There’s something uncomfortably captivating about a disaster. Burning buildings, car crashes, even the recent volcanic disaster in Tonga. We understand the human side, we feel empathy, but there’s a much deeper reason why we’re fascinated by news reports about natural catastrophes or peering out of the window as we pass by a burned-out car on the road. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist, suggests that “we react to and learn more from negative experiences than we do positive ones”. Some find documentaries about military history fascinating on a level they try not to interrogate. That instinctive need to stare into the face of tragedy is a “preventive mechanism to give us information on the dangers to avoid and flee from”, and the same could be said about fiction. End of the world and post-apocalyptic stories, from The Walking Dead to the Fallout series of games, quell this same intrigue and teach similar lessons.
“I spread the whole earth out as a map before me. On no one spot of its surface could I put my finger and say, here is safety.”
— The Last Man, Mary Shelley
What’s generally considered the earliest surviving work of literature, and the second oldest surviving religious text, is easily readable as a story about the end of the world. The ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh is dated to around 4-5000 years old. Later parts of the poem reference a Great Flood, and the story bears similarities to the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark. The Gods send a storm to wash away the old world and everyone within it. Natural disasters of unfathomable scale are common in early texts, readable as ‘apocalyptic’ (a Greek word meaning ‘revealing of knowledge’). Environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett believes that “any flood would feel like the end of the world if your neighbours drowned and your community washed away”. She relates the flood in Gilgamesh to the natural weather of the region, stating “in Mesopotamia when torrential rains hit alongside spring snowmelt, the [rivers] burst their banks, growing the region under hundreds of miles of lakes.” We have used these stories, ever since we began living in settled areas, to convey anxieties around the destruction of our homes and our ways of life. These stories reveal the knowledge that our existence is not permanent, and that we are not untouchable.
Mary Shelley’s The Last Man shows a late 21st century where the world has been ravaged by an unforeseen plague. Second Comings and the ordained End of Days in the form of natural disaster are early precursors to the post-apocalyptic genre that has dominated modern culture for the last seventy-five years. They show a time when our beliefs and actions, our arrogance and ignorance, are judged harshly. Prior to the Second World War, these stories were niche and fringe – The Last Man was heavily criticised and didn’t regain academic praise until the 1960s, and the Epic of Gilgamesh is a truly ancient text known only to literature and history nerds like me. It wasn’t until the end of the Second World War, coinciding with the advent of nuclear power, that the concept of manmade self-annihilation came about.
“In an urban society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.”
Released in 1984, Threads is a BBC apocalyptic war drama which shows, in painful detail, the run-up and fallout of nuclear war. As tensions between the US and Soviet Russia heat up, a working-class and a middle-class family are brought together by a pregnancy. The child doesn’t come to life in a hospital – she’s born in a stable on Christmas Day, surrounded by survivors of a war, burned and traumatised. The child grows up with stunted linguistic and emotional capacities, and her paths in life are either forced labour under the military government or scavenging alone in the ruins of the old world. Occurring across thirteen years, writer Barry Hines and director Mick Jackson paint a cold, dark, and unbearable vision of nuclear winter, and were warning of the dangers of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). There was never a good enough reason to start a nuclear war – no way of life or belief system is worth enough to eradicate the planet as we know it. As tends to happen, this is seen today as a strange cultural relic – but the worry of nuclear war was so widespread during the latter half of the 20th century that Threads was shown in schools.
Until the turn of the millennium, when the Berlin Wall fell, nuclear annihilation was the focus of post-apocalyptic media. The Fallout series of games began in 1997, detailing the failures and triumphs of the attempts to rebuild industrial society in the wake of the devastating Great War. The focus of these games is often more the ups and downs of civilisation after the worst of the nuclear winter. Other pieces play on vaguely similar ideas, such as a father’s attempts to raise his son in a shell-shocked wasteland after an implied nuclear war in 2009’s The Road.
These stories are no longer at the cutting-edge of fears about the end of the world. The delicate balance that peace and stability sit on faces other threats, out of the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
“If you want to see the fate of democracies – look out the window.”
