What’s the Deal with Post-Apocalyptic Appeal?

post-apocalyptic I have a strange fantasy:  I want to be alive after the world ends. Not in an immortality kind of way, but in a Cormac McCarthy’s The Road kind of way. Well, not that I actually want to, but I find something strangely appealing about the quiet, deserted streets in most post-apocalyptic fiction.

One of the most comforting things I can do when stressed is walk around the streets near my house in the middle of the night, being completely by myself in a place that is usually bustling with activity and life.  Sometimes I think to myself maybe that’s what it would be like after the world moves on.

Am I strange, odd, or a little off-kilter?

Well, yes, probably.

But for entirely different reasons than loving the idea of existing in a post-apocalyptic world because in that, I am definitely not alone.  The post-apocalyptic sub-genre has boomed since the late 1970s when films like Mad Max came on the scene and ramped up interest in the what-ifs and might-bes that started propagating all the way back with Mary Shelley (yes, of Frankenstein fame; she did write other stuff, too) writing The Last Man.

The Stand What is it about a despondent world devoid of humans (and life in general)  that sells so well?  From Stephen King’s The Stand and The Dark Tower to Richard Matheson/Will Smith’s I am Legend to the new MMORPG Fallen Earth, people love to vicariously experience the end of the world.

But why?

I can think of four reasons:

  • Morbid curiosity.  We might not want the world to end, but we sure do want to know how it’s going to happen and what it’s going to be like when it does.  Given that most of us (hopefully not any of us) will be around long enough to actually see it, we have to get our glimpses of the future any way we can. And imagining catastrophes is much more enjoyable than the keeping on with the status quo.
  • The Western Culture of Glorifying Violence. Whether we want to admit it, stories about a cataclysm that can destroy billions of people is like a car accident on the interstate or a leading news story about a shooting.  Most of us feel terrible as we pass the wreckage or watch the aftermath videos, but we’re still watching every second just to make sure we don’t miss anything. There’s a reason journalists work under the slogan of “if it bleeds, it leads.” Westerners want violence; for some reason, we crave it, and even though post-apocalyptic worlds by definition exist after the fact, knowing a worldwide disaster occurred sates our bloodlust.  And post-apocalyptic settings give us a moral out: we’re just enjoying watching the aftermath; it’s not like we are cheering on limitless death and destruction.
  • Introversion. Do away with people; do away with drama. In a post-apocalyptic world, there would, hopefully, be no more dealing with “he said/she said” bologna or other non-essential quibbles.  Most of my stress is caused from dealing with other people’s inanity, so the idea of living in a world removed from the annoyances other people cause could be bliss.  This is the main reason I love walking my streets at night—no cars and no people; just me, the pavement, and silence.
  • It Could Happen. Let’s face it.  At some point, our race is going to screw something up and something terrible is going to happen.  I don’t see this as an “if,” but a “when.”  With that idea in mind, I think part of the appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction is the bearing on a possible reality it presents.  No matter how much we want it, no one will ever be able live in Middle Earth; Azeroth is a fantasy, and so is that galaxy far, far away.  Gotham City and Hogwart’s are make-believe, too.  But Earth totally ravaged by pandemic or war?  Completely possible.  And while we certainly hope for best case scenarios and long, safe lives, people are typically interested in speculation and what-ifs so they can “be prepared” or “know what’s coming,” even if no preparation is possible.

post-apocalyptic ruins A lot of the pop culture on my radar lately deals with a post-apocalyptic theme in some way or another.  The MMO Fallen Earth is getting rave reviews, two of my most anticipated movies are Zombieland and The Road, the best episode of television I’ve seen in months was Dollhouses “Epitaph One,” and Stephen King is calling his next novel, Under the Dome, the spiritual successor to The Stand.  I’m being inundated with the post-apocalyptic, and I love it!

I think.

Obviously, I have a soft spot for post-apocalyptic settings, whether it’s games, movies, TV, or books. What’s your setting of choice?

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. I like apocalyptic tales because they give me a taste of death. That’s what we *really* want to see – what’s it like to die? Your life flashes before your eyes, you see all that was really important, all that wasn’t, and then the world known is cleaved away. Dying is like being raped, for one no longer has any power whatsoever, and yet merging back into the Void is like sex: it’s a convergence. It’s like… it’s like the apocalypse is a mirror that may provide one last moment of grace.

    Aside from that, I think apocalyptic settings free us up to re-imagine human life and living. The rules that we live by will be gone, so what new contracts will we bind ourselves to? The relationships we have will be so much more important, and the work we do will be anything but the meaningless repetition of pressing a button. Maybe an apocalypse isn’t such a bad thing as we often imagine?

    1. I like the idea of it allowing us to re-imagine living. There’s something about this kind of setting that is kind of hopeful. It’s almost like a “well, they screwed it up, but we’ll do better” feeling, I guess.

  2. I find myself drawn to the apocalyptic idea as well. Mostly, it’s intriguing because in today’s modern, you never get a moment’s peace.

    It’s just yet another thought-provoking idea that gives people a new plain to create stories. Granted, I’m not a fan of disaster movies (the stuff that entails the apocalypse, which Hollywood always glorifies with an ultimate empty climax), but post-apocalyptic environments always intrigue me.
    .-= Robert´s last blog ..Sleep…or lack thereof =-.

