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The attraction of apocalypse

The philosophy of our fascination with disaster

stephen de wijze apocalypse covid-19

Post-apocalyptic scenarios fascinate us, as protagonists are thrown into a Hobbesian world of savagery and betrayal. These stories remind us of the precarious nature of human existence, made all the more apparent by the Covid-19 pandemic, and provide an opportunity to test our moral virtue.

A virus is released from an experimental laboratory in Cambridge, which causes uncontrollable and deadly rage in its victims. When it infects the people of Britain, they transform into a zombie-like state, resulting in mass carnage and the eventual collapse of society. In the middle of this, a man named Jim awakes from a coma to find London mostly deserted and uninhabited 28 days after catastrophic events first struck.

If this scenario sounds familiar, that is because it is the plot of 28 Days Later, a film by the renowned director Danny Boyle which explores a post-apocalyptic scenario brought about by a deadly virus. This film, like a very great many others in the disaster genre, was not only a considerable success in box office sales, it also received a number of awards, and spawned a sequel (28 weeks later ) , a graphic novel (28 Days Later: The Aftermath), and was credited with beginning a revival of zombie films. Despite its popularity, the film’s poster leaves you in no doubt that watching this film will be terrifying and ought to disturb you. However, in the process, it will also entertain and titillate you.

Given the reality of such scenarios would be undeniably dreadful and shocking, why is there a widespread fascination with the portrayal of such dark and terrible situations?

At the time of writing we are facing a worldwide pandemic due to the COVID-19 virus and normal day-to-day life has become impossible. We face distressing events such as the illness itself, the possible death of loved ones, a rise in mental illness due to anxiety and social isolation over long periods, and the catastrophic loss of jobs due to the shutdown of normal social activities. Many have deep concerns about the future economic effects of this virus with all the unavoidable deleterious political, social and psychological effects. It is no surprise that most of us want this escalating crisis and nightmare to end as quickly as possible. Living through this crisis is neither entertaining nor titillating.   

Disastrous or apocalyptic situations have been the subject of films, plays, comics and novels for decades. Stories and films, which depict man-made and natural disasters, as well as post-apocalyptic scenarios, have long been the subject of some of the most popular forms of entertainment. Think, for example, of the spate of iconic disaster films that were produced in the early 1970s Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and Earthquake. Given the reality of such scenarios would be undeniably dreadful and shocking, why is there a widespread fascination with the portrayal of such dark and terrible situations?

First, it is clear that events, stories, and occurrences, which are evil, dangerous or frightening, grab our attention much quicker than those that are good, safe and calming. Bad news always travels fast and watching or reading any news bulletin you immediately notice that it consists almost entirely of bad or worrying news. There is a good evolutionary reason for this. We pay closer and more avid attention to those phenomena that can harm us since our primary concern is to stay safe and well protected from such dangers. This motivation goes someway to account for our fascination with moral evil, how those morally very worst kinds of actions and persons might deleteriously affect our wellbeing.

However, this concern with our wellbeing is not the only reason we are fascinated and entertained by disaster scenarios. This genre of entertainment generally has as its focus the trials of an individual or group of people facing the terrible effects of a disaster or the post-apocalyptic scenarios of savagery, fear and hunger; a Hobbesian state of nature where life is sure to be 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short'. These stories are ultimately about how said individual or group faces this enormous challenge. They are narratives of survival and endurance and where we find heroes (and cowards) given the terrible choices and sacrifices that need to be made in order to survive. We are fascinated by how individuals overcome terrible odds and endure appalling hardships yet survive the ordeal to begin worthwhile lives yet again. It is worth noting that disaster films with no heroes, and where no one survives, usually lack the popularity of those that offer redemption and hope.

Events following terrible calamities force those dealing with the aftermath to violate cherished and widespread social boundaries and moral prohibitions.

But why are these disaster stories so attractive to us? The reason is that they provide a break from the mundane and ordinary day-to-day problems of basic existence. Events following terrible calamities force those dealing with the aftermath to violate cherished and widespread social boundaries and moral prohibitions. The usual rulebook for how to behave towards others becomes obsolete and even a hindrance in these desperate times. People must find new ways of responding to some of the worst moral dilemmas and unavoidably and tragically get their hands dirty. For example, whom does one save when this unavoidably requires the betrayal of others? Is survival at the expense of others a moral way to act? How ruthless ought one to be in order to keep those one loves safe? To act well under such circumstances requires courage, resilience, determination, self-sacrifice and a practical wisdom not often (if ever) required in normal situations. So, our fascination here is motivated in large part by a morbid curiosity – how will, and should, people behave in such situations? What would I have done the in same or similar situation? Do I have the requisite character, the courage and the determination to do what is necessary for survival in such terrible scenarios?  How ought I to be judged for necessary actions that violate valued moral norms?

There may be another reason why we find the disaster genre so interesting. Such stories provide the means to imagine the unthinkable, but in a safe and sanitised way. We are motivated to do this because we seek a release from our worst primal fears. Just as watching or reading tragic plays enables a catharsis, the disaster genre delivers relief from deeply repressed emotions or unexpressed fears we have for our loved ones and ourselves. The disaster genre can satisfy our morbid curiosity while providing a safe space to internalise and come to terms with such events. Watching a film such as 28 Days Later about a deadly virus destroying society is far less stressful and terrifying than being in lockdown while a virus actually plays havoc with our lives.

These narratives alert us to the moral conundrums that would occur in such situations and how they threaten the very ideals and values we hold dear.

Finally, while it may feel perverse to be entertained by disaster stories, we do not on the whole find them fascinating or entertaining because we are bad or evil people. There are undoubtedly some people who simply enjoy this genre of movie for the certain frisson of excitement that comes from imagining what the protagonists are enduring. But this is not the only or even the most prevalent response from people living peaceful and stable lives. These narratives do more than offer a quick thrill.  They alert us to the moral conundrums that would occur in such situations and how they threaten the very ideals and values we hold dear. Our interest in this genre of entertainment provides a safe window through which we can assess the values and character traits that really matter to us – those which tend to be over-simplified, forgotten, ignored or even denigrated in good times.

We know in some deep sense that disasters, both natural and man-made, are never very far away. As demonstrated by the on-going pandemic we face today, the human condition is one where, without warning, we can be plunged into situations which undermine our wellbeing and ability to live a decent and civilised life. To be concerned about this is both natural and sensible and why our interest in disaster films and literature is unlikely to wane in the future.

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