Why Are We Obsessed With The Apocalypse?

As of late there’s a general consensus that zombie films, shows, books, and games are becoming over-saturated. You don’t even have to look far to find something zombie related almost everywhere. There’s even zombies under the Disney banner if you remember Pirates of the Caribbean beyond Johnny Depp hamming it up the whole time.

pirates-of-the-carribbean

But I think the line from silly to ridiculous was really crossed recently during the promotion of CW’s new show iZombie. During the promotion, and a lot of reviews, we’d successfully jumped beyond the “fast zombie” and “slow zombie” debate and right into the “sexy zombie” debate. No, seriously, look it up and you won’t have a hard time finding someone referring to the fact the show has sexy zombies. That’s where we are now, we’ve mined the grounds so much that we’ve gone to looking at them as fetish objects.

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But it’s not that we’re obsessed with zombies in particular as we go exploring the various incarnations of the Zombie Apocalypse, we’re obsessed with the Apocalypse part. At the same time that Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are talking about the oncoming doom of the undead, Mad Max is about to make a return to warn us of the impending doom of peak oil – something we hadn’t worried about since the 80s. Back in the 90s we found a whole variety of ways to drop a giant rock on the planet (unless we could throw a Bruce Willis at it). And six years ago, Roland Emmerich finally got to climax after working it for 13 years. Turns out he just needed a little hand from the Mayans.

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Let’s face it, we’re not just afraid the world is coming to the end, some of us are excited about it. We’re looking to make enough different flavors of the Apocalypse that we can finally open that morbid Baskin Robbins parody called “31 Flavors of Woe”. Worse, with doomsday preppers, crazy evangelicals, and zombie survival guides- we’re not just anticipating the end times, we want to watch this bitch burn down around us and have a front row seat.

Just gotta ask, though. Uh… why?

Obsessed With Our End

I won’t leave you hanging for long, seeing as the world’s going to come to an end soon: it’s because we’re selfish.

selfish
Surprise!

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we’re intentionally selfish, it’s just how we’re wired. When you come into the world you experience time as an isolated person in an isolated fashion and you’re aware of mortality but not so much capable of processing the vast scope of life, death, and eternity beyond yourself. We enter this world with no idea of what has come before us or what is about to come after. When I was a child, I had a younger cousin who didn’t believe me when I told her that the Nickelodeon network existed before she was born and that I’d watched it for many years at my ripe old age of 12.

We like to think we grow out of it, but we don’t really. Everyone here has at least spoken to one person who thinks the Earth couldn’t possibly be so old that there wasn’t a human around to document it. Hell, it’s a staple of religion that people are attached to the idea of eternal life and think that it’d be a good thing. Sure, the first couple thousand years in paradise might be interesting but after a while you’re going to run out of things to talk to Einstein about. Humans have a hard time putting up with the same people longer than a couple decades, imagine that bickering married couple a thousand years later and you have a rough idea of why eternal life isn’t such a keen concept.

MWC

So while we know on some level that things are a lot older than us, it’s still hard to imagine a world before the one we live in. Conversely, it’s even harder to imagine the world after. We, as a species, are blessed with the knowledge of the passing of time and knowing of the concept of mortality. It’s one of those aspects of our intelligence that puts us above other animals. But we’re still not too good on big numbers, and a billion years is a hard pill to swallow if you have a hard time seeing past a hundred.

So it should be no surprise to anyone that the same species that has a hard time imagining an ancient Earth also has a hard time imagining one that can live beyond us. We know in abstract, that there’s going to be a time when we miss the next sunrise. But somewhere, deep down in our lizard brains, we can’t quite accept the idea that the sun doesn’t rise just for us.

In fact, there is a philosophy out there known as solipism where the only thing you can confirm to really exist is yourself. We’ve seen it argued online all the time in terms of things like brain in the jar, holographic reality and so on. But, for a moment, stop to consider the very nature of what’s being said there and realize this one hilarious truth about solipism: The people who came up with this idea believe that no one else exists, but wrote about it so they could share it with what they have become convinced are their imaginary friends, so that the universe they think they came up with will congratulate them for their idea.

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To call this narcissism would be an understatement because Narcissist only stared at his own reflection – he didn’t shove his head up his own ass. But not only do we do that, we do it with pride as we pat each other on the back for claiming our own self absorption is philosophical. Combine this with other aspects of our psychology and it becomes pretty natural that we’re going to want to believe we’re going to be here for the big one. Even marketing executives know this to be true as several marketing campaigns have capitalized on two hashtags almost endlessly since they were originally coined: #YOLO and #FOBLO.

Everything knows what YOLO is: it’s the battle-cry of drunk 20 somethings who want to feel a little less shame about that shit they did on camera. You only live once, so you might as well do all the stupid shit now. But the other one, FOBLO, that’s a lot more fun because that’s the one that helps drive on the Apocalypse issue. Fear of being left out is a thing, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a thing that’s engrained into the very fiber of our being. We’re pack animals, so we don’t like the idea of being excluded from the pack. But when you combine these things you get a fairly clear picture.

