January 10, 2019
I’ve often wondered what it is about the apocalypse that has so captured my imagination. I’ve often wondered if I’m alone, or if I’m just a lunatic. But given the ubiquity of apocalyptic themes within contemporary narratives – be it in literature, TV, films and video games – I’m guessing it’s a pretty safe conclusion that there’s something about it that just grabs us. But the question is, why is something so terrible, something so abjectly horrifying so enthralling?
From the earliest texts in recorded history, there have been apocalyptic tales: the Great Flood from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and Biblical Genesis, Ragnarok in Norse mythology, the Second Coming of Christ in the Book of Revelation; to the belief of many Mesoamerican civilisations that they were forever staving off eternal darkness, fueling the sun’s fire with the blood of sacrifice. Then we have more contemporary interpretations of the apocalypse: eco-collapse, alien invasion, the living dead, nuclear annihilation, devastating viral pandemics, artificial intelligence achieving singularity and self-awareness, random cosmic events over which we have zero control, among others.
Again I ask: why are we so obsessed with the end? Why not focus on happier things, like love, life and small, fur-ball kittens?
Well, people do focus on those things – but there’s just as many drawn to the darker end of the spectrum, contemplating the many ways things could go wrong for us. It’s a practical exercise as well as a mode of entertainment, I believe, and a measure of any individual society’s zeitgeist. The sheer number of texts dealing with such a broad range of doomsday scenarios indicates, as a species, we are more frightened than ever before – and probably with good reason. There’s a lot of shit right now that could very well – and even in the next century or two, quite likely might – wipe us from existence.
Exploring the theme through entertainment a) helps us critically think about the ways in which we may avoid such a fate; b) explore the strength – and terrifying weakness – of the human condition in the face of such adversity – what it means “to be human”; and c) sometimes, to make light of both our fixation on doom-and-gloom, and our own vices and petty concerns within the epoch (I know the zombie genre is a pretty appropriate metaphor for Western society in our zeitgeist!)
I think what’s also mesmerising about apocalypse stories, on a narrative level, is that Armageddon is possibly the most intense form of conflict possible, and conflict is the essence of drama. It creates and holds audience interest. Narrative conflict, on the micro, can generally be relegated into three main categories: man vs nature, man vs man, and/or man vs self.
I think the apocalypse genre – and my love for it, epitomised in my novel-in-progress, Land of the Righteous – is so powerful because it encapsulates all three – books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, shows like The Walking Dead, games like The Last of Us, and so many more examples across the media. They capture the human struggle through both metaphor and entirely plausible actuality, and give us pause to contemplate ourselves – our humanity – in the process. I know it’s a mirror for me.