    1. I like disaster movies when I want something mindless. It’s great fun to watch CGI cities be destroyed without having to worry about those sticky moral issues that generally go along with it.

  3. The most interesting photographs that I tend to take are those that somehow contemplate time, change and/or loss. Whether it’s a rusted out old car, a ghost town or just the leaves changing color in the Fall (dying), I find myself drawn to things that have *lived*, for lack of a better word. I think that’s a desire to understand the mortal coil that I live on, and the inevitable march of time.

    And, y’know, it’s not so much about the fact that things are broken that’s interesting, it’s that they were used and loved, or that they weathered storms and stood the test of time. Post-apocalyptic settings aren’t interesting to me for the destruction so much as what’s left. To my mind, the aspects that really last are key to the true nature of a thing, whether it’s inanimate or living.

    There is certainly an aura of sorrow and loss about these thoughts, but to my mind, the important part is that there was something important to be mourned in the first place. Figuring out what that was, precisely, and how to honor its memory or resurrect it is important to me. Sometimes, you can’t do so until you know what it is that was lost, and why.

    (And yes, I like quiet nights as well. There’s just something nice about stepping out of the mainstream timestream rat race, as it were.)
    .-= Tesh´s last blog ..Death Grip on the Reins =-.

    1. Oh, and tangentially, this is why I think death is important in game narrative. Far too often, it’s just used for shallow shock value, punishment mechanics, or time sinks. Death and loss are part of life, and should be respected and understood, not feared or abused.
      .-= Tesh´s last blog ..Death Grip on the Reins =-.

      1. Death is very important for game narrative and gameplay mechanics. Too strict or kill off a favorite character and the developers alienate players. Too lenient and only redshirts die and the developers have a carebear land where everyone (who we see on a regular basis) is a god and lives happily ever after…except for Chewbacca, and I’ll never forgive R.A. Salvatore for that.

        Unfortunately most MMOs have taken the penalty that made it mean something away. Wiping in WoW does not have nearly the same anger-inducing penalties that UO or EQ once had. I’ve never lost a week of my life to dying in WoW. I have in other MMOs.

        1. A classic case of playing against type for the sake of shock value and sales. I suffered through the NJO until they killed Anakin in Star by Star. I’ve not picked up any of them since, and from the few other spoilers I’ve read (Mara killed, Darth Jacen), I’m better off.

          Perhaps we should agree to never mention the New Jedi Order. Oog.
          .-= Tesh´s last blog ..Death Grip on the Reins =-.

  4. Wonderful article, as always Beej. Since you brought it up though, as an English professor, how do you feel about Cormac McCarthy’s writing style? I found The Road to be fairly jarring at first. I initially wondered if he didn’t write in such a barren manner to reflect the nature of the scenario he was portraying; however, he does the same thing in No Country For Old Men. The college student in me grumbles a bit at the artistic liberty of it. If I tried to write like that, I’d probably get a failing mark, heh. Not to say it doesn’t work for his stories, just to be clear.

    I’d ask my own English professor but he’s a devout critic of anything Science Fiction. 🙂

    1. I think his style has its own place. I’m not a huge fan of it, as I think it’s visually jarring and distracting from the narrative. I understand why he uses the “gimmicks” in his writing, though. Eventually, the reader stops even noticing when there is supposed to be dialogue, for instance, and just accepts the words and gets a feel for them and who they should come from, but it is honestly a lot of work for a fairly weak effect.

      I appreciate him trying it, and I think it really works in The Road (the only of his novels I’ve actually read), but I think if more authors who try to be so “literary” would concentrate more on the narrative and content than attempting to do something new with form, the whole would be so much more fulfilling.

  5. I loved this post, and I completely agree, there is something that draws people to the topic of the apocalypse, including me.

    I read “The Stand” (Eek, it bugs me that I can’t underline that) years ago and I often read it on the bus to and from work. It was the only book that ever freaked me out so much in the MIDDLE OF THE DAY, on a bus full of people, that I actually had to put it away for awhile. I was totally engrossed in that book. Loved it!

    Great post, good for conversations.

    Debbie Ferm

    1. Have you ever tried to read “It”? If not, then highly suggest you give it a shot. Like “The Stand” did with you, it really made me uncomfortable in the middle of the day. I had to read it for grad school this past December, and I found that even listening to it on audiobook would get a little intense, even if I was doing something else to split my attention.

  6. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CosyCatastrophe

    It’s kind of like what Tyler Durden planned to do in fight club by wiping out the credit reporting bureaus. The appeal is that it strips away all of the negative aspects of modern life and returns it to its roots in a cabin-in-the-woods type setting, but with more drama.

    You see, it’s only the right kind of apocalypse people like. I don’t see you saying how much you liked “On the Beach” or “The Day After” or “Threads.” Hope seems to be the dividing line.

    1. I’ve actually never seen any of those movies, actually. Now that you’ve brought them to my attention, though, I need to make time to see them.

      And I think you’re right. It’s the hope of it being a better place after the catastrophe that draws people in. Kind of like why the end of “Escape from LA” was actually positive when it should, by all rights, have been devastating.

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