why do we like post-apocalyptic stories so much?
Promotional image for Season 1 of ‘The Last of Us’.
END OF THE WORLD – The first episode of the series The Last of Us opens with a televised debate between two scientists. The subject: the probability of a devastating pandemic, caused by a mutation due to the global warming, which would destroy humanity. The rest of the episode sees the worst-case theory come true and the viewer is quickly transported into a postapocalyptic worldwhere all hope seems lost.
HBO’s latest star series, broadcast in France on Prime Video and adapted from the video game of the same name, is part of a line of dystopian and postapocalyptic stories that invade the small screen. There have been The Walking Deadand his cousin fear the walking dead, The 100or even more recently Station Eleven. Pandemic, climate or nuclear crisis… All seem to resonate in one way or another with the news and the anxieties it can cause.
That an anxiety-provoking era gives rise to equally anxiety-provoking works of fiction is nothing new. The cycles of creation of dystopian or post-apocalyptic stories closely follow major crises, whether Brave New World, of Aldous Huxley, written in 1931, in full depression; of 1984, by George Orwell, published in 1948, at the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War; where a slew of films “postapo” released after September 11, 2001.
“The essence of dystopia is that by depicting a dark and plausible future, we put into fiction the problems that run through our society, explains Marine Malet, teacher-researcher at Panthéon-Assas University and author of a thesis on dystopian television series. This makes it possible to give rise to political discourse on our present, while transcribing the anxieties that are specific to our time. »
Fear, source of pleasure
If we can understand the attraction of dystopia for creators wishing to explore, through fiction, very real concerns, how to explain the enthusiasm of the public at the idea of immersing themselves in such an anxiety-provoking imagination? Why do we fall in love with a universe devoured by a pandemic, when we ourselves have just gone through one with Covid-19 ?
These questions are at the heart of the work of Mathias Clasen, Danish researcher at the University of Aarhus and creator of the Recreational Fear Labthe laboratory of “recreational fear”. He studies there “all activities where fear is a source of pleasure”whether it’s haunted houses, horror movies, or post-apocalyptic stories. “Recreational fear is pervasive and widespread, yet understudied, he explains to HuffPost. Many of the first activities children are exposed to are recreational fears, such as when we throw them in the air before catching them, or when we play ‘peekaboo’ to them while hiding behind our hands. There are so many areas in life where people are looking for terrifying experiences to get pleasure from. »
Behind this quest for dread, hides a social experience (we like to see horror films and visit haunted houses with friends) but also the intuition, often subconscious, that being afraid can do us good. “It’s in our nature to find pleasure in recreational fear, because it’s good for us, explains Mathias Clasen. Playing with fear allows us to better regulate it. I think most people get that, without even realizing it. »
Exposure therapy for anxiety
Being drawn to stories that terrify us is a paradox found even in some people with anxiety. Nora, 36, is “very distressed” by the idea of a collapse. However, it consumes a lot of postapocalyptic stories, “in books, in films, in series”even when she knows ” that they don’t give any hope”. “I thought that watching works that talk about it would put me in intense states of depression, but in fact, not at all, does she analyze. There’s something soothing about seeing it happen on your TV and in a book. »
The city of Boston is overgrown in “The Last of Us.”
A form of exposure therapy not uncommon among fans of the genre. “There is a surprising proportion of horror fans who suffer from anxiety or depression, comments Mathias Clasen. The problem, when you suffer from anxiety, is that you live in a haze of bad emotions: you don’t know where they come from, and you feel like you have no control over them. But when we choose to watch a scary movie, we know exactly where that knot in our stomach is coming from. It’s because of the film, and we’re in control: we can turn off our TV or leave the cinema. »
A way also to make fictitious and therefore more distant a scenario that haunts us? “Reading very present fears and anxieties in the mode of fiction can also help to put them at a distance”, analyzes Marine Malet. Many fans of the genre cite this reasoning. Every year, Sophie watches a post-apocalyptic film with her husband for New Years – a way for her “to start the year thinking it could be worse”. As for Lars, another fan of the genre, he believes that the stories “postapo” render “the real situation less anxiety-provoking, because we measure the gap between the worst possible situation and reality”.
The lure of primitive survivalism
But as Mathias Clasen reminds us, “Even if we intuitively know that a scary movie can do us good, most people don’t go to see a movie thinking ‘it’ll be good for my mental health’, they think ‘it’ll be fun’. » And if post-apocalyptic films are so “fun”it is also because they appeal to something primary in us. “As I speak to you, I am in my office, I have exams to correct, data to inventory, describes the Danish researcher. That’s more or less my daily life, it’s quite banal and boring. But now, let’s imagine that we are in a world where the rule is ‘kill or be killed’, where I have to risk my life to defend my family. There is something attractive in our post-industrial society, to place oneself, through the imagination, in a primitive and rudimentary scenario, which somehow seems more authentic to us. »
In an interview on YouTubeAnne-Lise Melquiond, author of the essay Apocalypse Show, when America collapses (ed. Playlist Society), evokes a return to a very classic American mythology: “With the question of the apocalypse and the end of a world […]we are again in the question of the displacement of the Border, the question of the pioneers. […] Under the guise of reconstruction, we are only replaying things that are old,” she explains.
A scene from the series “Station Eleven”
The researcher also evokes the aesthetic appeal, and intrinsically cinematographic, of the apocalypse. In the opening of her essay, she quotes the philosopher and art critic Walter Benjamin who said: “Humanity has become alien enough to itself to manage to experience its own destruction as a first-rate aesthetic enjoyment. » This aesthetic enjoyment is cited by many fans, and we find it in The Last of Uswhere we dwell on superb shots of the city of Boston, destroyed and devoured by vegetation that has reasserted itself.
The enjoyment of destruction
While destruction is often beautiful in postapocalyptic works, it can also be cathartic. “These works make it possible to express all the violence of the feelings that one can have with regard to society”, believes Danièle André, lecturer in American civilization and popular culture at the University of La Rochelle. ” Finally is it so serious if the society in which we die, if we can rebuild one behind? And maybe that’s the hope: that we can rebuild on a clean slate, rebuild on what remains.she continues. “There is an ambivalence in the relationship to these stories: on the one hand we regret the collapse of our civilization, on the other we say to ourselves that we can rebuild a new world”, abounds Mathias Clasen.
A very relative glimmer of hope, which is present in many post-apocalyptic stories, whether through communities that continue to keep art alive, as in Eleven Stationwhere through a character who could be the key to fighting a pandemic, as in The Last of Us. In the darkness, an ounce of humanity almost always lingers in these stories, and that’s surely also what makes them so fascinating to us.
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