Visions of Apocalypse

Apocalypse: the end of the world as we know it – the concept of an all-encompassing end to things has been prevalent all throughout recorded history. The multitude of religious accounts alone are a testament to this historical obsession with ends.  Wherever some pattern of life exists, one finds people reasoning that such things could or should end; this grim thought has haunted countless imaginations for generations. But given all the horrifying thoughts and visions associated with the concept, why is it that apocalypse appears to be so popular as a subject of entertainment and of culture in general?

It would at first glance seem strange that people would use the idea of the complete destruction of the world as a form of entertainment. Yet so many gain a sense of pleasure from it! These kinds of apocalyptic scenarios vary greatly from the obviously fantastical (zombie outbreaks), to those more closely grounded in reality (full-scale nuclear war). There is a great deal of ‘choice’ when it comes to these visions of apocalypse – with flavours to suit all those who wish to ‘experience’ it.

I have managed to ascertain four key reasons for why this is. They may all be connected together, or they may exist independently as motivations for the individual who has a predilection for representative apocalypse.

1.) The representation of apocalypse (and post-apocalypse for that matter) may express one’s dissatisfaction with the incumbent state of things. It thus acts as a representation of an extreme negation of the current paradigm; the social, cultural and economic conditions that one may face and oppose in daily life.  It seeks a sort of tabula rasa, washing away civilization whilst providing a space for new creation in the aftermath.

2.) Apocalypse and post-apocalypse offer an outlet for one’s fears and an opportunity to overcome them. The increasingly graphic trend in depictions of such horrors enables one to face one’s fears in a more powerful and direct form. As the contours of one’s fears are played-out in lurid detail one comes to believe that one already ‘knows’ them. Some of the most disturbing and ‘scary’ movies involve themes where the enemy or ‘evil’ aspect is unseen. Because the monster is not seen, it cannot be identified, and it is only through identification that one feels that one may ‘know’ a thing and may ‘claim’ it through understanding. In this way, fears can thus be submerged into a safe identity and filed away under a categorisation.  Further, ‘the unknown’ is similar to ‘nothingness’ in the sense of there being an absence in and of itself. That fear of absence and ‘the nothing’ indicates that this desire for ‘knowing’ is catalysed by a fear of one’s own death (non-existence).

3.) Connected to this desire, but in a somewhat different sense is the way the mediums affect the perception of the events and the idea of apocalypse in itself. By presenting such horrors consistently within the realm of fiction, the sense of unreality around apocalyptic situations plays out. Indeed, the common refrain that it is ‘only a film’ or a book further reinforces this perception. Apocalypse becomes associated with entertainment in itself and thus is perceived as unreal and fantastical no matter how realistic the depiction may be. The glass of the screen or the paper of the page shields one from the cold, hard potential realities of apocalyptic horror.

4.) Apocalypse of the kind set in the present gives a sense of extra meaning and value to the lives of some. By believing that ‘the end is nigh’, one may gain a sense that one’s life is of a greater importance and that there is a reason for one to be living at a time of great change. Thus, existential meaninglessness is avoided through the creation of meaning from such an event, no matter how horrifying it could potentially be. This desire to avoid meaninglessness could also be the reason for the construction of ‘stories’ in general and the meaning that may be derived from them. Again, it avoids a sense of absence similar to the reasoning of number 2 in this piece.

From this one may infer that this popularity is a sign of a generally unhappy populace. Further, one may also reason that the popularity of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic settings would wane in society which is more enriching for the individuals that live within it. It seems that culture is an excellent barometer for discontent and from this it appears that most people are seeking a great change if only expressed subconsciously through preferences. Whilst a placebo pill of absolute destruction in entertainment and escapist worlds appears disturbingly insane at first, it seems to be a valid reaction to an insane reality.

When one’s dreams of apocalypse are laid to rest and forgotten, then one will know one is in a much better place.

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5 Responses to Visions of Apocalypse

  1. I like your number four point the best. I think the appeal of apocalypse stories partially comes from a desire to test oneself. I know there’s part of me that wonders if I could make it in such a difficult situation, would I be a survivor or another statistic. Many of us in the western world don’t really have much danger or excitement in our world, so I think that’s part of it as well, especially for young men.

    • Yes, that is an interesting thought. Boredom or ennui has been noted many as a motivator for such destructive thoughts or at the very least desires for some form of change.

      In ‘The True Believer’ Eric Hoffer notes that it was bored housewives that were some of the earliest supporters of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. Also, the boredom derived from years of ‘peace’ has been used as a partial explanation for the collapse of a number of empires that are dependent upon continuing conquests of new lands.

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