, disease or asteroid isn’t so hard to imagine. Those possibilities already exist. Well OK, I can’t take destruction by asteroid seriously, but the other two aren’t farfetched. Bombing by rogue state (re: 9/11), drug-resistant tuberculosis, and the Ebola virus already exist. Today, even the flu is killing people.

The “we’re all doomed” mindset may be part of our culture, but I don’t think that’s the main reason behind our cultural fascination with dystopias. I don’t see people flocking to see Amour, a movie about an aging couple coping with her illness and impending death—that definitely could happen, but it’s way too real and scary for a lot of people, including me.

What If?

Tons of movies and books like The Handmaid’s Tale, Children of Men, and On the Beach start with a speculative premise—What if the world were nearly destroyed, how would survivors behave? These stories explore human behavior as well as the strange new worlds. What If generally becomes a cautionary tale—because resources are scare or fertility is at risk, the government / a corporation/ society imposes dehumanizing restrictions on the survivors. Forced childbearing, extinction, or forced suicide are the frightening new realities. What makes the stories scary is our recognition that governments, corporations and societies can and do run amuck—it’s not so farfetched.

Test Your Mettle

Some of the emotional appeal of post-apocalyptic books and movies is that we identify with the heroes and imagine that if we were faced with the hardships, we’d be resilient survivors. We’d outsmart the evil government and resist being brainwashed. We’d escape. We feel more powerful than we really are.

Well At Least My Life is Better Than That

Or maybe it’s that by briefly immersing ourselves in the horrible world pictured in a movie or book puts the shortcomings of our own lives in perspective—at least I’m not scrounging around bombed out buildings for scraps of food or I don’t have to fight to death to save my sister . . .

A variation on that theory is that getting caught up with a dramatic and frightening plot is a safe thrill like riding a roller coaster. Scary, but in the end, you know you’ll walk away unscathed.

But do we walk away unscathed? Or do these movies and books thrill us but make catastrophic events seem acceptable?

If you like this genre, do any of my theories fit you? Which ones?  If not, what draws you in?


6 thoughts on “Wandering in the Land of What If

  1. I recently saw the film Melancholia, and enjoyed it in a very odd way. But it also made me a little sick, if that makes sense. Another one that I know a lot of women were freaked out by is The Handmaid’s Tale. I think that one had the most impact on me as far as disaster movies. Great topic, great conversation!

  2. At some point, I would have said I don’t like the genre, but after reading Hunger Games, I’m more open to books like it because they bring up a powerful question: What would I do if I were in the same situation? I remember asking myself this was when I was in Amsterdam several years ago. I visited the Resistance Museum and the Ann Frank House, certain I would have opposed the Nazis and been among those who actively helped people like Ann and her family. But then I read statistics about how many people just “went along.” It wasn’t right that Jewish people had to register, but oh well. At some point, I realized that’s pretty much how I live my life. I’m upset that gays can’t marry but I’ve never attended a rally or written an editorial. I care about those who are homeless but nearly every day say no to someone who asks me for money. So I wonder, if it were me battling for my life in Hunger Games, what would I do, really do? I hope it’s more than I do in a typical day.

    • You raise an interesting point–I’ve often wondered how I would have behaved if I’d been a Jew in Nazi Germany. Or a German. Of course, I hope I would be courageous and do the right thing, but fear I wouldn’t. But crises–and that’s what all the post-apocalyptic stories have at their core–often have the effect of allowing people to be their best selves.

      What’s harder is the slowly building crisis–the one you may or may not perceive as a crisis–then it’s harder to act decisively.

      But if we ever need to be in a bunker, I’d be glad to have you with me–you’d be great. Thanks for your comment!

    • Bev brings up good points and before I read the post, I was thinking about how Hitler created an apocalyptic world in Europe. Reading “The Lucifer Effect” by Philip Zimbardo can give you an idea of how easy it is for ordinary people to behave in sadistic ways. When we call another human being “crazy,” “an animal” or “evil,” we marginalize them and justify not caring about them and thus we mistreat them.

      Ellen also brings up a good point also that post-apocalyptic stories allow characters to “be their best selves.” In my experience, I’ve “been my best self” when I know an individual personally who’s being mistreated. I’ve risen to the occasion more than once to defend them–specifically my children, sisters, and next-door neighbors. This is one reason why it is SO important to get to know and befriend your neighbors–whether they live next door, in the next cubicle, or on the next branch of the family tree.

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