A nation’s filmography has long been recognized as a direct glimpse into the collective psyche of its citizens. As such, it’s somewhat disturbing that the current view is that of a crumbling cityscape.
“American audiences want what Hollywood wants them to want,” wrote film theorist Siegfried Kraceur in 1947, “but in the long run, public desires determine the nature of Hollywood films.”1 His reasoning is that movies are overwhelmingly the product of teamwork, developed through the collaborative efforts of writers, artists, photographers, and technical specialists, striving to achieve a mutual goal: attracting the largest (paying) audience possible. It’s thus not the specific films that succeed, but rather screen motifs, which rise in popularity by satisfying the desires of the viewing public. Applying this scrutiny not only to what Americans pay2 to see in theaters and stream in their homes, but to what they’re willing to break the law for, and a clear pattern emerges.3
Unsinkable ships tip their passengers into the frigid sea. Sickness spreads, robbing us of our loved ones, lives, even our humanity. Beasts rise up against us, monsters descend upon us, and we watch, transfixed, as our cities are reduced to rubble. The viewing public desperately desires destruction, lovingly rendered in intricate CGI detail.What need within us is served by watching our society crumble beneath our protagonists’ feet, if not one that is cruel, even sadistic, in nature?
Every story must have conflict, true, but the crux of every story is not necessarily the disaster itself. We have the technology to topple as many buildings and set off as many explosions as our hearts could desire, without the risk of damaging the set or risking the lives of the actors. The affordability of special effects has amplified and enriched the experience of films beyond the blockbusters, even now extending to television and Web content. Save for those largely aimed at younger audiences, stories of action and adventure play out in front of a backdrop featuring hyper-realistic destruction on an ever-increasing scale.
We don’t want the world to end, not really. Even stories of global calamity add a postscript to the apocalypse. We want to watch the world be threatened, even broken, to see actors scream in horror and run for their lives through the smoking ruins of what once was our civilization—or at least, that’s what I glean from the longevity of AMC’s The Walking Dead.
Were this consumption involuntary, it’d more obviously go against our standards of a just society, suddenly reminiscent of last-ditch efforts to re-educate ultraviolent youth, or two minutes of hate on Big Brother’s greater itinerary. It’s chilling to think that these are narratives created by the people, for the people. What need within us is served by watching our society crumble beneath our protagonists’ feet, if not one that is cruel, even sadistic, in nature?
This isn’t a sanctimonious judgment of secular culture. As someone raised in the church, whose first stories were parables and biblical histories, I am not particularly shocked by the elements of violence and tragedy. But as someone who spends a lot of time and energy invested in watching actors dodge explosions, outrun zombies, and cower in the ruins of whatever major city the studio could pay the location fee for, I don’t believe that audiences seek out destruction. Rather, film provides an accessible avenue to what we really want.
There is an unspoken contract that viewers enter into with the filmmaker, one not unlike the promise God makes to readers of His Word. The filmmakers present a protagonist, one which the audience is encouraged to identify with, to want to see succeed, and the savvy viewer understands that this character will face conflict, form relationships, and satisfy their goals, all according to the vision of the directors and screenwriters. According to such a formula, when the conflict is the experience and aftermath of large-scale disaster, viewers can only be satisfied by the film delivering the characters into a new, better world.
This is a promise not unfamiliar to Christians. Even as God’s people suffer hardships and persecution, they are blessed with His guidance and protection. This covenant, especially in the Old Testament, banks upon sacrifice of the familiar, doomed world, whether through adherence to new laws, the evacuation into a new promised land, or the outright destruction and rebirth of a new world.
The original meaning of the Greek word “apocalypse” did not imply destruction—it means “revelation.”4 Apocalyptic prophecy foretold a drawing back of the veil, delivered knowledge and insight about the future based on the current state of worldly affairs. Fictional dystopia has come to serve a similar role, revealing the faults of our society through exaggeration and mimicry. Through the lens of the protagonist as they reexamine their false utopia, the viewer is allowed to experience the problematic elements of our social and political practices, to question what they may otherwise considered natural, or not noticed at all.5
Unlike traditional stories of dystopia, disaster films and apocalyptic films do not need to build a fictional society. They simply destroy the one we have, feeling for pre-existing cracks and tearing them open. It’s a very Old Testament style of cleansing, tearing down society in order to rebuild it anew, and the collateral damage takes its toll. Why are we as viewers so very willing to witness the sacrifice of countless thousands, the destruction of our cities and our very way of life?
