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Why We're Obsessed with the Apocalypse

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.

"I call Marine! Marine's taken? Well shit, I call Cowardly Yuppie Who's Sure to Get His Comeuppance!"

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.

A new society where giant racists and terrifying cyborg drag queens enslave The Littles.

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.

"AND THEN SHE SEES THE DOG AND SHE'S ALL WAPRKSSHHHHHHH!!!"

No, doomsday plots can misfire as disastrously as any other genre. So is it atmosphere? Post apocalyptic settings are indeed stunning: They combine the elaborate, epic set pieces of hard sci-fi with a basis in familiarity that even the more casual audience can relate to. We can be floored by Pandora, but it's never going to have the same emotional resonance as seeing, say, Baltimore destroyed and retaken by nature (but, uh ... even more so?). But atmosphere can't support an entire property: I Am Legend had a damn solid first half, and it's portrayal of an empty and crumbling New York made for some intensely haunting visuals. Likewise with the first half of The Stand: Those empty highways and deserted rural towns carried a sense of simultaneous sadness and wonder. But in the end, they both caught the same strain of Fiction Dysentery and died screaming in their own shit. Even their atmosphere could not save them.

"Oh God! I'm literally crapping my life out!"

And if it's the set pieces that make or break the genre, what about The Road Warrior? That movie was the highwater mark of apocalyptic films, and it was set in a glorified hippie commune in the middle of the desert where gas was worth more than blood. You could experience the same thing today by driving a few hours east of Los Angeles. So unless Barstow fills you with awe and intrigue, it ain't the atmosphere carrying apocalyptic films. Characters? Same problem as the plot: They vary too wildly between properties to declare them a unique mark of quality attributable to this specific genre. There are fantastic stories that thrive on the strength of their characters alone, like Y: The Last Man, which was saved by its human authenticity even as it spastically screamed out random sci-fi conventions like it was suffering from Nerd Tourette's.

"Immortality serum! Pandemics! Cloning! Super spies! SHIIIIT BUTTEEER!"

And then there are amazing, revolutionary films with weak or barely present characters, like just about every movie by the man who first started the zombie craze: Romero. His films weren't about people at all; they were just sprawling metaphors that used human beings like chess pieces. It's not to say they were bad (*cough* Land of the Dead *cough cough*), just that they weren't necessarily reliant on character for their quality. Special effects? Let's talk about Road Warrior again: Effects-wise, it was a movie about some dudes stranded in a desert with cars badly in need of bodywork (in other words, perfectly average Australians). There were no pretty lights to be dazzled by in that movie, aside from the ones in young Mel Gibson's dreamy eyes, of course. Also, possibly the best apocalyptic TV series to date was the 1981 BBC mini-series version of Day of the Triffids. And that was a no-budget affair with production quality comparable to a Burger King training video, littered with special effects so terrible they made old Star Trek episodes look like Avatar. And yet it was still brilliant.

Post-apocalyptic plant-fighting, or amateur French porno?

Well, damn. If it's not plot or atmosphere or character or effects or any of those things, what does that leave us? The appeal of the apocalypse has to be something more basic -- some psychological or cultural undercurrent that pulls on an inherent trait of humanity as a whole. There is one thing that I can think of. One single attribute common to all mankind that would be uniquely sated by the idea of Armageddon: Our sheer, unbridled, fuck-you arrogance. Both as a species and personally. As a species, we like the apocalypse in the same way that a mopey teenager might like the idea of their own funeral: We want to see our decaying remains and revel in the tragic glory that we couldn't appreciate until it was too late. We want to see crumbling skyscrapers and flooded metropolises and know that, once upon a time, we built those things. Remember what I said at the beginning: Apocalypse stories fail when they don't take the destruction far enough. That's because it's examining the forest from the trees. If we want to look back at all we've done and marvel at it, we can't have somebody running around still trying to save it. We wouldn't give a shit about losing pyramids if the Egyptians had never stopped building them, but now that so few remain, they're treasured wonders to behold. We're fascinated by the potential ruins we will leave behind when we're gone: We want to read the headstones proclaiming the magnificence of our society to whoever comes along next.

