The World’s End: What’s Behind our Apocalypse Obsession?
Edgar Wright’s The World’s End (premiering August 23) is not the first, second, third or fourth film to come out this year about an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic world. A cursory glance of 2013's film slate would suggest we are currently suffering from a collective panic attack about our prospects on the planet. This is the End, World War Z, Pacific Rim, After Earth, Rapture-Palooza, Elysium, Warm Bodies, The Host, Oblivion, and the upcoming Ender's Game and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire all depict the collapse of civilization as we know it or its aftermath.
But as you already know, this crush of apocalypse films isn’t a recent phenomenon—we’ve been creating stories about the end of life as we know it for as long as we’ve been around. It was only a year ago that we were engulfed in the hubbub about the Mayan prophecy that our planet was going to end on December 21st, 2012. This prediction was based on the fact that the last date inscribed in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, which contained a 5,126-year cycle, was December 21. This bit of ancient celestial observation not only sparked world wide lunacy, fear, and celebration, it also factored into Roland Emmerich’s 2012, which came with a succinct log line that read “we were warned.”
We've been warned for millennia. The apocalypse movie is a relatively recent addition to our very old penchant for dreaming about the end. There are mentions of the apocalypse in the Book of Job and in Psalms in the Old Testament. The Book of Revelation in the New Testament is a pretty spectacularly terrifying apocalypse story. In Norse mythology, Ragnarök is a series of violent events that includes myriad natural disasters and the eventual flooding of the entire world. In Hindu eschatology (which itself is a branch of theology, physics and philosophy that studies the final events of history) the end comes in the last of the four ages, Kali Yuga, in a series of worsening scenarios involving impiety, violence and decay. Guess which age we're currently in according to the Hindu calendar?
Why do we do it? Clay Routledge, an assistant professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University, wrote in Psychology Today that our “advanced cognitive capacity that paved the way for our dominance of the planet also paved the way for existential anxiety.” In short, we think about the end because we can. University of Minnesota neuroscientist Shmuel Lissek, a man who studies fear systems, told the Scientific American that "apocalyptic beliefs make existential threats—the fear of our mortality—predictable. Lissek collaborated with National Institute of Mental Health neuroscientist Christian Grillon and others and found out that an unpleasant or painful experience is more tolerable when it's predictable. So in other words, we tell stories about the end to help mitigate some of our fears about dying.
Wright’s film (which is getting great reviews) is a comedy (some of our best apocalypse movies are comedies—Dr. Strangelove, anyone?). It focuses on friends who find out the world’s coming to an end via an alien invasion during a pub crawl, perhaps the all-time biggest buzz kill in history. Laughing at death is another methodology for dealing with mortality, and deserves it's own article.
There are distinct psychological underpinnings to the various apocalypse scenarios in our films. At the risk of over generalizing a very rich cinematic tradition, we’re going to break down three of the major sub genres within the apocalypse movie tradition and ask why we're making these films. While our religious eschatology typically relies on a God (or Gods) and Satan to do most of the apocalyptic dirty work, our filmmakers often rely on other agents of destruction.
Zombies (from the Haitian Creole word zonbi, or North Mbundu's nzumbe) have been around a long time. Animated corpses have been a part of African, Haitian, European and North American folklore, legends, and in some religions for centuries. Their popularity would only seem to be growing.
Harvard Medical School professor and psychiatrist Dr. Steven Schlozman told LiveScience.com that he first became interested in zombies when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer (she’s fine now). Dr. Schlozman watched George Romero’s seminal 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead. “I was thinking, ‘They’re sick. They’re not just ghouls stumbling around in the graveyard…they’re ill with something.’”
Zombie movies strike at a very deeply rooted human fear—simply put and massively generalized, our fear of getting sick. There are plenty of strains (pun!) of this type of film, and as Dr. Schlozman told LiveScience, they often reflect the culture’s greatest fears at the time.
During the Cold War nuclear annihilation was a collective, and acute, fear, and were you to be lucky enough to survive the initial blast you’d still have a good chance of getting terminally sick from radiation. In Night of the Living Dead, the undead are thought to have been created by radiation from a fallen satellite. Even before Romero there was Edward L. Cahn's Creature with the Atom Brain, a 1955 B zombie film in which a deported American gangster forces an ex-Nazi scientist to create zombies from corpses by soaking them in radiation.
Thematically, zombie movies began to shift from Cold War anxiety to fears of viral outbreaks, pandemics and genetic tinkering. 28 Days Later—a spectacular addition to the undead cannon—created a zombie apocalypse brought on by genetic modification and mankind’s habit of trying to play God. The idea of genetic engineering (and it’s potential ills) has been explored (again and again) by the Resident Evil franchise. More recent examples, like the genuinely thrilling World War Z, looks at the zombie apocalypse as a viral outbreak, and deals not only in the fear of a pandemic but also the fear of our political system breaking down. World War Z is as much about the way different governments handled the zombie outbreak as it was about the zombies themselves.
Zombie movies often shuffle into the Cineplex in greater numbers during times of economic stress. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, released in 1978, was a brilliant riff on mass consumerism (the protagonists were trapped in a mall), and in general it’s been noted time and again that global recessions seem to bring about the undead. “Studies show that during times of economic stress, zombie movies become more popular,” Dr. Schlozman told LiveScience. “They represent what happens when the system is stressed.”
Zombies can also reflect our anger at ourselves—in times of spectacular financial inequality, zombies, which are almost always depicted en masse, are a symbol of our collective delusion. In an interesting twist, Andy Edwards, the director of the short film series House Party of the Dead, told Channel 4 News in England that “zombies are the working class equivalent of the vampire…zombies are proletariat, the downtrodden. Individually they have no power, but it’s the mass that gives them power.” That would have seriously changed the tone and tenor of Occupy Wall Street.
