Zombies were huge again this year. Via The Walking Dead, AMC
I’ve never remembered much of my dreams, and, as far as I know, I’ve never dreamt of the End. But this was an overtly apocalyptic year, and by December, I’d absorbed more than my subconscious could manage. It spat out that first vision of how I might flail while it all falls apart.
New York City was smoldering red and black. Rows of familiar brick apartments were ablaze, and some crumbled in the dichromatic glow. A mountain of jagged city rose up without warning, shuffling concrete like a deck of cards. I was there, somewhere, on the other side of where I needed to be. The sky was pitch dark with smoke, fires tore through the block pixelated and medieval. My girlfriend was beyond that ruin, I had to find her, no choice but through the middle.
By all rights, 2013 should have been a gauzy hangover from all things apocalypse. A year we awkwardly and painfully came to grips with still being here-ness. We were fresh off the heels of dire old 2012, when the Mayans’ supposed doomsday, that campy apotheosis of pop cultural end times, failed to doom us. Post-apocalyptic films were starting to drag like a legless undead corpse. 2012 saw the worst drought in decades; the New York Times declared it the US’s hottest year ever. An East Coast-swallowing super storm looked apocalyptic, but instead left a country reeling—and a slew of humanitarian, civic, and environmental concerns in its wake.
If ever there was a time to sober up, get humanity’s house in order, and stop wishing disaster on ourselves, 2013 was it. Instead we doubled down on apocalyptic fantasy. Armageddon was everywhere: It was a banner year for films, music, books, television, sci-fi, and cultural obsession about the end of the world. The most-watched cable TV drama of all time aired this year, and it was about the zombie apocalypse. The highest-charting rock song of the year—and third best-selling single, period—is explicitly apocalypse-themed. And I can’t think of a year where our cinematic world was so thoroughly destroyed, overrun, ruined, or obliterated than it was in 2013.
I watched the destruction in multiplexes and at home, on pay-per-view apps like Vudu and iTunes. So many two-dimensional earthlike environs exploded on so many screens. Thank Hollywood for greenlighting so many towering epic films to titillate we apocalypse-hungry masses. I for one wanted to watch as earth was overrun and obliterated not just by zombies, but social strife, alien-controlled drones, and Satan himself. I was so tired this year, and there was something disarmingly easy about seeing the switch get flipped. I doubted I was alone.
World War Z, the year’s token star-powered zombie movie, reiterated for the umpteenth time our fear of a modern mutant plague, our latent desire to empty our rage into dull-eyed semi-humans with blunt weapons. Elysium raised a futuristic dystopian world, ruined by avarice and inequality. The super rich, safely cloistered on a toroidal pleasure barge, lived it up. The poor toiled in earthbound factories, got radiation poisoning from the blighted environment, and biohacked each other in dusty labs.
In Elysium, the world ended because humans let it; we couldn’t figure out how to restrain corporations or protect the environment or distribute resources evenly or be kind to each other—pressing real-world pre-apocalypse themes, of course—so it all failed. The film was supposed to be part social critique, like director Neill Blomkamp’s previous effort, District 9, and it made no attempt to conceal its bleeding-heart allegiance to the 99 percent. In fact it was mostly filmed inthat fateful fall of 2011. In reality, however, the film couldn’t get its act together: it was mostly a grating gunblazer. But it was one of the few movies to put forward a solution to impending planetary doom: universal health care. In Elysium, the rich have heal-all tech—we just need to get them to share it with the poor.
Oblivion was more interesting, as far as total destruction scenarios go. An alien nemesis attacked earth, but not with ray guns—its giant motherships somehow dragged the moon out of orbit, loosing the tides and flooding our cities. The unseen drone-steering aliens had the gall to stick around, drawing fusion power from our oceans and using an army of cloned humans to harass the subterranean survivors.
What began as an effort to trade in on the growing cultural import of drones—the new zombies, maybe—and our fears of them, ended as pure Hollywood sci-fi; action-obsessed and metaphorically confused. Still, there’s a palpable fear here; that technology will enslave us under our noses, while we let the earth go to ruin and become mindless clones.
The world wasn’t exactly over in Pacific Rim, a cheery robo-gladiator flick, but rampaging aliens had thrashed much of it, and doom was immanent—if not for a pan-military effort to bash their skulls in with the steely fists of giant DARPA bots. The Hunger Games sequel, Catching Fire, is dystopian fiction for young adults—the world has gone to hell, reality TV is out of control, and wealthy elites oppress the poor, forcing them to provide their resources with backbreaking manual labor. After Earth was a Scientology-infused far-future despoiled Earth story, and it was terrible, so nobody saw it.
