Why We’re Obsessed with the Apocalypse
By Robert Brockway
Careful readers may have already deduced from this abandoned places article, this Fallout article, this zombie contingency article and, oh yeah, the entire damn book I wrote about it, that I’m kind of obsessed with the apocalypse. This fact, coupled with the hurtling, unstoppable, exploding comet of my shining Internet celebrity, and it’s only logical that I was invited to speak on a panel at the Doomsday Film Festival this year.
… which I won’t be attending.
Partially because I’m trying to nurture a Salinger-esque mystique (if Salinger wrote homoerotic horror fan-fiction about Mario Lopez) and also because I just can’t afford it. But, y’know: Mostly that gay/terror/Saved by the Bell/Salinger thing. Regardless, the subject of the panel has been stuck in my head since the invitation. It asks a very simple, very valid question that we, as apocalypse nerds, should all be contemplating: What is with this doomsday obsession? Why does it exist? Why is something so horrific so appealing to us?
And the answer is: Because it’s awesome.
Query satisfied! End of conversation, now let’s go play zombies.
No? Still some more space to fill?
Well shit, all right: Let’s start by analyzing what makes apocalyptic fiction work. Not what makes an individual property thrive or fail: This isn’t about how the apocalyptic horror genre is faltering because zombies have been overplayed more than that Outkast song. And this isn’t an analysis of the missteps of doomsday dramas, though there are many (The Walking Dead is gambling on a risky strategy of no-dimensional character development, and The Road was like a post-nuclear Requiem for a Dream; it was good, sure, but just a bit too effective at making the audience want to kill themselves. It’s hard to get word of mouth going when every mouth has a gun in it after the movie is over).
Our focus is broader: What makes the specific apocalyptic angle in any given fiction work? Is it the subject matter?
A good doomsday story walks a fine line: It can’t go too far and level everything, because there has to be some recognizable element of our society left for us to identify with. We still need to see the remains of our own bombed out towns and decimated cities, or to see the characters making use of our old technologies. The Mad Max series died at the third film for a reason: There wasn’t enough of us — the modern day audience — left in there. Beyond Thunderdome was about a new society, not the shattered remnants of our own.
Then there’s the other side of the coin: Not taking it far enough. Stories usually fall into this trap when they revolve around characters dealing with an apocalyptic event in a society that’s still just a bit too recognizable. Jericho was good and all, but the world it presented wasn’t foreign enough to capture the imagination. At the end of the day, it was basically a show about a town where the Internet is down. And while that’s horrifying and tragic, it doesn’t quite hit the same buttons as watching the Statue of Liberty crumble. Apocalyptic fiction is not like porn, where the fundamental building blocks of the genre (i.e. the promise of boning) is also the entire appeal.
Is it plot? Does the End of Days make certain, stronger story arcs possible? Maybe. It does provide a good opportunity to examine mankind as a whole. Most fiction revolves around conflict on a more personal level, and there aren’t many backdrops that allow the same kind of broad speculation as the apocalypse. It could be that doomsday holds an inherent appeal because of the scenarios, situations and questions it presents. But if that were the case, wouldn’t that mean there was some amount of appeal to anything post-apocalyptic, regardless of quality? Because that sure as hell isn’t the case:
The Resident Evil movies.
That’s it. That’s the entirety of my counter-argument: The Resident Evil movies.
On paper, they should’ve been good: Novel sci-fi settings, super-plagues, zombies, Milla Jovovich — it’s like somebody made a movie out of my Facebook interests. But roughly 15 minutes into the first film and they abandon everything to bash action figures together and make explosion noises with their mouths. The final product ends up holding no more appeal for an apocalypse geek than Jane Eyre, and with only slightly more titties.