How post-apocalyptic fiction taught me to stop worrying and love zombies.
Circa 2005 or thereabouts, I attended a talk by David Sedaris at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ. In the middle of his reading, he went off on a tangent (major spoiler alert) about his frustration with the ending of the remake of George Romero’s Dawn of The Dead; specifically, he took umbrage with the primary motivation behind the gang leaving the safe confines of the mall.
They left the relatively secure, cozy, electricity and food providing mall because they were bored. Those of you who’ve seen the film know how that worked out.
Prior to this talk, the zombie/post-apocalyptic genre never held much fascination for me. I found it vaguely upsetting to ponder, so, although I’ve always relished a good horror movie, the end of the world just didn’t…do it for me.
David Sedaris changed all of that for me in the span of 10 minutes.
Post-apocalyptic fiction isn’t anything new, in fact, it’s one of the oldest genres of story-telling there is, dating back even further than the Old Testament. When the Bible describes the fiery (watery?) wrath of the almighty wiping out the world with a great flood, save for a few chosen, many of us, as children, had our first taste of pondering what the world would be like without, well, the world.
Stories similar to the apocalyptic flood narrative dating back further than the Old Testament include The Epic of Gilgamesh, and were present in ancient societies from India to the Aztecs; This brand of post-apocalyptic storytelling has always piqued the interest of society. Any moderately thought out piece on this genre of storytelling will inform you that the narratives reflect the anxiety of the times in which they’re written.
From Night of the Living Dead with its subtext about Vietnam War era anxiety and racism, to The Terminator’s technophobic spin (which is probably coming true, but whatever, right Alexa?), to 28 Days Later, which managed to fuse a narrative interweaving man’s inhumanity to man with anxiety about a world-ending pandemic, these stories are rife with the anxiogenic zeitgeist of their era of origin. I never found this to be a satisfying explanation.
In order for these world-ending tales to be truly satisfying, they must be providing something else, something hopeful even, which keeps us coming back.
An Apocalyptic Scared Straight?
I have a vague memory dating back to my undergraduate days of sitting in a Social Psychology class and learning about various persuasion techniques. Despite the steady diet of a solidly fear-based health behaviors curriculum that I had consumed from kindergarten on up, I was informed that scare tactics don’t work. There is an exception though if you are able to elicit fear, and then provide an alternative behavior which will ostensibly deliver your audience from those feared consequences.
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Going by the earliest apocalyptic stories, our ancestors must have known a thing or two about fear-based persuasion. Not only did the readers bear witness to the destruction of the world, they were provided with two prescriptions; how to survive should this happen again, and how to avoid the whole wiping out life on earth disaster, to begin with. Oh, I forgot to mention that the instructions are the same – be virtuous. That was it.
Stop killing other people, worshipping idols, whatever the fit the definition of virtuous for that particular era.
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Pride and Prejudice and Problem Solving and Zombies!
Taking a cue from the much recently maligned Walking Dead, we’re going to take a time jump to the 1960s, where George Romero became the godfather of what we now most often associate with apocalyptic storytelling, the modern zombie movie.
I can actually remember my first, “how-would-you-survive-the-zombie-apocalypse?” discussion.
It was sometime in May or June of 2007, strolling through Manhattan in those early days of summer in New York when it’s not too humid and the garbage smell hasn’t permeated the air like it will come August. The person I was talking to chose to take and to blockade the armory. Still demonstrating my undying (pun intended) allegiance to David Sedaris, I chose the mall. These discussions take place from coast to coast, continent to continent, from brunch to closing time.
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Psychologically speaking, they provide a much-needed outlet for problem-solving. Ever since humans evolved from the day to day struggle for survival (not that our modern society hasn’t gone and created this for large swaths of the population, but that’s a whole other topic for a whole other article), we’ve developed the somewhat vexing ability to think about the future.
From seemingly endless war to antibiotic-resistant germs, to increasingly volatile weather patterns, human society throughout the 20th and 21st centuries have been bombarded with questions of survival.
If we walked around thinking actively about each of these problems all day, every day, we wouldn’t be able to function. The zombie narrative gives us a nice, neat place to view our anxiety and worry in a fictionalized way, and to process and problem solve in a manner that is adjacent enough to the actual issues – our collective anxiety about the state of the world is resolved, for the moment.
Or maybe we could just blow it all up and start over.
I’ve been reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by the inimitable Stephen King, and I came across a quotation about The Stand that encapsulated what I wanted to convey in this piece so perfectly, that I wanted to jog to Maine and hug him. Then I let go of my inner Annie Wilkes and decided this shout out would suffice.
From the man himself;
“I was writing [The Stand] near the end of the so-called Energy Crisis in the 1970s, and I had an absolutely marvelous time envisioning a world that went smash…No more energy crisis…no more famine, no more massacres in Uganda, no more acid rain or hole in the ozone layer. Finito as well as saber-rattling nuclear superpowers…instead, there was a chance for humanity’s remaining shred to start over again.”
Woven through 1978’s The Stand, to the modern zombie novel masterpiece World War Z (not the movie, repeat, not the movie), by Max Brooks, and onward through The Walking Dead, there is this idea that the world is headed toward an annihilation event that will be our salvation. Before The Walking Dead became a weekly slog through hopelessness and despair, I used to find something comforting about it, and I’m willing to bet that you did too. There is an element of relief in imagining a world where there are no taxes to file, no nuclear North Korea, and no climate change.
The worst has already happened, so there is no need to fear it anymore; there is the possibility of creating a world, which, in the eye of the imaginer, is better, and more perfect.
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Going back to Noah and Gilgamesh, we could erase our mistakes, and build a more righteous world from the rubble. Much like the de-catastrophizing strategy that I teach my clients, the post-apocalyptic genre helps us to unpack our anxiety and ponder the worst possible thing happening. Through this, people learn not just coping but thriving.
From Gilgamesh to King, from Romero to Brooks, writers and filmmakers have actually not just portrayed our societal angst in paper and on screen, knowingly or not, they’ve been helping us cope with a world that at times, feels overwhelming and on the verge of collapse. My prescription to you, pop some popcorn, curl up with a nice zombie flick, and remember the immortal words of Bob Marley, woven through the unfortunately forgettable screen adaptation of I am Legend, “don’t worry, ’bout a thing, cause every little thing gonna be all right…“