What’s the Deal with Post-Apocalyptic Appeal?

post-apocalyptic I have a strange fantasy:  I want to be alive after the world ends. Not in an immortality kind of way, but in a Cormac McCarthy’s The Road kind of way. Well, not that I actually want to, but I find something strangely appealing about the quiet, deserted streets in most post-apocalyptic fiction.

One of the most comforting things I can do when stressed is walk around the streets near my house in the middle of the night, being completely by myself in a place that is usually bustling with activity and life.  Sometimes I think to myself maybe that’s what it would be like after the world moves on.

Am I strange, odd, or a little off-kilter?

Well, yes, probably.

But for entirely different reasons than loving the idea of existing in a post-apocalyptic world because in that, I am definitely not alone.  The post-apocalyptic sub-genre has boomed since the late 1970s when films like Mad Max came on the scene and ramped up interest in the what-ifs and might-bes that started propagating all the way back with Mary Shelley (yes, of Frankenstein fame; she did write other stuff, too) writing The Last Man.

The Stand What is it about a despondent world devoid of humans (and life in general)  that sells so well?  From Stephen King’s The Stand and The Dark Tower to Richard Matheson/Will Smith’s I am Legend to the new MMORPG Fallen Earth, people love to vicariously experience the end of the world.

But why?

I can think of four reasons:

  • Morbid curiosity.  We might not want the world to end, but we sure do want to know how it’s going to happen and what it’s going to be like when it does.  Given that most of us (hopefully not any of us) will be around long enough to actually see it, we have to get our glimpses of the future any way we can. And imagining catastrophes is much more enjoyable than the keeping on with the status quo.
  • The Western Culture of Glorifying Violence. Whether we want to admit it, stories about a cataclysm that can destroy billions of people is like a car accident on the interstate or a leading news story about a shooting.  Most of us feel terrible as we pass the wreckage or watch the aftermath videos, but we’re still watching every second just to make sure we don’t miss anything. There’s a reason journalists work under the slogan of “if it bleeds, it leads.” Westerners want violence; for some reason, we crave it, and even though post-apocalyptic worlds by definition exist after the fact, knowing a worldwide disaster occurred sates our bloodlust.  And post-apocalyptic settings give us a moral out: we’re just enjoying watching the aftermath; it’s not like we are cheering on limitless death and destruction.
  • Introversion. Do away with people; do away with drama. In a post-apocalyptic world, there would, hopefully, be no more dealing with “he said/she said” bologna or other non-essential quibbles.  Most of my stress is caused from dealing with other people’s inanity, so the idea of living in a world removed from the annoyances other people cause could be bliss.  This is the main reason I love walking my streets at night—no cars and no people; just me, the pavement, and silence.
  • It Could Happen. Let’s face it.  At some point, our race is going to screw something up and something terrible is going to happen.  I don’t see this as an “if,” but a “when.”  With that idea in mind, I think part of the appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction is the bearing on a possible reality it presents.  No matter how much we want it, no one will ever be able live in Middle Earth; Azeroth is a fantasy, and so is that galaxy far, far away.  Gotham City and Hogwart’s are make-believe, too.  But Earth totally ravaged by pandemic or war?  Completely possible.  And while we certainly hope for best case scenarios and long, safe lives, people are typically interested in speculation and what-ifs so they can “be prepared” or “know what’s coming,” even if no preparation is possible.

post-apocalyptic ruins A lot of the pop culture on my radar lately deals with a post-apocalyptic theme in some way or another.  The MMO Fallen Earth is getting rave reviews, two of my most anticipated movies are Zombieland and The Road, the best episode of television I’ve seen in months was Dollhouses “Epitaph One,” and Stephen King is calling his next novel, Under the Dome, the spiritual successor to The Stand.  I’m being inundated with the post-apocalyptic, and I love it!

I think.

Obviously, I have a soft spot for post-apocalyptic settings, whether it’s games, movies, TV, or books. What’s your setting of choice?