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.
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?