I’ve Never Been a Daredevil, But . . .

As I settled into my seat at the movie theater and muted my phone, an unwelcome thought sneaked in, “Is going out to the movies risky behavior?” I stifled it quickly, “A crazed gunman in the old-fashioned Edina Theater? That’s silly.” Worrying about my safety at movie theaters never used to cross my mind. I resent having to consider it now.

It’s disturbing to realize so many of the ordinary things I do put me in the kinds of places where mentally ill people or terrorists choose to murder and wreak havoc. However, I have no intention of curtailing my activities.

Shopping at malls – I don’t spend much time in malls, but while there, I have never worried about my safety. However, the shoppers in the mall in St. Cloud, Minn. or near Seattle, Wash. probably didn’t give it a second thought either.

Tutoring at the high school – I love the work I do tutoring adult immigrants and have never felt remotely threatened by any of them. The students I know are hardworking and determined to learn, get better jobs, and live the American Dream. But schools and colleges have been the scene of mass shootings in recent years. Perhaps I should be worried, but I refuse to be.

 Visiting international cities – I enjoy traveling overseas, but because of the history of terrorism in London, Brussels, and Paris, I will have to consider my safety in airports as well as in the cities themselves when I go. Losing my luggage or getting pickpocketed seem like more realistic threats than terrorism, but I can’t help being aware of the potential for an attack.

Often, public places happen to be the settings where a personal grudge is played out—I might not be the target—but I still could be injured or killed by a stray bullet. The issue is not that one middle class white person has to think harder about her safety. It’s that no matter who you are or where you live in America, you are at risk of mass shootings, because of our gun laws and cultural tolerance of violence.

Equally troubling is that zealots with knives, trucks, and bombs threaten people across the world, not just Americans.

I remain defiant. There are no easy solutions to gun violence and terrorism. But part of the solution has to be resistance—resisting the impulse to hide and resisting the impulse to shrug and say, “Oh well, what can you do?” We have to keep fighting for change.

Although terrorism and acts of mass violence are now part of our reality, I refuse to give in to fear. I’ve never been a daredevil, but I have no intention of giving up activities I love like movies, shopping malls, tutoring, or traveling.

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?