Stocker: Romanticizing the end of the world


Alexi Stocker, Columnist

AMC’s “The Walking Dead” returned Sunday night for its sixth season with a 90-minute premiere, dragging down ratings for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” and ABC’s “Quantico.” The popularity of the Sunday-night zombie thriller has led to games, spin-off prequel “Fear the Walking Dead,” merchandise, tourism to film sites and even role-playing fan events, like Atlanta’s The Walking Dead Escape.” Why are Americans fixated on zombie-themed amusements?

It may seem to some like the Americans have suddenly “gone crazy” for zombies. “The Walking Dead”’s record-breaking ratings are not solely the product of the show’s unique attributes. Post-apocalyptic fiction in general is immensely popular in the United States right now. Some of the biggest box-office earners in 2014 were post-apocalyptic films. Earlier this year, “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the second installment of the “Divergent” series made massive box-office debuts, and the final installment of the “Hunger Games” series is due in November.

Modern post-apocalyptic fiction started with Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, “The Last Man.” The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the subsequent Cold War arms race, spurred interest in the apocalypse and, more importantly, what would happen once the end of the world had come and gone. Post-apocalyptic fiction’s popularity has grown the most in the past decade, with rising interest in dystopian stories and zombie, or “infection,” thrillers. What, though, is driving the popularity of these novels and films? Why is “The Walking Dead” one of the most popular series on television? What about “The Hunger Games” — or our society — made the series sell so well?

The economy, politics, wars in the Middle East are all disturbing, saddening and downright distressing at times. Post-apocalyptic fiction is most popular, though, among millennials. Although many of us are undoubtedly concerned with global and national crises, issues more relevant to ourselves consume the majority of our mental energy. As Northwestern students, those things include a dizzying array of classes, student groups, internships, jobs, friendships, relationships and so many other parts of functioning as a college student. Whether in high school, college or living life as a recent graduate, we feel pressure to succeed in our endeavors, to make meaningful, fun friendships, build lasting romantic relationships and, most of all, be happy. Social media incessantly bombards us with the best parts of our far-flung and ever-growing network of acquaintances’ lives. The Instagram and Facebook feeds merge the joy from everybody’s lives into one singular entity for comparison with our own. Social media asks us to share, too. The expectation is that, like our vast social network, we too will share our success and happiness, and with that expectation can come a sense of despair.

The apocalypse offers us an out, an avenue to escape our friends’ and families’ expectations for our lives. No matter how gritty our imagined apocalypse is, the post-apocalyptic wasteland we wander is always heavily romanticized. In our romanticized apocalypse, we are never part of the 99 percent who fall victim to plague, nuclear annihilation or some other catastrophe. The people we value most survive with us, and we meet new friends along the way, forming a band of survivors. The group of survivors we assemble miraculously has all the necessary survival skills for life after the end of society. Never mind that most of us have never fired a gun outside a shooting range — if at all — and have no emergency medical training. Those points are irrelevant, as are all of the other important details of life after the end of the world, such as where our food, water, medicine and other basics of life come from.

The point of the romanticized apocalypse is not rebuilding society. The apocalypse is a chance for us to become who we believe we truly are. Films like “28 Days Later,” “I Am Legend,” “World War Z,” and “Mad Max” thrust greatness upon people the pre-apocalyptic world had destined for lives of normalcy, transforming a common survivor, a scientist, a United Nations employee or an Australian policeman into action heroes. Love is also deeply ingrained in our imagined apocalypse, whether it’s a zombie wasteland or dystopia; romance is a key component of “The Walking Dead,” “Zombieland,” “Warm Bodies,” “The Hunger Games” and dozens more.

I believe the popularity of post-apocalyptic fiction is our generation’s response to the overwhelming societal pressure we feel to be simultaneously successful and happy in and with everything we do. Our romanticized apocalypse fulfills our deepest desires. We escape from societal constraints on our lives, we become the heroes we have always known ourselves to be, we fall in love and, most importantly, despite the grit and grime of life after the end of the world, we finally find happiness.

Alexi Stocker is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.