The End of the World as We Know It

by David Corbett

Today’s post is largely just to pose a few questions and get a conversation going. So I’ll try to make my windup brief.

A week or so ago I treated myself to a summer movie, Searching for a Friend for the End of the World, the story for which is only too aptly captured in its title.

I enjoyed the picture quite a bit, partly because it’s cleverly written and charmingly acted and deftly directed, partly because I have a mild crush on Keira Knightley, but mostly because what the film got right, in a number of truly funny and poignant scenes, was the variety of ass-backward ways we deal with love in the face of the inevitability of death. I’m a hopeless romantic and the idea of true love in the face of total annihilation has a certain resonance for me. I cried. More than once.

Then over the weekend I noticed that Showtime was playing 28 Days Later, a film I also very much enjoy, for much different reasons, even though I’ve never seen the whole thing. I’d watched it from the midpoint to the end, and this weekend got to watch from the beginning to the midpoint. In my head, it all makes sense now. I think.

But these two films got me thinking about the end of the world as a story motif. Perhaps I’m wrong, but there seem to be a great many apocalyptic scenarios cropping up in the narrative ether these days, from all manner of zombie fare to games like Wasteland and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (based on a Harlan Ellison short story), to films such as I Am Legend and Melancholia and Children of Men to literary novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, José Saramago’s Blindness and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

Even comedians have gotten in on the act — what greater pratfall or punchline can there be than self-inflicted extinction:

Of course there’s a long tradition of such stories, reaching back to Gilgamesh and Genesis to the constanly recycled Book of Revelations, interpreted anew by each generation. In the modern era H.G. Wells rejuvenated the secular approach, kicking us along through two world wars to the nuclear era, which gave earth’s utter destruction a real shot in the arm.

One might have thought the tempo would have decreased after the end of the Cold War, but the opposite seems to be the case. Nuclear Armageddon just began sharing the stage with virulent pestilence, environmental devastation, alien invasion — or the old standby, man’s monstrous egotistical stupidity.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about such stories is they’re never really about the end per se. (Though the ones that are about the real end seem to stick with us longer.) Most such films are about the apparent end, and serve as cautionary tales. There but for fortune, they seem to say. Or: There but for the hero.

I’m going to propose a few theories for this, all of them utterly non-scientific. Then I’m going to ask folks to chime in with their thoughts on whether we are truly obsessing over the end of the world more than ever, and if so why. Or is this a theme as old as man, and we’re just churning out the most recent iterations.

Who knows, maybe it’s just in the air. Stories beget stories. The more we think about something the more we keep thinking about it. Picture it as a kind of narrative snowball. Rolling all the way to hell.

Regardless, here’s my top ten theories for why we’re now (more than ever?) obsessing about the apocalypse:

  1. The American Dream is disintegrating into a Hobbesian “war of all against all,” a period of radical historical transformation, that we symbolically understand as “the end of the world.”
  2. The Mayans were right.
  3. The end really is nigh, and our animal brains or our intuition or the Collective Unconscious or whatever understands this, and is trying to alert our conscious selves so we can spiritually prepare for our collective demise.
  4. The dogs are taking over.
  5. In an era of relatively few wars, and relatively minor ones (to all but the combatants and affected civilians, obviously), plus a worldwide economic downturn no one seems to know how to solve, severely restricting a ravenous consumer culture, people need some form of violent outlet to expiate their guilt and shame for having been so consumed with self-gratification. The apocalypse, with its savage violence and moral message of good versus evil, serves the symbolic need for cataclysmic violence, cultural upheaval, and moral certainty.
  6. The UrGod Demon Slavengorg has escaped the Tunnel of Doom, and now seeks revenge against the Sybarite Prince Ramalama and all those who have served him so blindly (read: us).
  7. The planet’s climate is changing so dramatically that our bodies—and thus our unconscious minds—are trying to alert our habit-besotted brains that a real different tomorrow is right around the sweltering bend.
  8. We’re constitutionally, psychologically, biologically and culturally ill-adapted to change, evolution be damned, and as we enter a period of rapid, devastating and unpredictable change — including the end of mainstream publishing as we know it — the uncertainty of our fate creates a profound anxiety that we relieve through creating nightmares we can control.
  9. The Boomers are aging, and this is their way of processing their collective, generational demise.
  10. The cats are taking over.

