This will be the first in a series of articles digging into what makes certain aspects of fandom popular. We’ll try to look beyond the obvious page or screen and look at what in history, biology, psychology and/or cultural phenomenon that make something work. We hope you’ll join us for the rest, but for now let’s start at the end.
It seems like everywhere you turn, people have an apocalypse to sell you.
Your TV wants to talk to you about the end times. The local movie theater asks if you have a minute to consider how we might not be saved. Newsstand tabloids and music on the radio hum a funeral dirge in four-four time while high-fashion t-shirts proselytize “In the Dust of this World” with big, dripping letters.
It pops up in the strangest places, the end of the world does. Awards show speeches go on about the doom of global warming and fossil fuels. Comic book issues and movies with on-the-nose titles (cough X-Men: Apocalypse cough) sell kids leveled cities with a PG-13 rating. There’s a Survivalist blog promoted by a number of ultra-conservative windbags, though that’s only strange because you’d think they’d be competitors.
It’s getting so the only place not selling tickets to doom and gloom are places of worship.
I could go all day with modern examples, but that would be doing a disservice. There’s nothing new about this merchandising of the end of the world and our obsession is neither novel nor worrying. This behavior is quite literally as old as civilization.
Let’s take a look and see if we can’t figure out just why people love the apocalypse.
Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?
It seems at odds that in this age of guilt-free, fair trade food, global consciousness and yoga pants that the best sellers across all genres are consistently world-ending dramas. The Hunger Games, the Avengers 1 and 2, Fallout 4, you name it. How is this not a dichotomy? How are our media choices not at odds with our locally sourced, ancient grain confections?
Danger and fear makes the mind attentive. We breathe faster, our heart pump more blood, our pupils dilate and our minds process more information at an accelerated rate as it bathes in a wild cocktail of hormones from our hard-working buddy up there. And when we’re not afraid? Well, we find things to give us that rush. Things like wars, cliff jumping, and researching Wikipedia for the names of big, fuck-off spiders of the Outback. Because fear is a rush. Fear is HD for our nervous system, but we don’t tune in like we used to. So in the absence of genuine threats, we invent safe ones.
Fear is HD for our nervous system, but we don’t tune in like we did as cavemen.
Modern, calamitous entertainment engages that ancient part of our psyche and gives it something constructive to do. And entertainment has been providing this service since humanity built societies, had fewer worries, and more time to lament them. Our earliest myths and epics are fraught with impossible monsters, daring sea travel, malevolent gods and enough “adult content” you have to wonder how it ever got past the bronze-age MPAA.
This cerebral architecture makes fear easy to sell. The rush fear gives makes it addictive to buy, and the higher the stakes, the more you’ll have people lining up. Show a man his neighborhood’s at peril and he’ll be entertained for a day.
But teach a man his whole world is in peril? He’ll be a fan for the rest of his life because…
It’s the End of the World and I Feel Fine
For that I bring you, inevitably, to Michael Stipe. This of course was as inescapable as the eventual end itself, and like that end I’ve prolonged its arrival as best I could. Nobody knows more than 14 words in a row to the song and the subject matter is awful, but the up-beat melody is infectious and epitomizes what whole sale Armageddon is for: catharsis.
Burning down the world means getting rid of all the things in that world that plague us morning, noon and night.
Oh sure, the subject matter may differ between media; they might have zombies or robots, they might have a technodistopia or a supercharged, gasoline-burning wasteland. But what none of them have are mortgage payments. There’s no Monday morning meeting in the Cursed Earth, no PTA pot luck in the Maze or the Games, and no student loans in the Matrix. We’d all be more worried about mutants and marauders than about picking the right insurance plan or if this is the best time to buy a new GPU for our computer versus wait a generation. And I for one would be happier to dodge Super Mutants than to spend one more Saturday mowing and weeding the lawn. A nuclear winter would seem to be an endless summer vacation. Only with more radiation and head-hunters.
So what does that say about society as it is right now? Why do polite queues, speed dating, mobile internet, and low unemployment rating represent a bigger problem than a complete and total socio-econimic collapse? I’ve never tried forced cannibalism, but it’s a best on-par with my worst date or job interview.
Well, part of it is because our world is real, and the things raising our blood pressure are actual problems that don’t get tied-up in a neat three acts. But the other part is a little sinister.
These are the fans you usually find defending Immortan Joe, The Governor, or the soldiers in 28 Days Later. These are the kinds of minds who complain about the jackboot of government stamping on us all, only to say when it’s their turn they’ll wear an 11½ wide. These people feel marginalized by society and so it’s little wonder when some want society to start over in their image.
Persecution, powerlessness, and inadequacy have left them no way out and they’ve imagined their problems of such magnitude (and thus importance) that only a disaster like Zombies, Terminators, or Agent Smiths could overturn it.
These fans make up a minority of the group, with the majority being healthy, well adjusted people who just like to see a lot of stuff blow up and a few bodies explode. Still, we’re better off for them being distracted with fiction that reinforces their delusions rather than the kind that masquerades as fair and balanced truth.
Do the Evolution
It’s only natural that humanity, having killed and eaten its way to the top of the food chain, would invent its own fictional predators to satiate our ancient need to feel hunted. That we’d use it to bind us together even as it justified why we were apart. And it’s no wonder why things we’re keen to watch out for — explosions, battles, danger — would make for something worth watching. In the end, the surprise isn’t that we’re seemingly obsessed with the End of the World, but that we worry so much about that obsession. Or maybe that fear is just a new thing, waiting to be put up on the screen to excite an eager audience.
When the world ends, it won’t be with a bang or a whimper. It will be to the sound of a cash register and the roar of applause.
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