The “end of the world” is such a well known trope in movies and TV shows of the 21st century that it has become completely normalized. Yet, it is so repetitive that it is critical that we ask the question: why is it that our mainstream media has such a fascination with the collapse of society?
A common subcategory of apocalypse media is a depiction of a post-apocalyptic or dystopian world, meaning society as we know it has already collapsed and the remaining humans must live in a destroyed or completely reformed existence. Pre-apocalyptic films, in which the story revolves around characters who are trying to stop the end of the world or humanity, are even more rampant. These movies have two possible endings: either the protagonists succeed and life continues as normal, or they fail and viewers get a slow-motion montage of the earth falling to pieces to a sad slow song or a contradicting upbeat song.
Some of today’s most popular apocalypse films and shows are The 100, Daybreak, The Walking Dead, Salvation, Don’t Look Up, The 5th Wave and This Is the End. On the grander scale, “end of the world” media isn’t just limited to mutant zombies or ecological disasters. In most science fiction or fantasy films, the threat portrayed is either the literal end of the world or resulting consequences that are so evil that they’re equated to the end of the world. The theme of the apocalypse is still present in a lot of media, even if it is not considered a truly apocalyptic story.
So why is it that our society so enjoys apocalyptic media? In regards to the post-apocalyptic and dystopian subcategory, some speculate that we want to see a post-apocalyptic world where things aren’t so bad on screen, because it often feels like we are currently living in a pre-apocalyptic reality. With the many threats to our stability as a society — climate change, COVID-19, and war are just a few examples — the possibility of our world as we know it collapsing is something that everyone has thought about in some way or another. Thus, it is comforting to see characters running around and living in a reformed world, post-apocalypse. This media is a way to reassure ourselves that even if all of today’s threats we worry about do occur, we could still be okay, like the characters we see on TV are.
Many directors also use the apocalypse trope as a wake-up call for audiences. They create a film where the world does end because no one saves it, and use the story as a commentary on our world today. Don’t Look Up is a great example of this; it’s a literal wake-up call that reminds us to examine our collectively failing efforts to counter climate change. Oftentimes, apocalyptic films include political commentary to assist the overall message of the film. Media of this type can serve as an example for what could happen if we don’t do something about climate change or other issues that we humans have created. The message here is that everything will not be fine and we will not be okay. Movies like this are meant to make the viewers uncomfortable with the state of our society. For some people, preparing for the apocalypse is serious, so apocalypse media is the place for them to find tips and pointers for how to prepare for zombies, natural disasters, asteroids, robots, or never-ending wars.
The danger of TV shows and movies about the end of the world is that they tend to glorify the experience of combating apocalypse in a most likely inaccurate way. If society collapses in one of the ways these films predict, it will not be an exciting adventure like those in the movies. It will most likely be slow, elongated, and not affect the entire world’s population at once the way it does in the movies. Although it is fun to see something so drastic happen on screen, it needs to be balanced by media that represents what a realistic apocalypse might look like.