* * * * *

What do you think, ladies and gents?

Why can’t we seem to get enough of the end of the world?

What’s your theory?

Better yet, what’s your favorite end-of-the-word book or film or video game? Why?

* * * * *

JukeBox Heroes of the Week: Who else, what else? (Incidentally — I used to think the lyrics went, “It’s the end of the world AND we know it. Quite a different message there.)


24 thoughts on “The End of the World as We Know It

  1. Sarah W

    The cats took over a long time ago, and we're all still here, so . . .

    Maybe it's boredom? When I get bored or restless, I try to remake myself a little — new hobbies, new interests, new books, new projects, new hairstyle, etc. The Apocalypse is a global makeover. Before the destruction, as in SEEKING A FRIEND, we have the opportunity — the complete freedom — to change in any way we want without the usual repercussions. After the destruction, there is the opportunity — maybe the necessity — to recreate, even if it's up to the insects.

    Or maybe, to misquote MOONSTRUCK, we all just fear death and this is our collective way of parsing and prepping?

  2. Sarah Shaber

    I've always been drawn to apocalyptic stories. I think we humans like to rehearse what will happen if our world ends, if we die, if others die. Stories are how we do that. It makes us feel mentally and emotionally prepared. I know when I watch an end-of-life-as-we-know-it movie, I plan what stores I will stock up on and how to wring food out of my little patch of ground. And what guns I want. So I feel prepared!


  3. David Corbett

    Interesting — starting out the day with two Sarahs. And you both suggest that these kinds of stories are really a kind of rehearsal for our own death. I think that's true — it's a way to handle the anxiety and dread, a way to control the nightmare.

    But there's also a moral element to many of these stories, a suggestion that it was our own fault things ended the way they did — which isn't true of our individual deaths in most cases. There may be an element of "seizing the nightmare" here as well, but in terms of dealing with the anxiety of making mistakes with consequences we can't foresee.

    And that gets to the other factor, the Apocalypse as a way of dealing with the nightmare of being out of control of events. It's hard to know what choices are the right choices right now — something we've been talking about lately in terms of traditional publishing vs. ebooks. The choice could decide our entire careers, our futures, and there's just no way to be certain which choice is going to be the wise one.

    Add to that the economy, the lousy political situation in this country right now, etc., it creates a lot of sleepless nights. It can feel like everything's going to hell. Ergo, apocalypse.

    But there's a big difference between those stories where some survive and no one does. A much different emotional and moral tone and message.

  4. David Corbett

    A few comments coming in via Facebook:

    From Gigi Sherrell Norwood: I vote for 8 and 9. The cats and dogs took over long ago, so those don't really work for me. But I think you need to look beyond the apocalypse to what most of those stories are about: survival. True, books like Greg Bear's Blood Music really are about the end of our world, but most of the popular stories are about how people survive, put together new families and clans and societies after the great upheaval, and get on with it. My favorite of these (naturally) is Warren C. Norwood's Shudderchild.

    From Jonathan Woods: ‎"That winter was the warmest in a hundred years. There were uneasy jokes about the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect. The ambiguity of the weather made time seem slack and the year spineless. The absent season was a distraction. People looked up from their lives." – opening paragraph of Robert Stone's Outerbridge Reach.

  5. Lisa Alber

    Had a boyfriend once whose theory about human behavior was this: everything comes down to a fear of death. It's the ultimate unknown territory, and ultimately scary because how to imagine our beingness simply vanishing when the body dies? (This could lead to another discussion about how religion plays into helping us feel better about our bodies' deaths.)

    So, in the meta, we also fear humanity's death–it's the same thing as fearing our own deaths. I don't know–blowing it out my ass here. This is the kind of thing I think about though. And perhaps the reason for the increase in apocalyptic storytelling is because for the first time, as a species, we're having to face the possibility of extinction. May not happen in the next few generations…but, come on, we're no different than the dinosaurs (except that the dinosaurs didn't aid in their own demise by ruining the ozone and etcetera). Read a New Yorker article a few years back about mass extinctions. There have actually been six or seven of them (if I recall the number correctly), and the Earth is about due for another one…It's part of the cosmic pattern of things.

