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In most post-apocalyptic stories, there comes a time when one or more of the characters — usually minor ones — opt to take the “easy way out.” Suicide, in other words. This seems only natural. When faced with an uncertain future filled with terror, hunger and the constant possibility of a violent, painful death, suicide seems like a viable option. Except in the stories, it’s not intended to be one. The characters who opt for suicide are not the ones we’re supposed to identify with.
But I do. When I read The Road, the character I most identified with was the wife, who took a gun and walked off into the woods rather than continue to live in the charred cinder that was once her world. In The Passage, a couple waits until their children are old enough to take care of themselves before opting out of their brutal lives spent worrying about vampire invasions every second. And on the season 1 finale of The Walking Dead television series, the characters are given a choice: quick, painless death by explosion or go back into the zombie-infested wasteland with only the things they are carrying. I know what I’d pick.
But then again, I am not a survivalist. I don’t stock up on toilet paper or spend my weekends practicing my crossbow skills. I freely admit that I enjoy the creature comforts of the 21st century. Who knows what any of us would choose to do when thrust into extreme circumstances like that? We haven’t really had to test our ingrained survival instinct.
Or our sense of hope. For that’s what the characters who choose to go on represent: hope. What was left in Pandora’s box after the ills of the world escape. Hope that there is something better ahead — if not for us, then at least for those who come after us — is what motivates us to keep on struggling even in the most extraordinary situations. Hope is what inspires us that no matter how bad things get, we can find a way. Hope is our humanity.
And hope is the essence of what many of these post-apocalyptic stories we tell ourselves are really all about.
Why do we enjoy imagining such a horrific event as the demise of most of humankind? We never seem to tire of books, movies, TV shows and music about the post-apocalypse. While not many of us would like actually experiencing the apocalypse, imagining it is a cathartic fantasy.
Who hasn’t fantasized about starting all over again from a completely clean slate? Walking away from your family, friends and stuff, moving to a new place, perhaps even changing your identity. Just starting from zero. The post-apocalypse is that fantasy writ large. It’s not just you starting over, it’s the whole human race.
Also, the apocalypse provides a neat solution to the overwhelming problems that face us today. Such issues as climate change, overpopulation, scarce resources, poverty, epidemics and never-ending violence are overwhelming to us as individuals, when we feel we can’t do much about these global problems. The apocalypse — usually caused in some way by these problems — is also the universal solution to them. In one fell swoop, the number of people is reduced to a manageable number. No more climate change because no more pollution. And unless they were destroyed in the event, resources become plentiful. Depending on who is killed off, such pervasive problems as violence and even disease might be ended. Humanity gets the chance to start over and not make the same mistakes this time.
Finally, the post-apocalypse is an individual fantasy of the ultimate challenge. What would I do if the world ended and I survived? How would I react? How would I deal with the new problems I would have? Would raising my own food be a better deal than having to go to a soul-sucking job at an office every day? (Perhaps.) It’s the greatest “what if” situation, one we may never get tired of contemplating.
As is the norm, I’m sure that if the apocalypse actually did occur, it would be both nothing like and very similar to what we’ve already imagined it to be.
The Boston Globe also has an article wondering why we are so fascinated with the apocalypse in books and movies. It gives a bit of a retrospective of the apocalypse envisioned in film over the years.