Why the apocalypse is good to think with

Space invaders apocalypse

The apocalypse is feared for many reasons: on one hand, it might completely destroy Earth, and therefore humanity. On the other, should it leave Earth intact, it would most likely bring deep changes in humanity, be it the collapse of governments, a massive drop in population, social chaos, and so on. At least that’s how it goes in the movies.

Looking at the literature and the movies about the apocalypse, certain themes appear to be recurrent and reveal something about our deepest fears.

On the personal level

When faced with the certainty of their demise, certain protagonists look back on their life and face their regrets. They wonder why they have messed up their life so much and think back to the happy moments or the dreams they once had.

Others tackle the list of things they we always to scared, poor or embarrassed to do. If they die in the process, say while skydiving, it doesn’t change much to their fate anyway. Others yet cross enormous distances trying to reach loved ones and be with them for the last few days they can spend together. Then again, some protagonists exhibit all three attitudes.

In her second Ted talk, Jane McGonigal explored the top 5 regrets of the dying:

1. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard;

2. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends;

3. I wish I had let myself be happier;

4. I wish I had the courage to express my true self;

5. I wish I had live a life true to my dreams, instead of what others expected of me.

It might come as no surprise, reading these regrets of the dying, to imagine that, when faced with almost certain death way ahead of our time and out of the blue, we might feel heavy with regrets, want to hit the bucket list or want to be reunited with loved ones. In that sense, apocalyptic scenarios have the potential to remind us of what is most important in life, and urge us to live a life well lived.

Taboos 

On the other hand, apocalyptic scenarios are revealing of some of the gravest taboos in Western societies. Of course the, possibility that the Earth and all of humanity might be destroyed take center stage in many novels and movies. But even scarier are the possibilities that chaos might reign on Earth or that humans might start preying on each other. The Road is such a troubling novel because it tells of a humanity that relies on cannibalism to feed. Stories such as this blur the line between humans and animals and remind us that, in desperate situations, people can do terrible things.

Think of angry of panicking mobs in end-of-days movies: these scenes are so poignant because they show humans as scary predators who turn on each other for food, resources, and even pleasure (see opening scenes of Dawn of the Dead).

Resiliency

Despite the fact that apocalyptic scenarios convey a sense of helplessness in the face of  inevitable doom, they also focus on the incredible potential and desire for survival of humans. Protagonists do what they must to survive, show great creativity, courage and perseverance.

This aspect of these scenarios, in fact, is what most interests me.  When I started watching The Walking Dead recently, I was grossed out by zombies, blood, and the eating of humans alive, as usual. However, the series was engaging precisely because it explored the daily challenged the survivors were faced with. After watching an episode, I wondered what I would do in the situations the characters paced through in the episode, and thought about ideal survival scenarios.

Although the end of days is scary, chances are we would rather feel prepared for it. This might be one of many reasons why apocalyptic scenarios are so popular. It might also be that people genuinely enjoy watching zombies eating humans (gross).

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About Marie-Pierre Renaud

I am an anthropologist living in Quebec city, Canada. I specialize in native studies and anthropology of health. I am a geek. I founded and now co-manage The Geek Anthropologist blog. I am working on transforming my memoir into a book and journal articles. I like to knit while watching Star Trek. Reach out to me for collaborations! https://mariepierrerenaud.co/

There are 4 comments

  1. rarasaur

    🙂 I don’t have a substantial comment to leave here, just wanted to say that I loved this thought, and I think you expressed it fabulously: “Despite the fact that apocalyptic scenarios convey a sense of helplessness in the face of inevitable doom, they also focus on the incredible potential and desire for survival of humans.”

    Like

  2. Tyler Murphy

    Check out the book Earth Abides if you have any free time. It’s getting a little older, but it is still one of my favorite fall of man books. It is fairly notable because, as it was written in the late 40’s, it doesn’t have a lot of the typical post-apocalyptic genre conventions. I hate to use the word ‘realistic’, but it does take a view of mankind’s rebirth after massive disaster without zombies or Mad Max-style gangs.

    Like

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