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A Brief History of the Apocalypse

The world has died hundreds of times over. The cause varies just as much, from a zombie plague turning the dying into the undead, to nuclear warfare creating a toxic environment. Apocalyptic media has grown in popularity over the years, specifically a post-apocalyptic era of society rebuilding itself. In a time where the entire human population is so dependent on technology and access to media, it begs the question: why are we so fascinated with the end of the world?

Apocalyptic media is not a new invention. Literature in this genre can be traced back to BC era with Jewish passages foretelling of future disaster. This passages did not take the common form of a narrative, but rather in esoteric language and with a pessimistic view of the future and an expectation of an apocalypse. Mary Shelley, author of the well known novel Frankenstein, is attributed to writing the first major work of post-apocalyptic fiction. Her novel The Last Man was written in 1826 and depicts the life of Lionel Verney as the last man on Earth after the bubonic plague wiped out the rest of humanity. 

Stories like this continued. In 1913, J.D. Beresford published his novel Goslings which centers around the Gosling family living in London after a plague kills off the majority of the men, leaving the women to learn to live on their own. Twenty-some years later, in 1937, Stephen Vincent Benét published his novel By the Waters of Babylon. This novel tells the story of humanity after an apocalyptic event, believing previous humans to be gods, and is narrated by John as he ventures to what is called the “dead places” where earlier people have lived and died and left behind machines and texts unseen by the new population. 

Of course, as time went on, authors and writers have created a multitude of scenarios of Earth’s end, through plague, zombies, alien invasion, etc. But the question still remains of why. There are theories as to why we consume so much of this media and as to why writers continue to create more. Of course, there is no one reason why this genre is so popular; everyone has their own reasons. With that being said, I personally believe that all of the reasons can simultaneously be true.

What seems to be the most common reason that we’ve come up with is that a post-apocalyptic world offers a sense of freedom. As the Great Equalizer, the end of the world is also the end of all things that gave some people power and authority over others. Escapism is a popular coping mechanism in our society, and post-apocalyptic media is just one of the many choices. In a world where there are no longer rules, responsibilities, or restrictions, we can imagine ourselves doing whatever we want without the red tape we live with regularly. And let’s be honest, planning out your apocalypse survival plan can make for fun conversation. 

Other explanations people have come up with are just as logical. Some theorize that watching these stories play out helps us to mentally prepare for a world like that, if an event should ever take place. People also believe that it’s helpful in realizing that the world could be worse. Apocalyptic fiction is often seen as a hyperbolic reflection of our current society, the issues, values, and anxieties we all share. When we watch people go through situations we could never imagine ourselves being in, it creates a sense of gratitude for our more stable world, even if it is still very much a mess.

Obviously many of the movies, shows, and books encompassing this genre have been created simply because the writers knew it would sell. When you’re in an industry catering to the entertainment of the public, it's important to take into consideration what they would want to see. However, there are other reasons as to why writers continue to create new ends to the world. Many of these films and books have been created to bring attention to our world and urge us to take better care of it. For example, Don’t Look Up, a movie made in 2021 starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, is just one big metaphor for climate change.

If this genre interests you, here are some movies and TV shows to consider watching:

The Walking Dead

The 100

The Society

The Mist

The Last Man on Earth (TV show, not the movie)

I also recommend reading Endless Apocalypse Short Stories published by Flame Tree.

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