In a zombie’s insatiable appetite, we might see our own rapacious greed. Zombies are an aesthetically terrifying foe (they’re us, deformed and robbed of humanity) and a philosophically blank slate on which we seem to hang whatever we currently fear most. Another agent of destruction in our apocalyptic tradition, one sleeker, more varied physically and more complex, can terrify us just as much…
We’ve been afraid of them for as long we’ve been building them, and they factor into some of our most wild and terrifying apocalypse movies. Our fears of robots can be just as psychologically rooted as our fears of zombies, but unlike zombies, we actually live amongst robots. Matt Novak of Slate wrote this great piece about the hysteria in the 1930s over machines taking our jobs and killing us. The idea of sentient automatons, malevolent or benevolent, has been around for thousands of years. There are myths and legends of humanoid automatons in Ancient Chinese, Greek and Egyptian literature. Our more recent fetish when it comes to robots and technology in general are often rooted in our fears of sentient machines turning on us.
One famous example of murderous artificial intelligence is James Cameron’s robot assassin in 1984’s The Terminator. One of the earliest, and most classic, cinematic examples of a sentient machine is Maria, an evil robotic gynoid, from Fritz Lang’s 1927 seminal Metropolis. For every benevolent robot (C-3P0, R2D2 and Wall-E come to mind), there are countless malevolent robots, machines and computers who think of the human race as beasts of burden, or, in many cases, entirely unnecessary.
One of the fears that robot apocalypse films, and robots in general, play upon is our fear of the life-like. Robotics professor Masahiro Mori invented the hypothesis “the uncanny valley” to describe the human response of revulsion to robots that have human features and look and move almost, but not exactly, like real human beings. We inherently don’t trust anything that looks like us but isn’t us—think of the replicants in Blade Runner.
We also fear building machines and programs that are smarter than we are. You’ve got the Terminator series' nefarious artificial intelligence (A.I.) system Skynet, and the ruthlessly logical A.I. HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (granted, not an apocalypse movie) as examples of supercomputers that no longer find the people who built them necessary.
This notion of an artificial intelligence greater than our own is embedded in our fear of a technological singularity—the theoretical emergence of computer super-intelligence which, in blunt and basic terms, would mean that we could no longer predict what a computer or machine might do. Dr. Anthony Berglas, who wrote a happy little research paper entitled “Artificial Intelligence Will Kill Our Grandchildren,” notes that “there is no direct evolutionary motivation for an AI (artificial intelligence) to be friendly to humans. Evolution has no inherent tendency to produce outcomes valued by humans.” Hence stories like I, Robot, by sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov, later adapted into a 2004 dystopian apocalypse movie starring Will Smith in which all our happy, helpful anthropomorphic helper robots turn on us and seek to destroy mankind.
Within the robot apocalypse movie is also embedded the fear of the superior species. Robots aren’t alone in stoking our fear of being replaced…this is a theme that’s been explored in another classic apocalypse subgenre…
We’ve been imagining beings from other planets since antiquity. Hindu and Old Norse mythology, for example, both include other worlds teeming with intelligent beings. It was a small step, then, to imagine what might happen if those beings paid us a visit. In popular culture, more often than not, this isn’t a happy occasion.
Alien apocalypse scenarios became hugely popular with H.G. Wells terrifying 1898 novel War of the Worlds (which actually combined aliens and machines, the former riding in giant tripod versions of the later, in a double-serving of terror), and then become a phenomenon when Orson Welles read an adaptation of Wells novel on the radio on October 30, 1938—which was believed by thousands of people to be a real news report of an actual alien invasion. Mass panic ensued.
Our fears of alien invasion come from many places, often our reaction to the horror of colonialism, our fear of the “other,” and, as mentioned above, our fear of no longer being the dominant species on the planet.
When Wells wrote War of the Worlds, it was viewed by many as his commentary on British imperialism, and ever since we’ve been making movies about aliens coming to Earth as marauders, intent on subjugating us or wiping us out entirely.
Part of the fear of colonization embedded in our alien apocalypse narratives is the fear of limited resources. Many alien invaders are depicted as coming from their own destroyed planet and in a desperate search for a new home. While many of us fear destroying Earth in much the same way, theoretical physicist (and the world's most famous scientist) Stephen Hawking caused a stir in 2010 when he posited to the Discovery Channel that not only are extraterrestrials likely, that were they to visit, they would indeed likely be fleeing a destroyed home planet and looking to colonize Earth.
"We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach. If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans."
In a beautiful twist on the alien invasion narrative, Neil Blomkamp’s 2009 District 9 portrayed the aliens being housed in a slum in South Africa as refugees, digging into our fear of the “other.” In District 9, it's the humans who are the real monsters.
The terrifying Invasion of the Body Snatchers played on our fear of extinction and combined it with our fear of disease in a terrifying combo platter of anxiety.
In 2012’s Prometheus, they tweaked the alien invasion premise in a unique way—an alien species gave birth to mankind, then decided after a while we’d had long enough to spoil the planet and was determined to wipe us out.
You know the only thing that could get us to stop making apocalypse movies is, of course, an apocalypse.
Featured image: (L to R) Nick Frost as Andy, Eddie Marsan as Peter, Simon Pegg as Gary, Paddy Considine as Steven, and Martin Freeman as Oliver in Edgar Wright’s THE WORLD’S END, a Focus Features release. Photo by Laurie Sparham, courtesy of Focus Features.