(FOBLO + YOLO) / Solipism = APOCALYPTO

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Only mildly worse than Mel Gibson’s

And this is all reflected in our very society at a base level. A poll showed that 22% of Americans not only believe but know the Apocalypse is going to happen in their lifetime. But you look back throughout history and find that the same thing has been common since we started being able to write. People used to believe that Halley’s Comet was a sign of the end – which had to fuck them up when the thing came back once every 75 years and made a point to drop Mark Twain on the planet one time through only to remove him again the second time. Hell, even the lesser known Hale-Bopp Comet was enough to make Heaven’s Gate think they were the chosen people who were going to survive the big one.

Unsurprisingly, that last idea isn’t all that unique either. Think about all of the Apocalypse movies, shows, and books we take in and realize that you’ve never seen one that really follows the perspective of the zombie. It doesn’t matter what kind of end the world comes to in our media – we follow that one person who lives. Even if the whole world gets scorched:

Knowing_Movie_Earth

Someone lives:

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And you’d think that would, in part, be so that we could have a sense of hope, but it’s also tied back to that idea we can’t picture the world without us. Think about how many times someone has talked about, thought about, or mused on the subject of one of the more popular Apocalypses. Regardless of which one is their end of choice, they’re pretty convinced that they’re not going to be one of the suckers killed in it. No one ever thinks they’re going to be the monster, they all think they’re going to be Will Smith with his dog.

i am legend

Doomsday preppers, people who believe in the rapture, gun nuts who practice on zombie mannequins – they all believe they’re going to be one of the few and the brave who survive while everyone else in the world gets pulled down into the shit storm. And it’s always somehow the common man while the military gets overwhelmed and become the crazy fringe group that desperately needs to control all other survivors. Why? Because how many of us are actually part of the military? We can’t identify with that. However, we can identify with the redneck beating zombies to death with a banjo.

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Especially since we also love twinkies

The very fact that a post-apocalypse genre exists as a concept goes to show how full of ourselves we actually are. Mad Max just got a fourth movie now and a lot of us are eager to watch the dregs of humanity fight it out with the last civilized people to exist. And you know what? It’s looking to be on the (fury) road to success.

But, despite all this, I’m not arguing for the end of the idea. This is part of who we are and will be part of the people to come. We’re going to keep writing stories about it, making movies about it, and imagining the pros and cons of Mall vs Gun Store as optimal location to hole up as our neighbors are trying to chew through our skulls. All I’m really asking is this: Let’s keep it to fiction, let’s not base our world views on the idea the sun won’t rise tomorrow just because there’s a chance we won’t. If there are 22% of Americans who currently believe this is actually going to happen in their lifetimes, I’d like to see if we can do something to work it towards 0%.

Because, honestly, we’re all going to die. We can’t change that, we can’t stop it, we might want to believe there are loopholes, but at some point our body is going to give out. And we all have to accept that with a little good humor for our own sanity. We can’t afford to take our personal mortality too seriously or we’d always be depressed. And, honestly, the same goes for the world’s mortality…

So we should probably have some fun with it.

(I write novels. So far, none of those novels are post-apocalyptic. I’ll get right on it after civilization collapses. In the meantime, follow my twitter before the internet disappears.)

3 thoughts on “Why Are We Obsessed With The Apocalypse?”

  1. This is a really great article! You touch on many of the factors that drives these kinds of stories and I agree that narcissism is one of the biggies. I have never been a huge fan of disaster movies, but I do enjoy a good post-Apocalyptic story. It gives a creator the freedom to hit “reset”. I just finished The Wind-up Girl and it is a great example of this. Also, the book I Am Legend is really good, and bears only passing resemblance to the movie.

    1. Funny enough, while the book is a better version of I Am Legend, I’d also say the things that made it better are the things that make it one of the exceptions. In fact, of all the books I’ve ever seen tied to the genre, I’d say it’s one of the least narcissistic of the bunch. The twist flips the usual dynamic on its head and the person you’re supposed to relate to turns out to be on the wrong side of the issue. But then every adaptation since has had their own variation on it and I know so few people today who are familiar with the original work. So, in the end, I know a lot of people who are fans of the genre today think of that title and think of Will Smith. I’m a little disappointed, because of that automatic association, that the film didn’t keep its original ending. If it had kept that original ending it would have made it one of the few adaptations to at least try to get the original point across and might have encouraged people to get familiar with it.

      As for the reset nature of the Post-Apocalyptic story, that’s entirely true and one of the reasons I say it’s okay for us to keep on writing the stories. It’s an easy way to switch dynamics or put old issues to rest (or make an issue we’d like to ignore much more obvious). There are quite a few stories in the genre that deal with issues a lot of people don’t think about today like the scarcity of fresh water, the silly nature of our current social order, and the new rising king of rising seas: climate change. So it is definitely a good tool to be used by writers. The disaster movies that end up looking stupid just tend to throw that narrative tool right out the window or try to use it clumsily. Of course, a lot of shorts and novels use it clumsily as well – we just tend not to see those ones. It’s hard to ignore a multimillion dollar mistake, but pretty easy to overlook a paperback or eBook from a first time author.

      Thanks for the read and the comment. Believe it or not, you’re the first non-robot comment I’ve had in the month of May! (Or, if you are a robot, congratulations on the sentience!)

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