The Upside of the Apocalypse


I'm a bit sick of the Apocalypse. And on some level, I think everybody is. It's one of the reasons The Mandalorian is so popular. It's a small, self-contained story. Whatever happens, it's not going to be the end of the universe, no StarKiller Base, no White Walkers, nothing like that. The stakes are a kid's life. And, the soul of a man who refuses to take off his mask.

But it's worth asking why apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories are so popular? What's the allure of huge, end of the world thrillers? I think it's because the end times, as a metaphor, is very useful. To be clear, the apocalypse has never been literally true. Many times in history have looked like the end of the world, but none of them have been. And when an idea has that lousy of a predictive track record, yet is still around, the reason for it has to be psychological.

What does it explain? What does it promise? What itch does it scratch? Why does it attract and entertain?

I have no desire to quibble about theology. If you think the Second Coming is at hand, that's fine with me. My point here is, it seems like every culture has an apocalypse myth. And our culture has plenty of them. If it not a nuclear winter, it's zombies, or a meteor, or a CGI character with rhinestones in his gauntlet.

Go to right now and scroll through the listings. Find me the moment when the end of the world isn't playing. Right now, Monday, 9am just on the movies tab, I see Dark Phoenix followed up by the Sum of All Fears rounded out by Children of Men. And that's just Monday from 9am to 6pm on cable TV. The Apocalypse is always available on demand.

Shawn Coyne, editor extraordinaire and creator of the Story Grid, argues that the thriller is the story form for our time. People struggling against titanic forces they can barely understand who somehow prevail, save the world and restore balance to society. Because, he argues, that's what modern life feels like to the individual. There's just more than anyone can handle, and the arc of a thriller provides the particular flavor of catharsis we need to settle our jangled and over-messaged nerves.

I think he's absolutely right. But it doesn't get to the psychological mechanisms at work.

In Greek. Apocalypse originally meant an uncovering -- in the sense that an apocalypse is a revelation of great and secret knowledge. As Bart Ehrman says, "A vision of heavenly secrets that can make sense of Earthly realities."

And in that I find the first of several answers to my question. 'Make sense of Earthly realities.' Well wouldn't that be nice? Do any of our present Earthly realities make sense to you? Things are muddled, unclear and lack meaning. One of the things that the end of the world gets you, psychologically, is clarity. Good v. Evil in one climactic battle. You're all clear kid, let's blow this thing and go home. One big dumbass Jack Kirby Marvel Movie final battle for survival. And don't get me wrong, I love big dumbass Marvel Movies, but the real world doesn't have clear villains and heroes, and nothing ever gets resolved in a climactic battle. In fact, in the post-modern world, you could even say, that nothing gets resolved.

But in the end of the world, at least in most movie versions of the Apocalypse, you get to have clarity about right and wrong and you know that your choices matter. I don't think it's wise to underestimate how desirable that is.

We crave meaning. And we want to matter.

The End of the World makes both of those things happen. Well, for sure a fight for survival brings clarity. But I think the End of the World as storytelling device, reveals to us that our choices matter.

I believe that every one of our choices, big or small, ALWAYS matter. I can advance arguments for this, but they're tedious, they're not as well thought out as I'd like -- so for now, I'll just say that I have an intuition that this is true. It's certainly seems a more beautiful, just and symmetrical thing to believe than any of the alternatives. For sure all of your choices matter to you -- sooner or later. Nobody gets away with anything.

But it's easy to lose sight of the importance of our choices in the whirlwind of instant gratification we live in. We're constantly being fed engineered, dopamine-inducing feedback that specifically designed to hijack our brain and keep us from being bored, or having to pay attention to the discomfort and dissatisfaction that creates personal growth. Much of what made life both important and bearable to the generations that have come before us is obscured by constant spun-sugar stimulus. The truth whispers while the modern world screams over it.

The Apocalypse also conveys a sense of freedom. The bullshit rules we are all smothered don't apply anymore. We get to say and do things that we wouldn't or can't do now. The fun way to look at this is one of my favorite lines from the Original Ghostbusters. They're headed to the final confrontation, they've got a police escort and Bill Murray sticks his head out of the window of the Ghostbusters ambulance and shouts -- "Come on, let's run some red lights!"

