“You have to carry the fire.”
“I don’t know how to.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Is the fire real? The fire?”
“Yes it is.”
“Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”
“Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”
– Cormac McCarthy, The Road
It was Tuesday. The day could not have been any more ordinary. I was sitting in chemistry class. I held my eyelids open with my fingers. Chemistry was about as fascinating to me as reading tax law. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t finish my homework until that same morning at about 2 am.
My teacher was Coach Polk. In addition to coaching, coaches at my high school also taught classes. Coach Polk was a great instructor. He would take class time to explain something to those of us who were struggling (i.e., me. I’m a reading/English/grammar guy.). He was always available before and after school for tutoring. None of that helped me like the class…but it did help me pass it.
I was 16. As an angsty metalhead, my biggest concern in life was what new heavy metal albums had just been released. In the US, Tuesday is new album release day. I cared enough about school to make decent grades. Some subjects came naturally. With others I was happy enough with a C+. I had no idea how much my little world was about to change.
An English teacher, whose classroom was just across the hall from Coach Polk’s chemistry class, poked her head in. Her face was a ghastly shade of white.
“Coach Polk,” she said. “Turn on the news right now. A plane just hit the World Trade Center.”
“What?” asked Coach Polk. He shook his head and blinked.
“Turn on the news right now!” repeated the English teacher.
He stopped his lecture on mass numbers and turned on the television. I forget now which news station he chose. It didn’t matter. They all ran the same footage anyway.
My Dad had flown to Canada that day. Needless to say, I shared the palpable anxiety that so many others did. Was my Dad ok? What was going to happen next? I’m certain I am not the only one that had thoughts like these.
One day, my son will learn about that day in a history class. September 11, 2001 was my generation’s Kennedy assassination. Just over a year prior, in the summer of 2000, my Dad took my family on a vacation to New York City. I saw the Twin Towers in person. I still remember seeing the second plane hit in real time. I’ll tell my son that story one day. It was a genuine, authentic horror story.
There was not a single facet of life that was not affected by that day. It literally changed everything. For a little while at least, Americans put aside our differences and had some sense of national unity. Those on the left weren’t bothered by those on the right. The red states and the blue shook hands and swept disagreement under the rug. Stereotypes and division disappeared completely.
Something else that changed was the sudden interest in eschatological themes in all forms of media. It was as if the apocalypse entered the American consciousness overnight. That word conjures divergent images depending on who you ask; what is the apocalypse? Perhaps it was the mutually assured destruction that so many feared during the cold war, a great war to end all wars that will scorch the entire planet. Science fiction films like The Matrix and the Terminator series depict mankind’s use of machinery to bring about our own demise. Each of the world’s major religions has its own explanation of the apocalypse. Some posit that a viral epidemic will be released, maybe as a weapon. The virus will the capacity to rejuvenate dead cells. Research, they say, will substantiate this apparently outlandish claim.
Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes are certainly not new. Beyond religious texts, the work widely acknowledged as the first in this genre is Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. Published in 1826, 8 years after Frankenstein, the novel takes place in a 21st century where a plague has devastated much of the earth. A science fiction text from the same era, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds created a similar precedent outlining human conflict with aliens.
Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend has been depicted in film on four separate occasions. While writing Night Of The Living Dead, George A. Romero was inspired by Matheson’s book. The success of young adult novels like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner suggest that even teens are interested in apocalyptic themes.
I cannot make the statement that what happened at the World Trade Center directly influenced the popularity of zombies. Correlation does not equal causation. Be that as it may, after 9/11 media featuring zombies and apocalyptic scenarios exploded. Even without zombies, Evemedia featuring similar end-world events also became popular. A plethora of new television shows educated viewers on how to purify and consume their own urine, build and stock an underground bunker, survive a plane crash, maybe even construct an operable firearm from scratch.
Wherever you find your apocalyptic narrative, it will usually have two recurring characteristics. The first is that the apocalypse actually happens. The cataclysmic shift occurs according to the particular story. The aliens deploy their hidden weapon, the epidemic spreads to the whole planet, the dystopic government entity “cleanses” the population, etc. That event frequently does not have the complete effect that the protagonists have believed. Many die, to be sure, which brings me to the second characteristic: a small group of humans survive. The earth, as they understand it, is still somewhat intact. Every apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic story does not follow these exact tropes, but many of them do. So what exactly is it about these events that so fascinates our culture? Why are we entertained by such a bleak ending?
I can only speculate, but I will offer 2 possible reasons. Our adoration with the apocalypse comes from a need for meaning and purpose. If we believe that “the end” is coming, then it inspires us to evaluate our lives and the choices we have made.
Do we count for something? Have we made an impression? A difference? Did we live our lives well? These are the kinds of questions on which these films center. We want to know that our lives have meaning extrinsic to ourselves. We want to know that our jobs, our cars, our clothing, our houses, our money are not the most important things in our lives. There must be a purpose to our existence beyond simply existing. When that existence is threatened by an event that will obliterate whole populations, that struggle is something in which we can all share.
The second, and I would argue the most important, reason why apocalyptic themes are so popular is because they offer hope. I don’t mean the kind of hope that involves someone wishing their favorite team wins the game, nor the kind that yearns for that next stoplight to stay green for just a little longer; I mean a deeper, more profound hope. Something that gives you a vision for the future, even if you aren’t exactly sure what that future is. You know that the future won’t and can’t be as bad as everyone says. Horror fans love to see a creative and bloody zombie kill. I like that just as much as the next guy; I love the sense of adventure that comes from watching zombie films. But I’m really hoping for the protagonist(s) to triumph. I want the plague to end eventually. I don’t want all of the earth to be destroyed. What kind of ending would that be? How would you feel if that was the conclusion? The earth explodes, everyone dies. Roll credits. A comedy could probably pull that off and no one would bat an eye. But that would be a disappointing end to a horror film with a more serious tone. Personally, I would be disappointed as a viewer. Even the point of a dark Biblical text like Revelation doesn’t end that way. The real theme of that book is renewal and redemption – hope. Hope that evil will be defeated so that something good can take its place. And life isn’t just about survival anymore. But thriving.
That’s what happens after the aliens deploy their secret weapon. After the virus is cured. After the totalitarian regime collapses in a revolution. Hope is what’s left. Hope over despair.
Hope that what we fought for was not in vain. Hope that all of that death meant something. Hope that we have a second chance, a fresh start. Because we’re still here. And there must be a reason for that.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this series as much as I have enjoyed writing it. I’m the type of person that believes that there’s more to art than what I see. I like to look a little deeper and find something solid to hold onto. Something to dissect, analyze, and share with others. Horror films should not be maligned for their content. Horror deserves a closer inspection than many are willing to give it. There is always more to it than meets the eyes. And that’s why I wrote these articles.
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