Famine, drought, viruses, blood-red moons, a scorched and depopulated Earth — the end of the world as we know it turns out to be a rollicking good time.
How else to explain the onset of Apocalypse Wow, the curious morphing of popular entertainment from the warm, safe and familiar (think Andy Griffith, Alex P. Keaton, Bill Cosby) to the barren outposts of dread of “The Walking Dead” and “The Hunger Games”?
“The Walking Dead,” the AMC drama about survivors of a mysterious virus that causes the dead to reanimate and feed on the living, recently began its fifth season with 17.3 million viewers, many of whom stayed up for another hour to talk about the episode on “Talking Dead” (a live talk show on AMC). It's drawing twice the viewers of “The Big Bang Theory,” its closest competitor among television entertainment series.
But the trials of Rick Grimes (the lead character on "The Walking Dead") and his perpetually blood-soaked compatriots is but one component in an entertainment cabinet that thrives not on plenty but on sustenance. Top-selling games like “Call of Duty” and “Gears of War” posit similarly scorched and stripped-down planets; books such as Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars” entice us with worlds that you’d think we would flee. Nightmares are no longer contained in our closets; we’ve invited them into our living rooms.
And in some cases, the line between fiction and reality seems to be blurring. “The Walking Dead” is a favorite show of “preppers,” people so intent on surviving apocalypses yet to come that they construct their real lives around future disasters (that may never come to fruition). Their lives and discontents are detailed in a National Geographic reality show, “Doomsday Preppers,” that has been running for four years, with episodes such as “Live Bees, Live Ammo” and “Americans not Ameri-cants.” One more sign that the end times are as popular as ever? It's the network’s most popular show.
The story of our time
The idea that we are the last generation to enjoy the world as we know it persists, even though it’s an idea that's been around for thousands of years. Four in 10 Americans told the Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, last year that they believe we’re in the “end times.” This is not an unusual position for people of faith to hold. What’s new is that they’ve been joined by secular Cassandras who cite the massive die-off of species, the so-called Sixth Extinction, and theories about the catastrophic effects of climate change.
“Two-thirds of flowering plants are endangered, 20 to 25 percent of all mammals. We’ve lost half our wildlife in the last 40 years. This is unequivocally the story of our time,” said Peter Heller, an author whose 2013 novel “The Dog Stars” depicts a planet ravaged by both climate and flu.
“Literature, which is the canary in the coal mine of our inner landscape, has to respond. So does pop culture,” Heller said. “And of course, the apocalypse makes for the best stories — the higher the stakes, the greater a poem or novel can be.”
The Rev. John Murray is a Catholic priest who serves the Diocese of Fall River in southeastern Massachusetts — and who watches “The Walking Dead” every Sunday night. He’s even mentioned the show in a sermon, likening the horrific virus to original sin: “If you let sin take over in your life, the logical outcome is the destruction of the human person,” he said.
Murray believes that shows like “The Walking Dead” and movies like “The Hunger Games” resonate in part because of their darkness. “When we are distracted by things like that, we don’t have to think about the real evil going on in the world. It’s also an escape, a reassurance. In comparison, our own lives don’t look so bad.”
He notes that in the original Greek, the word “apocalypse” means unveiling or uncovering. In a sense, such scenarios unveil something else: a craving for simplicity. In a post-apocalyptic world, whether Heller’s or AMC’s, only a few things matter: food, water, shelter, relationships, safety. The rest, the superfluous stuff, floats away.
Then again, there’s also another ancient urge at play: the adrenalin rush. “I think what’s most exciting about it is that you can live vicariously from the comfort of your couch. It’s exciting to imagine yourself in those kinds of situations,” said Bo Kreiner, a senior studying park management at Kent State University.
Body chemistry plays a role, agrees Marilyn Suttle, an author and communications consultant near Detroit. “We are hard-wired to fight, flee or freeze like a deer in the headlights when we’re in real danger. Watching shows like ‘The Walking Dead’ provides a flood of accomplishment and relief, as if we ourselves had faced the fear and survived. It’s the same reason we get a rush from roller coaster rides. It’s fun to be scared when we know we’re safe.”
Suttle also points out that thinking about doomsday scenarios provides quick energy and focus when the ease of modern life makes us comfortably numb. “Everyday life can become predictable and — dare I say it? — boring and painful at times,” she said. "Shows like 'The Walking Dead' have you feel something. Their shock value cuts through the numbness.”
They can also inspire people to make meaningful changes in how they approach life, such as stockpiling food and making plans for natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, if not for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse shrieking through a blackening sky.
Out of the ashes
James Wesley Rawles straddles fiction and reality in his work, writing best-selling novels about post-apocalyptic life, and coaching others to prepare for it in real life on his website, Survivalblog.com. The granddaddy of survival blogs, the site garners 320,000 visits each week, boosted in part by the credentials of its founder (Rawles is a former U.S. Army military intelligence officer) and fortuitous timing: The site went live a month before Hurricane Katrina made landfall.
Rawles is a conservative Christian, but his own belief that societal collapse is inevitable derives mostly from America’s dependence on its power grids. If the grids go down — either from catastrophic solar flares, terrorism or even something as benign as not enough people showing up to work — society would break down within 72 hours, he says. “And it would take years, decades, possibly a century, to crawl back out of the ashes,” he added.
Rawles does not own a TV, has no interest in “The Walking Dead” (he pronounces it “absurd on its face”) and is dismayed at the portrayal of what he calls “the preparedness movement” on the National Geographic show. “They picked people who were seeking the limelight,” he said, “and perhaps not the most stable.” Real preppers, he said, are circumspect, and reveal little about themselves, because they don’t want hordes of hungry people at their door when hard times come.
Of his own location, he’ll only say that he dwells in the northern Rockies, surrounded by national forest. But you can find his new book “Liberators: A Novel of the Coming Global Collapse" in bookstores everywhere this month.
Jennifer Graham is an East Coast journalist and author. On Twitter, she's @grahamtoday.
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