None of that mass death was overtly serious, but this year’s apocalypse was built for laughs, too. In the summer comedy This Is The End A-list comedian hipster bros mined the biblical end of days for jokes; Satan’s army, road warriors, and copious amounts of fire set the backdrop for gags about exorcisms, strained friendships, and demon penises. Demon penises mostly.
The year’s best apocalyptic film was marketed as comedy, too: The World’s End, the final installment of the so-called Cornetto trilogy that began with another stab at apocalyptica, Shaun of the Dead. I watched the comedies with my girlfriend on the weekends; one in bed in Brooklyn, one on the couch in Philadelphia. New jobs had forced us into a long distance relationship after years of living together, we had the weekends. We’d seen Oblivion together too, the soundtrack’s synths washing over us in a cheap Philadelphia theater with sticky floors. I got into the Walking Dead and watched it on the bus rides through the gloaming to Philly.
The World’s End was a surprisingly potent film. It cannily wielded its apocalypse on multiple narrative dimensions: there was the actual apocalypse, yes, where small towns around the world have been infiltrated and destroyed by robots, but all that flair was sneakily deployed in service of a more personal apocalypse.
Gary King, our pathetic leather jacket-clad protagonist hasn’t, can’t, won’t grow up and join dull, ordered society; he’d actually rather embrace the end than evolve beyond his high school glory days. In the film’s postscript, this pointed absurdity is laid bare as our hero relishes a new life of wandering the a post-apocalyptic wasteland with robo-copies of his childhood friends, beating up naysayers. It was a poignant moment that accomplished what most apocalyptic cinema fails to do: raise the question of why it is we want to see the world crumbling around us.
Why indeed. There’s got to be a reason it’s fun for us to watch the bodies pile up and for a band of survivors—stand-ins for ourselves—struggle to make good with what’s left. Part of this is also that we rarely consider the bodies.
“All of this uncertainty and all of this fear comes together and people think maybe life would be better” after a society-annihilating disaster, the child psychologist and zombie fiction author Steven Schlozman told Scientific American.
Mass disaster offers a shot at a clean slate, maybe, both for a societal reboot and, more importantly, a personal one. We might have flocked to the theaters this year to watch the world unravel, vicariously—subconsciously even—imagining what we’d do with that fresh start amidst the rubble.
Schlozman notes that we don’t ever fantasize about rebuilding infrastructure, or living without access to clean water; we romanticize the freedom from obligation but fail to process the misery inherent in the ending world. The narrative inevitably abets this tendency—aside from establishing ‘world-is-dead’ shots of fallen monuments and errant corpses, we’re given little chance to empathize with what was lost. Which is the point: These are action movie playgrounds, abstractions—apocalyptic in an aesthetic sense only. Few of us actually relate to the dead in these films, or the zombies, the impostor aliens, the image of death incarnate. In 2013, I did, mostly against my will.
Last year, as in the year before the apocalypse, I administered CPR to a man in the middle of the highway who was almost certainly already dead. He’d crashed his motorcycle, and we were the first ones on the scene, there seconds later. One wheel was still spinning.
My friend is a doctor, and he yelled out some imperatives I don’t remember now; I just remember trying to move a fat purple tongue out of the way of an airway, blowing in, while my friend gave chest compressions. The inner-mouth smell where there was no breath was fetid, his skin was sallow. That was the face of death, the real face of death pressed close up to mine.
The face would show up when I didn’t want it to, but not until months, a year after the fact. Out of nowhere, briefly, in a stray thought or a daydream. No joke, sometimes it would populate whatever apocalypse porn I was watching, against my will, shuffling among the corpse-painted actors like a phantasmic extra. I was reminding myself, maybe, that while I was so gleefully participating in this carnival of fabricated death, buying tickets to films where billions of humans are dispatched without a thought, using it as a perverse source of comfort—that there is feeling to real death that must be remembered, that doesn’t translate to this spectacle, because it doesn’t look all that different than the death on the screen.
That seems important to consider, because mass death was incredibly popular this year.The Walking Dead is probably the best example. The zombie drama is currently the highest-rated program on television. Period. As in, higher rated than Monday Night Football, higher rated than the top network show, The Big Bang Theory. Twenty million people watched its season 4 premiere in October, and ratings continue to climb. Entertainment Weekly crunched the numbers, and found that you have to go back five years to find another program with a higher rating: a cresting American Idol. It’s officially the most-watched cable series in history.