    I just watched a movie about the real end. You know from the beginning that yes, the world is going to end and everyone's going to die. So the story is about two sisters, their relationship, and it's about depression too. It was a strange, lovely movie starring of all people, Kirstin Dunst. MELANCHOLIA, written and directed by Lars von Trier.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, survival is the most basic human need, it trumps all other concerns. So a good way to forget everyday worries that everyone has about the economy and the generally insane people who seem to have more and more of a public voice these days is to put ourselves into a pure survival situation. And if you REALLY want to forget your own problems, add zombies to the mix. I LOVE The Walking Dead. No matter what happens to me, at least zombies aren't involved.

  7. Gordon Harries

    On a podcast (or a podcasted lecture, I can’t remember) for THE GIVEN DAY, Dennis Lehane said “what does a society look like that's had the shit kicked out of it?” and then went on to list the range of unpredented things that had happened by the time of the 1921 Boston Police Strike.

    That’s also the hook that keeps me coming back to HBO’s TREME. What does it look like when your city has had -what David Simon calls- a near death experience and the government doesn’t appear to care (and knowing a Government doesn’t care about its people is, I’d have to believe, a different experience than the belief that a government doesn’t care about its people.)

    Both projects were, in their way, as much post-apocalypse projects as something like 28 Days Later or The Walking Dead.

    What strikes me as different here is scale. Much crime fiction is about the imploding and dysfunctional man and what that implosion does to those around him. Both the projects mentioned are about everything going to hell.

    They’re also both fairly recent projects and, it has to be said, there’s been a sense that the economy’s been going to hell for an awfully long time over here (bank’s given a mortgage to practically anyone who wanted one, irrespective of whether they could afford it. Credit card and loans out the wazoo etc.) And both, for me, surf on the current feeling over here that they sky is falling and there is no plan that can dig us out of the hole we stand in.

  8. David Corbett

    Lisa: I think the anxiety over death is a double whammy: The certainty of its coming, combined with the uncertainty of its timing and its meaning. If you can talk yourself into an afterlife – or feel certain there is none – some of that uncertainty-based dread goes away. But if you’ve been close to someone who died suddenly or too young or from an illness that came out of the blue, you get in a very visceral way that there’s no logic to the timing. And it takes a strong soul to deal with that.

    I’m still unsure whether MELANCHOLIA was really about the end of the world or whether that was used as a metaphor for the crushing blackness of profound clinical depression. If so, it gets to what you were saying — it really does use the meta to describe the personal. Kirsten Dunst was, I agree, a surprising casting choice, and yet I thought she was quite good in it. That movie haunted me.

    Alex: Zombies are a great example of something that’s really metastasized the last decade or so. They’ve been around at least since Jacques Tourneur’s I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943 – great WW2-era flick). The original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was one of the scariest things I’d ever seen. (I saw it in a theater in the early 1970s before any of us in the audience really knew what it was. Whole place went dead silent as we watched.)

    There’s something chillingly gruesome (the brains, the viscera, the blood) and frightening (the insect-like relentlessness) and yet reassuringly silly about zombies that I think does provide great escape while also resonating with the apocalyptic fears people may be harboring, consciously or not.

    Zombie movies also have a moral aspect. There’s a very biblical sense of us versus them, the good versus the evil, that’s very clear-cut in zombie movies, and I think people secretly want that clarity, and fear it won’t be there when everything goes to hell. Which leads me to …

    Gordon: I think GIVEN DAY and TREME are great examples of a work premised around: This is how bad it can get. And yet we obviously survived. I think the whole purpose of these stories is to provide a kind of relief against the increasingly disturbing uncertainty we all feel about the future. They show the overwhelming machinations working against decent but powerless people. And that, I think, is the theme running through all of this. We think Apocalypse and End of the World to capture the overwhelming sense of events being so utterly beyond our control.

  9. Lisa Alber

    MELANCHOLIA haunted me too. I tend toward your theory: it was really about black-hole depression. The Kirsten character was so calm (because so depressed) in the face of annihilation while her sister became increasingly distraught and frantic (as you'd expect in those circumstances). I can totally see that too. What does death mean to people who are that severely depressed? Nothing much.

