Why Are We So Intrigued By The Apocalypse?


With The Last Of Us reining atop the video game industry and Pacific Rim and The World’s End both causing respective chaos in the realm of cinema, we investigate the enduring allure of post-apocalyptic fiction.

Impending doom. Armageddon. The end of days. Whatever label you attach to the package, the fundamental contents remain wholly similar. The concept of the apocalypse has been a cornerstone in society’s collective subconscious throughout the course of history. That plausible notion that sees humanity pushed to the brink of extinction and clutching at whatever straws remain in order to survive has been exploited across all forms of media ad nauseam. The causes vary with each individual narrative; from zombies to asteroids, killer viruses to Mayan prophecies, it’s as though our creative thinkers love pitching a different catalyst into the nuclear cauldron. But if these notions are so horrific, so downright terrifying, then why do they have such a broad appeal? Indeed, why is it that our mediums today are dominated by a plethora of post apocalyptic fiction?

First off, it’s important to remember that this craze isn’t exactly an up and comer. It stretches back for aeons. In fact, during the reign of the Roman Empire, some citizens believed that the ‘supernatural’ number revealed to Romulus by the Gods would signify the number of days in a year, therefore marking that their city had 365 days until annihilation. This was in 389BC. Far reaching prophecies like this can often be dismissed as ludicrous and effectively swept under the rug in hindsight, but when it comes to something tangible like, say, a natural disaster, then the degree of believability begins to permeate. For instance, take the Black Plague that spread across Europe in the 14th century, quite simply one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. It wiped out approximately 60% of Europe’s population which, in 1350, amounted to 75 million people. Seventy-five million. That’s roughly the same as the current population of the UK, all eradicated within a decade. It’s destruction on an unthinkable scale. The kind you can’t rationale no matter how many times you try.

Perhaps, then, this is one of the many reasons we become attached to apocalyptic fiction. If these real life calamities are too hard to comprehend, then at least we can fall back into the realm of imagination, which offers us a structured narrative wherein we can readily identify the good from the bad. Additionally, tropes of the genre, such as the ubiquitous fear of death and the re-imagining of a new, untainted world make it one of the most fertile grounds for creativity in books, TV shows, video games and, in a particularly cinematic sense, the film industry.

We have witnessed post apocalyptic fiction evolving into a unique and dynamic genre before our very eyes. As a storytelling vehicle, it provides an unprecedented way of examining the human race. When the pillars of society crumble, moral values and the core legacy of humankind are questioned as survival becomes paramount. It’s a hypothetical endurance that, through the lens of the camera, many, many directors have attempted to transpose onto celluloid.

Movies like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men are examples of making the deeply theoretical primarily cinematic, as the auteurs imposed a sense of twisted realism onto their productions. Romero served as the pioneer for the zombie genre and is the most prevailing reason the reanimated skin-munchers remain in vogue today. His 1968 magnum opus imagined that a fallen satellite had spiked radiation levels on the surface of the Earth, causing the dead to rise and feed on the living.

On the other hand, Cuarón’s film was released in 2007 and depicts a near future where women can’t get pregnant, resulting in the youngest person on the planet being twenty years old. Now, you might say that each narrative is preposterously fictitious, but consider this: in 1968, humanity was slowly getting used to the crazed, power-driven space race and its after effects. Conspiracies theories and cover ups were omnipresent. So to push the envelope and mould the plot of a film around this contemporary anxiety, in this case; wayward satellites, blurred the line between fiction and reality and, in a sense, planted a seed of doubt in the minds of millions. A seed, which acts as the prime instigator in making the strictly unbelievable, believable.

Using a similar technique, Children of Men illustrated the anarchy that ensues when the human race is essentially given a sell by date. Technically speaking, the cinéma vérité style allows the action sequences to resemble news footage from the Iraq war, which effectively heightens the degree of realism. Taking into consideration the modern problems with fertility – as extenuating factors like radiation, obesity and drug use intensify – the plot isn’t exactly outside the realm of possibility – rather, it’s hanging on doggedly, deep in our united subconscious.

This is why the genre has survived throughout the ages. It can readily identify the flaws in a society and project them for the world to see. Deep-rooted problems and anxieties become exaggerated – mind you, not by much in some cases – to represent the near-future consequences of current disasters. In essence, the fears of society act as fuel for the apocalyptic fire. As a result of this relationship, pairing each corporeal predicament with their fictional partner becomes relatively straightforward. Needless drive for goods that can’t satisfy your consumerist hunger? Zombie apocalypse. How about the growing, independent power of technological computers? Skynet. Or maybe the machines in I, Robot or The Matrix or…no wait, come back. I’ll stop.

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