But it doesn’t stop there; 2013’s music was also plenty apocalyptic. Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive,” a ham-fisted song about the end days, was, according to Billboard, “the biggest rock hit of the year.” Its YouTube video has over 109 million views. Only “Blurred Lines” and Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” charted higher—”Radioactive” beat out anything Miley Cyrus did by a mile. The song is about breathing in radiated air, my apocalypse, and a new age, ostensibly of revolution. Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires in the City, the winner of the coveted #1 slot on Pitchfork’s best album of the year list, is just as universally bleak, if more subtly so. The album cover shows a dystopian New York covered in a thick shroud of pollution.
“The image looks old, but also seems like it might be a rendering of some kind of future,” Rostam Batmanglij, the band’s “musical architect and de-facto aesthetic director,” said in an interview. The record itself is full of moments that reflect that prognosis; much of it plays like Ivy Leaguers meeting The Road. I listened to plenty of it.
There were books, both fiction, 100 Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, and nonfiction, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive Mass Extinction. There were video games, too, though I didn’t play many of them. But State of Decay had players manage not just their own survival in the face of a zombie apocalypse, but an entire community’s. Gameplay focused on providing resources, finding survivors, as well as battling off the undead hordes. It sold over a million copies, and landed itself on the New Yorker‘s Best Video Games of 2013 list. A new installment in the critically acclaimed and wildly popular The Walking Dead game series debuted too, and was downloaded millions of times. It was all pretty overwhelming.
Rarely has the End been so casual, so serialized, so mediated as it was this year. Everything dying is officially not just a genre, but a wide cartoonish palette. So much is highly experimental, and nothing resonates. I sat in a hot tub and watched a 3D printer create and destroy a city made of salt; the artist who built it was eager for nature to wipe us out. He figured he’d survive. You can’t drive motorcycles through tiny salt cities. Neither of us knew what we were talking about, we can’t begin to imagine.
Maybe we’re trying. Maybe all of this apocalypse culture is a totem, a proactive tool and a hedge against real-life calamity.
“Apocalyptic beliefs make existential threats—the fear of our mortality—predictable,” the neuroscientist Shmuel Lissek told Scientific American. There is science to back that up.According to SciAm, Lissek “has found that when an unpleasant or painful experience, such as an electric shock, is predictable, we relax. The anxiety produced by uncertainty is gone. Knowing when the end will come doesn’t appeal equally to everyone, of course—but for many of us it’s paradoxically a reason to stop worrying.”
That’s a problem, though. It’s why the media critic Douglas Rushkoff laments our obsession with the apocalypse: by convincing ourselves that it’s hopeless, we’re removing the burden of action. There’s plenty to be worried about, little of it having to do with the planet dying tomorrow, but we’re less likely to participate in political systems, engage in activism, or stay engaged with current events if we think it is. “How do you get the good of a zombie apocalypse without the zombies?” he wondered at the time of Occupy. Starting over, really changing things, requires action on the part of the walking living. That goes for all sorts of anti-apocalyptic things, things we really want to fix instead of end.
It doesn’t exactly explain the government shutdown, an event couched in apocalyptic terminology and imagery in its own right, but it helps. The apocalypse isn’t just total death, it isn’t just stillborn teenage dreaming or a gritty aesthetic, it’s a collective exasperated white flag; it’s us giving up. It’s tempting to consider it, and easy to see why we’d want to. The challenges that confront us seem insurmountable, our bandwith is limited.
But real-world apocalypse seeds are being sewn. Climate change is scorching the planet—scientists think it may have fueled the typhoon that devastated the Philippines last month, and the hurricane that slammed New York the year before. Many are still recovering, many are ruined. The planet again suffered through one of the top ten hottest years ever recorded. Income inequality is fueling malcontent and insurrection the world over—this year the gap between rich and poor compelled protesters in Turkey, Brazil, and the Ukraine, among others, to rise up. Pollution is swallowing the skies in China. War is ceaseless in Syria, everywhere. Drones drop bombs on foreign lands, on wedding processions.
No wonder we’re dreaming of the apocalypse, no wonder we turn to fiction to simplify it all, to end it once and for all, no wonder my memory of the real dead doesn’t really let me.
In my dream, I didn’t give up. I waded through the tongues of flame and the molten brownstones and found her on the other side. There, plants were already starting to grow out of the cracked cement. There was hope. A few days later, in real life, we figured out a plan—where and how we’d meet up in the event of a disaster. Who would wait for who.