I used to think that an obsession with post-apocalyptic and disaster fiction was weird. I thought it was a niche, slightly dirty fascination, something that should never be a topic of conversation among decent company. It was a bit like how I felt about liking Star Wars so much. I thought it was just me. Now every other dad I see at Cub Scouts is wearing a Rebel Alliance insignia on his tee shirt. Where were those guys in seventh grade?
My first introduction to the genre was actually a bizarre relic, a coloring book from the 1979 movie Meteor. I don’t know where I came by such a strange thing, but it may have been a yard sale. The idea of the world being destroyed by meteors appealed to me, not in a nihilistic way, but just the idea that such a terrible thing could happen. I had a nascent death instinct I suppose. It didn’t hurt that one of the locations in the movie was clearly the DC metro, with its honeycomb concrete blocks prominently featured in one of the film stills in the coloring book. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen Meteor, and I think I’ll leave it that way. It was right in the midst of Sean Connery’s bizarre sci-fi phase along with Zardoz and Highlander. There were other hints of the apocalyptic in my childhood. Thundarr the Barbarian took place in a ruined world far into the future and I loved it, especially the opening sequence that showed the end times.
I really hit my stride with a slew of eighties nuclear holocaust movies. My parents let me see The Day After on primetime TV in 1983. Yeah, if you know I was born in 1977 you can do the math. I was six. It was terrifying and upsetting, but I was hooked. I can still picture the image of John Lithgow and friends watching the missiles take off from a football game. Somehow, I also managed to watch an airing of Threads, another nuclear war movie, similar in almost every way except that it takes place in the United Kingdom. I don’t remember which of the movies I watched first, but the impact was huge. Famously, Ronald Reagan was heavily moved by The Day After too. Apparently, it took a movie to get our Hollywood president to understand the threat and start working on disarmament. That seems a bit silly, but I’ve also heard that John F Kennedy’s forceful response to the Cuban Missile Crisis was heavily influenced by his recent reading of Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August. These are human beings. It’s scary to think how they can be nudged so randomly, but it’s reality.
I saw Wargames and loved it. It dealt with the threat of nuclear war in a serious, but ultimately much cheerier way. I think my passion for these movies was rooted in the same impulse that makes people watch slasher movies, or supernatural thrillers like The Exorcist. I had no interest in those. When I was a young child, the jump scares, blood, and general terror were too much for me in those movies. Then when I got older, I found I had no capacity to be afraid of the supernatural. I didn’t believe in it at all, and what’s scary about that? What I did like was things like Jaws, which took a perfectly natural threat and made it terrifyingly real. Are great white sharks likely to hunt and kill large numbers of people? Of course not. But are they really out there? Yes, unlike the devil and Captain Howdy, yes, they are.
Alien invasions may not be likely, but they do fit into a rational world view. I saw the fifties version of War of the Worlds, read the H.G. Wells book, and devoured the entire White Mountains series by John Christopher the instant I discovered the books. I can still smell or almost taste the vinyl of school bus seats when I picture those books, read over the course of a week in fifth grade. Having my fear button pushed must have been part of the fascination, but I think I just liked to imagine the effects on terrible events on my world. There was always a part of me yearning to actually see the tornado when we did drills in elementary school.
In my pre-teen years, I started catching late night showings of Red Dawn and I was hooked there too. One of my friends, who shall remain nameless, criticized the film because he couldn’t see why if the Russians invaded we would only resist with one helicopter. What movie was that guy watching? There was a whole scenario fleshed out in the movie, with the cities that got hit with nukes, the map of the battle lines, and which allies the United States had in World War III described in detail. The deliciously tantalizing, nightmare scenario was exactly the kind of horror movie that appealed to me. And here we come to another thing about horror rooted in reality. I began thinking about my own plan for what I would do in such a scenario. My best friend and I had an idiotic scheme to hide out in the thick woods between the 495 cloverleaf and launch raids on Soviet troops. Many of these disaster porn movies lead a mind to the same question, what would I do?
It wasn’t all so rational though. I repeatedly poured over the opening pages of the sourcebooks for roleplaying games like Shadowrun, Rifts, and After the Bomb. Palladium’s After the Bomb dealt with viruses run amok, nuclear war, and genetic mutation, which are at least science-adjacent concepts, so they fit my theory of being fascinated with horrific things rooted in science. But Shadowrun involved the reappearance of magic, dragons, elves and trolls. Rifts involved the tearing open of trans-dimensional space and the infestation of earth by a million different kinds of alien being. Neither is grounded in anything like reality. When I think about it deeper though, what I loved about those books was the aspects of their settings that dealt with the ramifications of catastrophe. How many people would die? What cities would survive? How would the political map of the world change? Yes, the cause of apocalypse was silly, but the authors had put some thought into the effects of their silliness. The question that most fascinated me after “what would I do” was simply “what would happen?”
When I grew up, it began to dawn on me that I wasn’t the only one who loved post-apocalyptic scenarios. I loved Stephen King’s novel The Stand and was surprised to learn that according to him it was the most popular of his novels for fans. I started talking to more people who shared my weird obsession. It was a bit like learning that everyone had really liked Judge Reinhold. Anyone? It was really obvious by the time Walking Dead became such a huge hit. I think when other properties try to market the idea of zombies, they are totally missing the point. It’s the apocalypse that transfixes viewers, not the stupid monsters.
This post started out as a lead-in to writing about living through a minor apocalypse we’re seeing now in 2020, and the reading I’m doing in response, but I think I’ll let that grow into a second article to post later this week. For now, I’ll let it suffice to write about how strange it is to learn that I’m not the only one. But isn’t that what this era is about in a lot of ways? I may be part of a larger phenomenon, and it feels like it, but maybe I can just find other weirdos because we’re all so connected. Anyway, I have to go, that Judge Reinhold message board isn’t going to post on itself.