At the end of the world, all the red lights are optional.

The appeal of this is easy to see. We're an over-policied and over-policed society. There are extreme examples of this, Eric Garner being killed by police for selling loose cigarettes, which -- I don't care what the statutes may say -- is not a crime. But, so as not to get derailed by anger and outrage, I'm going to use a less contentious and more personal example.

Last summer, my air conditioning died. It would attempt to turn on, then no cold air would blow. Obviously, this is a huge pain in the sweaty ass and possibly an expensive problem.

I do a little digging and figure out that it's probably the capacitor on the unit outside. So I go out with a flashlight, carefully discharge the capacitor with a screwdriver and remove it. If you have no idea what I'm talking about right now, you should probably not do anything like this, but it's not all that complicated or dangerous. I test the capacitor with my multimeter and it's completely dead. Great. This is a $20 part and an easy fix.

The next morning, I head to the nearest HVAC supply shop, plop my dead capacitor on the counter and say, "I need one of these."

The guy behind the counter says, "Do you have a business account with us."

And I say, "No."

And he says, "I can't sell you one."

I say, "Sure you can. I have money, you have capacitor, and you've even got this fancy cash register to facilitate the exchange."

He says, "We don't sell to anyone without a business account. If you're not an HVAC business, I can't even ring it up."

So I turned to go, but before I got to the door, I turned back and said to the guy, "Hey, you know that feeling you have, when you look around and shake your head because almost nobody knows how to fix things anymore? And you know that one day when the apocalypse rolls around there's not going to be hardly anyone you can depend on to help you and we're probably all doomed?" He blinked awkwardly, and then I said, "Bullshit like this is the reason. It's your fault."

And then I left, I found a place that would sell me a capacitor, fixed my AC, and went back to my keyboard.

It's not illegal to sell capacitors. This infantilizing bureaucratic bullshit -- cartel behavior between HVAC contractors and HVAC distributors -- in the Apocalypse you don't have to put up with any of that bullshit.

I know, I know, in the Apocalypse the electricity is off and my example doesn't apply. But my point is, at the hypothetical end of the world you don't have to put up with the silly bureaucratic bullshit. At the end of the world, all the red lights are optional. And if something about that doesn't appeal to you on some level, then you don't have any adventure in your soul.

The downside of this, of course, is anarchy. The dispute that would be handled by the admitted bullshit of a homeowner's association is now settled by the podcaster finally going outside and finally braking a rake handle over the obsessive leafblower's head. Maybe that's just me? But honestly, if a giant meteor was about to hit the earth and that guy at the end of my cul du sac was still out there with the leaf blower... you tell me you could restrain yourself.

But then I would most assuredly be killed by a roving band of marauders from the Crossfit Affiliate down the street -- you know, cannibalism is paleo, no matter what your lunch ate for breakfast.

See, the apocalypse is a wonderful imaginative playground.

But there's one sense in which the Apocalypse is utterly real. You're going to die. And it's not just that your life is going to end, it's that in subjective sense, your world, your entire cosmos will disappear when you pass away. You may believe that life goes on in some form after death. And you may be right. Again, that's not my point. From this side of life, it looks and feels like the end of everything.

Unfortunately, it is a fate that none of us will escape. And, I think, the best kind of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories, allow us to face our mortality without having to look directly at it. Kind of like using a pinhole camera, or special glasses to look at an eclipse. Like Star Trek could do stories about racism in the 60's but handle all of the cultural voltage by making it about bi-colored aliens, rather than black and white people.

They're about how we face death, which means they are about what life means to us. They are about how we face the collapse of society, which means they are about how we should live together in harmony. They are about who we would sacrifice for, which means they are about who we should take care of.

Apocalyptic stories are popular not just because they are great fantasy, but because they have tremendous utility for writers, readers, and viewers. And when they are done well, they can be magnificent. So maybe my complaint is that we've just overused the trope. Like guys crawling through duct work, or characters getting t-boned by a truck that comes from out of nowhere. Deus Ex MackTruckina, if you will. These things are just done to death.

But the value of an apocalyptic story is not that they tell us about the end of the world. But what they can tell us about us at our best and worst.

And that, I think, is the upside of the apocalypse.