The End of the World as We Know It: Understanding the Popularity of the Post-Apocalyptic Tale


Found on Google Images
Found on Google Images

Post-apocalyptic stories have grown very popular in recent years. These stories have origins or back-stories that run the gambit of reasons for the end of society as we currently know it: from religious to scientific or even politics and civil war. With the Left Behind series, you have a group of people who are left on earth after the Biblical apocalypse. Stories of civil war and unrest can be found in the Hunger Games and The Matrix trilogy. Zombie plagues are extremely popular at the moment in literature and television. It spans sci-fi and crosses into the teen lit/romance genres with World War Z, The Walking Dead and Warm Bodies. Beyond zombie plagues, you can find apocalyptic stories that have their roots in generic plagues that wipe out the majority of humanity like the movie Contagion.

The list of recent/current television shows that have post-apocalyptic roots is extensive: The Walking Dead, Survivors, Revolution, Dark Angel, Terra Nova, Jericho, and Heroes (a show that was rife with plots trying to prevent a multitude of apocalyptic scenarios). Audiences have yet to tire of these sorts of stories and writers all over consistently work to create new turmoil and apocalyptic scenarios to ensnare and torture their characters all for the sake of entertainment.

Post-apocalyptic stories are popular with modern audiences because they express a very strong fear of the future and thus a fear of the unknown. We like to think we are in control of everything. But the reality is, we are in control of very little. Because of our control-freak tendencies, this literature also expresses a fear of change because, deep inside, society knows that the way our world works has to change if we are to survive. No one wants to say it out loud but the evidence is all around us. One such example is the ongoing debate concerning the evidence of global warming or, the lack thereof. Those who believe in global warming express a need for our lifestyles to change. Those who deny the existence of global warming are expressing a fear of change and denying its inevitability. They refuse to relinquish control.

Post-apocalyptic stories have their roots in science fiction whatever direction you go. Because science fiction sprouts from Gothic literature, it is therefore undeniable that these stories relate directly back to Gothic literature. Gothic literature formed out of feelings of mistrust for those in power and a mistrust of the world around them. One can see evidence of this mistrust in the debate concerning global warming discussed above.

These days, science has allowed us to conquer most of our natural challenges. But there are many people out there who wonder if science is currently or soon to overstep its place. We see these sorts of debates all the time in the public and political sectors. People question the morality of altering genetics and utilizing stem cells. They question the morality of cloning because it suggests that humanity is attempting to play God. We are now expressing a mistrust of science along with a mistrust of those in power. A fear of zombies is an expression of the fear of death, disease, science, and the loss of humanity and control.

In many of the above-mentioned post-apocalyptic stories, humanity seems to have overstepped its boundaries and the resulting apocalypse is the punishment. The stories are allowed to conclude only when society has changed its ways and is thus capable of beginning the healing or rebuilding process. A traditional Gothic tale works in much the same way. The story begins because the traditional triangular family dynamic has been disrupted in some fashion. A parent may have died leaving the female protagonist an orphan. Or perhaps she has an evil stepfather or uncle. The story cannot conclude until she has rectified her familial situation. She may marry and thus become the daughter of her in-laws, but really she never actually progresses. The traditional Gothic tale is very cyclical.

But this is where post-apocalyptic literature diverges from the traditional origins of the Gothic tale. Very few, if any, current stories work in the cyclical fashion of the old tales. It is a very out of date story pattern and does not satisfy our current audience or reader. The very essence of a post-apocalyptic story is change. Characters adapt to their current situations or they perish. If society as a whole changes, humanity is able to survive and suppress the threats that they themselves are ultimately responsible for creating.

A cyclical story pattern does not work for the current post-apocalyptic stories because it would require society to return to its former state and situation. It is this former state that caused the collapse of society to begin with. Thus, society must find a way to progress and improve. This also works to make the entire struggle worthwhile.

Post-apocalyptic stories allow audiences and readers to witness the collapse of society through the safe window of fiction. It expresses a subconscious mistrust of society and those in power and suggests the need for change and reevaluation of the current mechanics. In these stories, one can find a frustration with the current order of things. The apocalypse allows the survivors to regroup and rectify the wrongs of their former lifetimes. The post-apocalyptic story is a science-fiction adventure that challenges the hero or heroine to solve the problems of society and threatens him or her with death if they are unable to change or to lead others along the path of change for the better.

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6 thoughts on “The End of the World as We Know It: Understanding the Popularity of the Post-Apocalyptic Tale

  1. I don’t think post-apocalyptic stories are about fear of the future: I think they are about the fear of present irrelevance.

    For the vast majority of people, there is a strong sensation that there is nothing they can or ever will do which is going to make a world-altering difference to the human race. The great human hives will continue without them, not even remembering they existed. This is diametrically at odds with the American ideal of individualism, and reward for merit.

    An apocalypse drops the protagonist, and the vicarious reader, back into a pre-civilised world, where their decisions make a difference.

    Sadly, this whole thing derives from the premise that individual people do not count for much, but this is less true than it has ever been. People like apocalyptic settings because they feel like they could count in them, but actually in pre-industrial settings, muscle power and luck count for far more than they imagine, and with modern ways of advocating and organising, individuals have great scope to make change.

    1. I definitely think that the fear of present irrelevance is perfectly logical for interpreting post-apocalyptic stories too. Perhaps what I have interpreted as control and fear of change you have interpreted as fear of irrelevance. Thank you for your insights.

  2. What saddens and concerns me is the people who believe that an apocalypse is inevitable, and there is nothing that can be done to prevent it. These are the people who believe in the second coming of Christ, the doomsday preppers, and those of the George Carlin vein who just give up and sit back, watch, and wait.

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