  10. Allison Davis

    I think Apocalypse thoughts deal with fear of death — we are all going at the same time, so it won't be so bad, right? Also, when the economy gets bad (I didn't do the math), we think dire thoughts, including "everybody dies."

    I don't normally go for movies with that theme, but I liked I am Legend, and of course Melancolia and I can't wait to see the new movie "Seeking a friend…" So I guess I do go see them.

  11. Jake Nantz

    I think it's about the concept of control. The piece you inserted by George Carlin gets to the heart of a lot of it. People are so arrogant they think they make a difference. They matter. It's hysterical.

    As for "apocalyptic" material, look at 1984's The Terminator (where the waitress delivers that great line to Sarah Connor, "In 100 years, who's gonna care?"). It's a world where machines rule and man has to fight to survive. That gives us several things:
    1) we created machines, therefore it's our own damn fault because we were just too doggone smart (we're the most superior form of intelligent)
    2) man still survives, therefore we're still so tough we can outwit any old machine just by human ingenuity and fight (see how superior we are?)
    3) A – machines rule = planet essentially dies (look at the visions of the future that Kyle Reese has while asleep), whereas
    3) B – mankind rules = planet keeps on ticking, because we may be the biggest threat to the planet (we're so superior), but by golly we're also the ones who can "save" it (we're so superior)

    It's one of the reasons I find people who laugh at the religious to be so funny (full disclosure: I am Christian, so the people I'm talking about are about to discount everything I type after this). But think about it. People who look down on any religion do so because they think those who have faith are just grasping at straws/fantasy/unfounded-and-childish-hope because they aren't smart enough to know how silly that is. And yet the same people see absolutely no hypocrisy or arrogance in their own belief that they alone have figured it out. The world (read: people, all they really care about) is gonna die and that's all there is. So the religious are too stupid to get the obvious answer, but they, the smart ones, of the same species but somehow gifted with REAL knowledge, are the most intelligent life out there and that's why the stuff they've figured out is what's REAL. (superior)

    It's about control, plain and simple. Folks that make apocalypse movies where man survives are dreaming of mankind controlling their own fate, especially if it was mankind that caused the problem in the first place. That's DOUBLE control right there. Folks who make apocalypse movies where it all just ends are dreaming of controlling the REAL knowledge that the rest are too stupid to have, and so they know you gotta live for now 'cause that's all you get, baby. One way or another, control the uncontrollable: the future. But the smart ones (on both sides) really CAN control the future, 'cause they've planned ahead. They have their survival kit, or they've socked money/gold/food/bullets away, or they're on the cutting edge of technology so they can retain control and not let it control them one day, or whatever. But they're gonna survive because they're the smart ones…just ask them.

    Be careful not to ask them while they're on their smart phone being super intelligent, though. You might also get hit by the bus that takes them out because they were too stupid to pay attention to the "Don't Walk" sign while they were planning.

    And if you think that's funny, look at how superior I sound writing this whole thing because I think I'VE got it all figured out….

  12. Shizuka

    The economy's definitely part of it. Also, 9.11 kicking us out of our complacency. Until then, I think Americans had a feeling that major scale, evil shit wouldn't happen on their turf.

    But another reason that apocalyptic stories work so well — they give us huge stakes and also set the stage for regular people to become heroes, take huge risks, and change dramatically in a short time. It's a great storytelling set up.

  13. David Corbett

    Lisa: Okay, this is kind of a weird interpretation, and I’m not 100% sold on it, but the whole meteor crash thing, perhaps, is just a device. It isn’t really happening. Or it’s like Gregor Samsa’s being turned into an insect. It’s a simple metaphor carried to it absurd conclusion. The sister’s increasingly frantic state is caused by her inability to pull the Kirsten character out of her down-spiral into madness – or black hole depression as you very aptly term it. The approaching meteor is just a device to describe that relentlessly approaching moment when the madness can no longer be averted.

    Allison: But was there a bump in apocalypse movies during the Great Depression? And if that wasn’t a time of worldwide upheaval, what was? I’m not sure why there are so many such stories now but not at another similar point in history. It may be the whole 2000 thing. Millennialism has always produced doomsday cults – and not a few authoritarian uprisings and witch hunts.

    Jake: You have absolutely made my day (so far). That was very adroit and funny – and I read to the very end.

