I’ve always loved a good post-apocalyptic narrative, ever since I was young enough to start hunting down my own reading material. (So pretty young, then.) I’ve not always understood why I liked them. I just knew I took satisfaction in seeing a character survive the unthinkable. Back in the 80′s, that meant nuclear apocalypse. My friends also indulged, and everyone had an opinion about whether they wanted to “go in the first blast” or try to survive in the harsh post-nuclear world.
I had elaborate fantasies about how I would survive in such a world. Of course, many of them involved rescuing my family and people I cared about. Which, if you think about it, makes it a lot less post-apocalyptic. I mean, who takes parents, grandparents, siblings, best friends, a couple of cats, and a caged rat with them on a post-apocalyptic adventure? No one. But at the time I couldn’t resolve the contradiction.
Apocalypses are still popular, but the type of apocalypse has changed. Now we have two main apocalypses–climate and zombie, with zombie being the overwhelming favorite. And I’ve continued to wonder about the appeal of these stories. There is probably never going to be a single answer. The relation of story to the human psyche is complex. Here’s a take on that question by Kari Sperring.
But as I was thinking on this subject recently, I made a powerful connection. See, I’ve just lost my mother and a number of other family members, and it’s been much on my mind that as I grow older, those losses will only accelerate. The best I can hope for is not to have to endure the loss of my son or other younger people. But I can not hope that my world will not continue to change through more of these heartwrenching losses.
Some time in late childhood, as we approach adolescence, we figure this out. We know that unless something even worse happens, we will see our parents and grandparents die. And probably some of our friends. And eventually maybe a spouse that we haven’t met yet. We learn this. We know it. And then we steadfastly stop thinking about it. Consciously.
Instead, the knowledge manifests as fear. This must not happen. Occasional bad dreams. Dark things we think about when we can’t sleep. The death of our parents is the end of the world, and there’s no getting away from it. Some children and teens must actually live this nightmare. Most of us bury it deep, to worry about “later.” We fall into that period of intense adolescent self-absorption. We focus on the here and now. We deny the relevance of older people and older stuff.
And we read literature in which a young person faces a world without their parents, grandparents, or just about anyone else they’ve ever known.
In the course of natural life, yes, you face those unthinkable losses. You endure them. They are both worse than you even imagined, and also more survivable than you knew. But as the old world is fading away, a new world emerges, filled with new people and things. Children, nieces and nephews, and young friends appear out of the void. These are a comfort and compensation that is not imaginable when you are a teen. As a child and teenager, you can see the end times coming. You can’t see the renewal.
So we read apocalyptic fiction, because it teaches us that a) we endure and b) a new world comes from the old. We read it because we need it.
I had often been one who criticized the killing of parents in young adult literature. I mean, functionally, you need to get the parents out of the way for the character to have agency. But must they die? It’s so harsh. With this new revelation, I understand why, so often, it’s necessary for the parents to die. You can’t show a young reader how to survive the apocalypse if you don’t show us the apocalypse.
For me, when I had this revelation, I had a huge shock of recognition. “That is IT!” and it still resonates for me. I wonder, does this make sense to anyone else?
As to the form of the apocalypse, one theory I have about zombies is they are an enemy it is acceptable to kill. In our increasingly globalized world, even the most hawkish among us must admit, on some level, that our worst enemies are still human. So while some may argue that it’s justifiable to kill the enemy, there is no acceptable pleasure in it. Zombies, meanwhile, can be killed with gleeful abandon. It is therefore, no accident that Nazi zombies are even more fun to kill than regular zombies. Our last, great, purely evil enemy, risen from the dead to fight us again? Oh, yes.