Themes in Apocalyptic Fiction

Considering themes of humanity, morality, and community

Whether it's a pandemic, meteor strike, alien invasion, nuclear disaster, or zombies, we sure seem to love our apocalypses.  

Whether it's a pandemic, meteor strike, alien invasion, nuclear disaster, or zombies, we sure seem to love our apocalypses.

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction is a twist on the survival-against-all-odds story. We can look back as far as Homer's Odyssey to see themes of courage, creativity, and endurance in the face of epic disaster and brutal challenges.  Stories taking place during an apocalypse are full of explorations into questions of morality, ethics, and what it means to be human.

Some of the most animated conversations at our house revolve around movies and shows featuring an apocalypse, like The Walking Dead. The main protagonist, Sheriff Rick Grimes, wakes up from a coma in the hospital about two months after the world ended. His journey--from upstanding lawman to desperate father to dangerously unstable leader--is fascinating, as is the character development of the other people he and his group encounter along the way.  

In    The Walking Dead   ,  Sheriff Rick Grimes wakes up from a coma in the hospital about two months after the world ended. His journey takes him from upstanding lawman to desperate father to dangerously unstable leader.

I know, I know--it's a show about zombies, and many write it off as a gorefest. But as with most apocalyptic stories, the disaster is just the catalyst to bring out the innermost desires and beliefs of the characters in the story. Some survivors find a depth of strength, principle and compassion they didn't know they had, while others melt into despair. Some lose their minds and their lives in complete hopelessness, others devolve into raging violence against everything and everyone. Others grab the opportunity to become powerful leaders, victimizing the vulnerable in their hour of need.

With every episode, we watch these people face huge life-or-death problems--and I’m not just talking about the most gruesome and horrifying disaster we can imagine--but the challenge of finding food, shelter, medicine, and other supplies necessary for survival.  

However, the real search in these types of stories is for the preservation of their humanity and the fulfillment of their need for community.  

As we are further immersed into the story, we ask ourselves : "What would I do in this situation?"

  • Would you risk your life to help a stranger?

  • Would you leave someone behind to save your own life?

  • Would you kill proactively kill someone who had proven to be extremely dangerous but at the moment was unarmed?

  • Where do you draw the lines of right and wrong when there is no more law, and cultural norms no longer apply?

These are just some of the questions apocalyptic fiction make us ask. . .and attempt to answer.

Whether the protagonist is stranded in a house surrounded by murderous creatures, on a deserted island in a land-before-time, or thrown far out into the future, the story of how someone can maintain their sanity and persevere when all seems lost speaks to us on a deep level. 

Maybe you are dismissive of the apocalyptic genre as too depressing, too fantastic, or just too gross, but this is a mistake. But the questions we are forced to ask ourselves about Worst Case Scenarios and the morality of survival reveal much about our society, and about ourselves.  

It’s no coincidence that young people are particularly drawn to this genre. They find emotional connections to their anxieties about their future. As our teens read and hear the news, they wonder what kind of world they will inherit, and if they are up to the challenge. Even while our kids seem obsessed with new technology, they are concerned about the impact it has on our lives, and what life would be like if it were suddenly taken away. They wonder what would happen to them if they were separated from family and friends during a crisis. 

Experiencing the challenges of a full-blown apocalypse through the lives of beloved characters is cathartic because it gives us an opportunity to face our fears.

So what do you think about common themes in apocalyptic fiction?
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