— Fallout: New Vegas
Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale fits more comfortably in the dystopian and thriller genres, but it inherits the post-apocalyptic background of the 1985 novel. In season two we’re shown the Colonies, vast areas of toxic wasteland in the former United States that were polluted by industry and government. The patriarchal theocratic Republic of Gilead sends dissident women to ‘clean away’ the deadly chemicals – but it’s simply a slow, unspoken death penalty. In Atwood’s original book we don’t see the Colonies, but there’s a deeply troubling implication as to the state of the world, before Gilead, as a depleted and polluted badlands marked by civil unrest and violence, which allowed the far-right authoritarian Sons of Jacob to seize power.
This is the state of the contemporary post-apocalypse. These are the fears of modern society. A mixture of manmade climate disaster and societal backsliding into a darker, more factionalist society. One of these elements may take precedent over the other, or be represented in a stylised manner, making it more abstract than nuclear war. Zombies, after all, aren’t just the dead come back to make more dead. They’re a faceless shambling horde, a shifting mass with no thought or drive other than to feed. We don’t see zombies rising out of graves anymore – they’re a virus or an unknown transmittable event. The metaphor represents a wide array of modern worries – the interpretation of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) as a satire of runaway consumerism is well-known, something echoed in Shaun of the Dead (2004) as a commentary on life in your 30s being comprised of a zombie-like attitude to work and life.
The various parts of The Walking Dead franchise represent this political backsliding. As the walkers rise, these disparate survivors are forced to take their lives into their own hands. The tenets of modern life are eradicated in the blink of an eye – electricity, peace and safety, clean food and water – leaving only the political worries of how to organise a diverse society. Everyone must attempt to agree on how to live their new lives. Whether suspicion or compassion, control or freedom, are the best foundations for society in the world of the walkers. These are the questions at the heart of good Walking Dead stories. It also represents the possibility of regression, the return to simpler, smaller and more fluid nomadic societies – hunting and gathering.
The quickly-cancelled Brave New World (2020) series updates the original novel to include an artificial intelligence, Indra, controlling the dystopian society where monogamy and privacy are outlawed. It’s revealed that Indra took control after the climate-related destruction of our world. On a similar level, Snowpiercer is a 1982 French graphic novel, which has since been adapted into a 2013 film and a 2020 TV series. It portrays a world where the only human life is on a train, the Snowpiercer, travelling eternally across a frozen Earth via perpetual motion. Once it became clear that a haphazard attempt to reverse global warming would cause a new ice age, a tech entrepreneur began selling tickets for his armoured perpetual train to the rich and powerful. Just before leaving the station, a crowd of people unable to afford salvation storm the train. They are forced into the back carriages, the lowest of the classes, in a small-scale reproduction of the social structure in the old world. These aren’t particularly subtle, but they’re compelling and useful examples of the modern post-apocalypse.
In Fallout 1 and 2, the shattered ruins of Los Angeles are referred to as the Boneyard. Miles and miles of skeletal structures, cracked cement, and broken glass. LA is a megacity, with more than 17,000,000 people living inside it, more populous than London, Paris, and Bangalore. After a few hundred years of nuclear winter, would a city gain any other name than the Boneyard? In Danny Boyle’s pivotal 28 Days Later (2002), the city of Manchester burns and smoulders for days and weeks after the infection initially spreads. Cities are an intimately modern biosphere. They feel simultaneously permanent and delicate, the tall glass skyscrapers looking weak enough to be toppled by a strong wind. Standing within a city, with the endless reams of noise and life that take place there, they seem eternal. Millions of people going to work and falling in love, cremating their dead or overdosing in their homes. When viewed from the outside, especially at night, the distant lights of cars and buildings can look trivial.
I don’t live in a city, but the dichotomy of them appeals to me – they’re so delicate, like much of the modern world. The widespread acknowledgement of runaway climate change has dominated this decade so far, and that will only continue. It, much like the Cold War or the natural disasters and plagues of history, can feel like the end of the world. I don’t know whether it is; I assume that it isn’t. I do know that we’ll probably get some great films out of it.