    Yeah, I threw in the Carlin thing as a bubble burster, though he gets into a bit of circular logic. He argues from two positions: We’ve done enough to damage nature but are arrogant when we try to correct that. I think he’s right to attack arrogance, but trying to undo damage we ourselves have done could be seen as humble, not arrogant. Still, I love his rant.

    Your point that apocalypse stories represent a kind of control fantasy I think is valid. I think they provide a way to picture our demise in a way we find acceptable. It’s the uncertainty that creates the anxiety. But I don’t think storytellers are necessarily presuming how it’s going to be one way or the other if their story ends with man surviving or not. I don’t think they’re making a cosmological argument so much as they’re saying: What if …? That’s a general statement, of course, and I can’t speak to another’s motives. But we weigh our actions and our lives on much different terms if we believe this is our one shot and if we don’t. I don’t think we necessarily act differently – the Stoics were atheists but their morality was brought almost wholesale into the early Christian church, because the values are so similar – but the meaning we attach to those actions is probably much different indeed.

  14. David Corbett


    I love what you said here:

    But another reason that apocalyptic stories work so well — they give us huge stakes and also set the stage for regular people to become heroes, take huge risks, and change dramatically in a short time. It's a great storytelling set up.

    I think especially the part about setting up ordinary people to be heroes is dead on. The cataclysm is universal so anyone can rise up and prove to be the deciding factor. I think that's a marvelous insight.

    BTW: I'm so looking forward to seeing you at the Book Passage conference. I hope we get a chance to sit and visit and talk about how you're doing and how the writing is going. I've missed you.

  15. Lisa Alber

    Hi Jake. Actually, funny thing: I started to respond based on the first half of what you wrote. I was so glad I decided to read through to the end before I clicked Create Post! Hah! All MY superior righteousness deflated down to a wee sentence. Hah!

  16. Lisa Alber

    That's the great thing about that movie–room for many interpretations. I tend to think the movie world did actually end. To me, this makes the statement about depression even more devastating: Even with the world ending, she was so sick she couldn't muster energy to feel or do much of anything. That last day was both her happiest day (but she was too depressed to enjoy it) and then her worst (impending death but she didn't much care by that point). Either way: she was a living shell. I think the film maker must know depression from personal experience.

  17. David Corbett

    Lisa: You're right, that does make depression even more devastating — not even the end of the effing world can shake you out of it. And yes, Lars Von Trier has publicly discussed his battles with depression. There's a lot of very smart commentary on this film online, if you're inclined to spend some considerable time delving into it. I almost got lost in it just now.

  18. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Number 8, in my opinion.
    Although all of the above apply.
    I actually think it's a constant cycle. Every generation visualizes the end of the world. And every generation has it's Jim Joneses. We do seem to have a collective death-wish. Unfortunately, this generation actually has the ability to actualize it. We have such great potential as a species – if only we can survive the next several hundred years. I remember the quote from Ishi – the last surviving Native American of his tribe. He said that the White Man is clever, but not wise. He lived the last of his days in a museum, showing the Westerners the ways of his culture. He didn't live long, succumbing to a common cold or pneumonia which he caught from his exposure to Westerners.
    And on that happy note…

  19. David Corbett


    I actually considered that idea, the notion of the collective death wish. There are people who see the end times as something to look forward to — the ultimate makeover, as Sarah said in the first post of the day. And suicide, whether individual or mass, eases the tension and pain of uncertainty. Like Jake says, it's a way to assert control. Creating stories that explore this provides a way to tell the narrative I want to hear, rather than the one I fear might be true.

    Thanks for providing the story of Ishi. I know you think you ended on a bummer note, but I appreciated reading that. A little wisdom wouldn't kill us.

  20. Shizuka


    I'm very drawn to stories where ordinary people are compelled to do things they never thought they'd have to do. It's one of the reasons I love the mystery genre so much.

    I can't wait to see you at Book Passage.
    It'll be awesome.


  21. Kristi Belcamino

    Great post, David. And I'd like to personally thank you for the endless loop of REM that will be playing in my head for the next four days!
    My favorite end-of-the-world book is The Stand by Stephen King. The Road is another such book, but honestly, that one just depressed me.
    PS I prefer post-apocalyptic books and movies versus apocalyptic.

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