"Well, it's good, but a little humble. Can we work the phrase 'veritable dong monster' in there somewhere?"

And on a personal level, the apocalypse appeals to our arrogance because, let's face it, when you talk about doomsday, you're really saying "that time when everybody else died, but not me." Those suckers became zombies; those suckers fell to the plague; can you believe those suckers weren't prepared for the robot invasion? A good apocalyptic story has to wipe nearly everybody else out, but still leave room for you to picture yourself there, to play out your daydreams of converting your college campus to a fortress, of tricking out your truck with spikes and harpoons, of getting yourself an Australian Shepherd and a bitchin' leather jacket and looking smugly back on all the works of man that you've outlasted. The idea of the apocalypse is so personally empowering that it actually twists itself to appeal to every type of person and every type of arrogance in its own way: There are hipsters out there right now that, ten years ago, would've laughed in your face if you said you owned a gun. They would've thought of you as a brutish idiot. Now, they're field stripping submachine guns and practicing at the range on the weekends. They may ironically, laughingly admit that they're preparing for the zombie apocalypse, as if to say "of course we're not serious." But they are: You can see it in their eyes. Even hipsters don't sink that much time and money into sheer irony. The post-apocalypse milks every aspect of their self-importance that used to be satisfied by knowing the latest indie band, nurturing the most obscure hobbies, and making the insiderest of the insider jokes. Is it any wonder the idea of being the last person alive offers so much appeal to them?

"Do You like The Kills? Oh, I'm sorry, you wouldn't have heard of them, because you're all fucking dead."

The apocalypse appeals to rednecks for the very simple reason that they already have their skillsets honed: They fix trucks, they hunt, they know guns and they tend to stay away from the cities. Of course they'd survive the end of the world - hell, they wouldn't even have to make any major lifestyle changes, because they had the right priorities all along. It appeals to the nerd types because they already barely function in society: They grew up isolated and alone, and many view most human beings as strange, croaking monsters who want bizarre and horrifying things from them. To nerds, the only thing different about facing down super mutants is that they're doing it outside of gym class now. All the assholes that tormented them are dead, or undead, or you can at least fire rocket launchers at the raiding bands they've formed, instead of just telling Mrs. Warburton on them. Don't get me wrong: Mrs. Warburton is great, but she is ill-equipped to deal with Raiders. And it appeals to us in the "Miscellaneous" category because there's nobody left to judge us when most of humanity has been converted to biofuel for the slave-engines. In every post-apocalyptic story, there's always the one crazy old man with the wacky helmet muttering about Revelations, and all the heroes take pity on him - "look at the poor soul, driven mad by all the death he's witnessed." But that's bullshit: We weren't driven mad at all. We were like this way before Armageddon, we just weren't allowed to show it because of all those damn people everywhere with their precious "morals" and "laws." That's our arrogance: We would gladly trade the continuation of the species and possibly the lives of our loved ones just to not have "misdemeanors" be a thing anymore. To us, the apocalypse is like being released from a prison where you were inexplicably forbidden to race go-karts through the white house or dress like a pervert Captain Planet.

No way he's wearing that unless most of life has already been exterminated.

So that's my answer: When it comes down to it, the reason there were so many alien stories in the early twentieth century, the reason there are so many zombie movies right now, and the reason there will be so many nanobot movies or whatever in the future, all comes down to simple playground logic: The apocalypse is just a big game of King of the Hill with no other players left alive to retake the mountain.

Which was how every game ended anyway, if you played it the real way.

You can buy Robert's book, Everything is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Or you could skip all that and just start stocking up for the End Times now: Remember to start with the instant mashed potatoes and machetes. They're always the first to go. Man, why is that? Weird.

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