Zombies, Aliens, natural disasters, they're everywhere at the moment, but just what exactly is their appeal? Why exactly does the apocalypse hold such appeal to normal, everyday people? Are apocalyptic works of fiction just a reflection of current climates, or something more?
Recently, I had the huge pleasure of interviewing Max Brooks about his novels World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide. Towards the end of the interview we began discussing our shared love of the apocalypse, a subject we have both written novels about. When asked why the apocalypse, represented in such shows as The Walking Dead and Jericho, holds such an appeal to a modern audience, Brooks pointed to the current social and economic climate (recessions, wars, terrorism, shootings, global warming and increasingly frequent natural disasters), claiming that in times of uncertainty, our minds began to turn to the end of days, preparing, in a way, for what might happen if we're not too careful.
I have to agree. Just over 20 years ago, the end of the world was a real possibility. The Cold War was a huge catalyst for many works of dystopian literature, from Animal Farm to A Clockwork Orange, both of which are works that deal with a decidedly Soviet influence on western society, whether this is communism, or an appropriation of Russian vernacular. Clearly then, both Orwell and Burgees were imagining a future where the fragile truce of the Cold War had deteriorated and the East had had a huge influence on the West. However, neither of these dystopias had been played out to the end, right up to the apocalyptic event that would end life as we know it.
Of course, nuclear war does not have to be the only catalyst for the apocalypse. Fingers crossed, we're now -in 2013- far from the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction that would have been a certainty had communications broken down to the point of no return during the Cold War. Now, although the world is constantly in the midst of one war or another, it is unlikely that any of these conflicts would result in the total devastation, the total annihilation of the human race, which the Atom Bomb promised in previous decades. Some great works of fiction came out of this period of uncertainty, including Raymond Brigg's When the Wind Blows (a graphic novel and animated adaptation about an elderly couple caught up in a nuclear fallout) and Threads, the uncomfortably realistic portrayal of the effect a nuclear bomb would have had on 1980s Sheffield and the rest of the country.
As Max Brooks was quick to agree with, Threads 'is so grim!' stretching the timeline of the disaster to three generations in the future and showing the complete breakdown of society, education and even agricultural production. It's hard not to turn away, but Threads was as compelling as it was depressing.
Perhaps even more pessimistic than the fall out of a nuclear bomb is the zombie apocalypse, a genre in which the majority of the human race has been transformed into undead cannibals, intent on devouring those left alive. As with Threads, the survivors of a zombie apocalypse are often forced to deal with the breakdown of society, and the darkest recesses of human nature, which are now free to rise to the surface. Think Lord of the Flies, but worldwide, and with more bite.
The heyday of the zombie genre was undoubtedly the 1970s. Following from the success of Night of the Living Dead in 1968, George A. Romero made the genre defining Dawn of the Dead. The unofficial Best Zombie Movie Ever was released in 1978 and explored the world of the undead on a wider scale, whilst also commenting on America's rampant consumerism. One regard in which the film was interesting was that it asked 'What would you do in this situation?' It's a question recent films like 28 Days Later and Zombieland have also explored. Given the freedom to do what we want, take what we want, eat and drink what we want, without repercussions, how would we act? This, for me, is the most interesting aspect of the apocalypse (assuming there are some survivors on the other side.)
Romero also succeeded in showing the familiar in an unfamiliar light, transforming the mundanity of the shopping mall into a haunting arena of the undead and ultimately, the stage on which human greed was scrutinised. Another Romero film which asked similar questions was The Crazies (1973), a film in which a small town is overrun with a virus that turns everyone, well, crazy. It's a zombie film without the zombies and again asks us to examine human nature, and the brutality of both governments and ordinary citizens, in much the same way that Max Brook's groundbreaking World War Z does.
Recent remakes of both Dawn of the Dead and The Crazies are testament to the endurability of their concepts, and the appeal of the apocalypse, as is the success of The Walking Dead, a zombie survival show that carried the tag line 'Trust Us', such was network AMC's uncertainty when the show first came out.
The truth, it would appear, is that we, as humans are fascinated by an end of days scenario. We want to see our world, free from the constraints of everyday life (see London in 28 Days Later, or Day of the Triffids) and we want to know how we will measure up in a new, savage environment, free of repercussions. Would we become a hunter, like Jack, a diplomat like Ralph, or be a victim of 'survival of the fittest' like Piggy? Surely, we would hope that we would come across as the moral Ralph, but, with society falling apart around us, would the temptation to become Jack be too much? That is the appeal of the apocalypse.
Tom Ward's debut novel 'A Departure' deals with the collapse of British society following an apocalyptic event and has been described as 'A shockingly good debut... that has at its black heart hope, humanity and a dream of escape.'- Tony Parsons. Follow Tom on Twitter here.