Dating back to the earliest days of history, the popular culture of the day has often been surveyed as a tantalizing glimpse into the psyche of the populous. Jules Vern’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Around The World In Eighty Days (for as peculiar as it might be to think of such classics as such, they were indeed the Harry Potter books of their time) captured the spirit of an age where industry and technological advancement were seemingly making possible what before had always seemed impossible, and when empires and explorers were piercing deeper into the mysterious reaches of unknown and distant lands. The American dime western came about from a reinvigorated pioneering spirit of a new nation stretching out across a vast continent to fulfill a Manifest Destiny and becoming a country stretching from sea to sea. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey embodied a culture that prized martial virtues and great heroes while simultaneously seeing themselves as petty instruments of pagan gods. Look at the works of fiction that captivated the mass audiences of an age and you will learn much about the audience themselves, both their fears and their aspirations.
It is then
a very tantalizing question regarding what to make of one of the most recent
emerging trends in modern day pop culture, most prominently in the field of
television: the rise of the post-apocalyptic thriller. Whether it’s zombies
featured on the hit series The Walking
Dead and its spinoff Fear The Walking
Dead, killer diseases, such as in 12
Monkeys or Containment, or weird
hybrids of the two like The Strain
(okay technically that’s pathogenic vampires, but let’s not split hairs) today’s
audiences seem obsessed with the end of the world.
What is to be made of this?
Fictional forays into the collapse of civilization as we know it are nothing new. For as long as there has been society, people have written on the concept of what would happen if it all fell apart. What is different in this case, however, is on the focus of the subject matter. Journeys into the fictional end of the world from the past, as ironic as this may sound, were often highly optimistic. Society had ended, but the true focus of the story was on the building of a new world with which to replace it, would that was in many ways better than the one that readers and viewers of those times actually inhabited or as a form of critique of some ill or danger be they nuclear weapons or class inequality.
The tone of what we see today in the end-of-the-world genre is quite different. Rather than the focus being on the creation of a new civilization or contemplation of society’s flaws, instead the emphasis now seems to be more on the sheer act of surviving; the day to day endless grind to stay alive against the constant threats of either nature or the supernatural or merely other human beings. There is no end goal, only the moment, and no message other than a warning against the pitiless and indifferent cruelty of a world that has been turned upside down.
In all these worlds and fictional universes, the one shared theme that develops again and again is that the truest danger is never the original catalyst of the disaster, be it disease or undead or solar flares, but rather one’s own surviving human beings. From the human collaborators who help the vampires in the world of The Strain spread their contagion among the human population out of either greed or a desire for immortality, to the constant threat of attack by other survivors in The Walking Dead, in each case the real threat is not whatever causes the collapse of society itself but rather the anarchy it brings about. Once the chains of custom and law are broken, the beast within mankind is unleashed.
So what does this all say about the psyche of the present day? To a large degree it can be seen as a reflection on a deep malaise that has come upon the modern world. Unlike the public mood of generations ago, where the inevitable progress towards greater prosperity was taken as a given, today’s seems to be gripped with a feeling that civilization has stalled or perhaps is even perched on the edge of a great decline. People don’t wonder about how they can make a better world but instead obsess over how the tedious struggle to maintain things as they are. Today’s obsession with post-apocalyptic horror can be seen as an expression of this, if not also a subliminal sense that such a world might even be preferable. If life is going to be merely one endless struggle to just survive, then a world plagued by zombies or killer diseases (as terrifying as it might be) is at least one that has a noble simplicity to it. There’s no consumer debt or economic recessions in the world of 12 Monkeys, just a straightforward quests to find the means to stay alive.
What’s more, the exploration of the darker side of human nature is one that also has very real comparisons to the modern day. The question of how far we ourselves are willing to go to survive, how far into that darkness we are willing to step, has been at the forefront of public debate for many years through such issues as war, and interrogation, and public security versus civil liberties. Is there anything you are not entitled to do in order to keep yourself alive? The latest season of The Walking Dead in particular explores that issues quite excellently, as we witness the central characters descend to a degree of cold bloodedness and calculated killing that is virtually indistinguishable from the villains of the show.It is a fascinating thing that at a time that so many of us have it so good, we seem to be so utterly obsessed with how things could go wrong. This would seem to suggest that for all our material success, the Western world has become increasingly gripped with a collective loss of civilizational self-confidence. In a world where control seems to be slipping from our fingers, the genre of apocalyptic fiction offers both exploration and escapism from this.