The answer may not lie in what film attempts to destroy, but what it strives to save.
Terror in film may threaten our view that the world is safe, but it reassures us of conventional outcomes, providing audiences with the chance to realize, experience, and work through their greatest fears.6 However, while the Christian carries this expectation into their daily life—knowing that God will be with them in the valley of the shadow of death just as he was with David—for the film goer, this experience is a fleeting one.
Remove God from the equation, and all we are left with is ourselves, each other, and the knowledge that one day, we will die. But in disaster films, I don’t see secular U.S. society fantasizing about the idea of an all-knowing, all-loving God, however. Rather, disaster films attempt to manufacture for us another variable: that of community.
The settings and characters are tailored to represent us, the viewer, as closely as possible. Disaster filmmaker Roland Emmerich has developed a replicate formula for this, placing initial focus on characters whose lives and hardships speak to our own in their first 20 minutes on film, for whom disaster is not necessarily the true conflict.7 Rather, disaster is the mechanism that resolves their interpersonal issues, their internal dilemmas, their existential despair. At the very least, it overshadows them, and their petty squabbles pale in comparison to the struggle to survive.
Shared adversity has long been utilized in film to bring characters together, and as a motif, we buy into it because it is directly reflective of reality. Evaluations of trauma survivors consistently find that it is not magnitude or nature of the traumatic event that predicts outcome, but the network of support available to them in the aftermath.8
Humans are social creatures, crafted to thrive in the company of others. God knew it was not good for man to be alone, after all, and evidence of this has been recorded in every branch of scientific discipline dedicated to understanding ourselves and the communities we inhabit. Human babies starved of loving touch fail to thrive.9 Veterans who have never seen combat fall into states of panic when removed from the cohort of their fellow soldiers.10 Solitary confinement is a punishment, a method of torture, one many argue to be a fate worse than death.11
Surveys of the beliefs and practices of Americans find religion to be positively associated with better psychological and physical health, regardless of mitigating demographic factors of gender, stage of life12, age13, income, race, ethnicity, and region. A closer evaluation reveals that membership and participation in a religious community is an even stronger predictor of overall well-being. That’s not to say that belief isn’t important. A healthy spiritual life enriches us, yes, but we also require the presence of fellow believers.14 The quality of time that we spend here on earth is not only up to us, but also up to those around us. As iron sharpens iron, and all that.
While the churchgoers among us readily receive prayer, a caring hand on the shoulder, and an extended family of fellow believers able to provide aid and support, there are few similar resources available in secular society. It’s shocking, considering that as of this writing, the world is more connected, more global than ever. I can share my words almost instantaneously with someone living on the other side of the planet, so long as they’re awake to read it. It’s a fantastic time to be alive, but it’s not necessarily one we’re prepared for.
The Bible reminds its readers God’s plan for their lives, and movies promise the opportunity to be heroes of their own lives. And in many ways, dystopian stories give us the backdrop we need.
Despite the comforts and amenities offered by the modern, developed world, the value of the individual has dropped—whereas among my immediate family, neighbors, and friends, I could be considered skilled, impactful, and important, I don’t likely rank as high among my global cohort. It’s mathematically and neurologically impossible for me to consider the other seven billion people on this planet as individuals, but it’s relatively easy for me to compare my talents with theirs and be found lacking.15 The rest of the world doesn’t just consider me statistically and subjectively unimportant, though. The rest of the world doesn’t consider me at all.
Luckily for me (and my vulnerable ego), though, there are a few people who I hold some importance to. In the narrative of our lives, this is the community of those close to us—friends, family, mentors, partners. Should disaster strike us, those are the ones we would seek to save, the ones we might entrust to help us survive the aftermath. We hope that certain people, values, and items of importance will be delivered with us out of the path of certain death—and recently, we’ve come up with a new way of speculating upon the logistics of such a scenario without sinking into a downward spiral of paranoia and despair: How would you survive the zombie apocalypse?
You’ve either never heard this question before, or you have a carefully planned out answer. Mine is that I’d go straight to Costco. (They have everything I need there—food in bulk and wilderness survival gear, plus the zombies can only get in if they have a membership card.) Answers range from practical to humorous to absolutely over-the-top, and we all know at least one particularly intense individual who’s legitimately planning for such an event.
But despite the unlikeliness of such an event, and how little time that I personally spend worrying about it, it’s a popular topic of discussion. It’s one that encourages bonding, open discussion of strengths and weaknesses between friends or within a family, and our imaginations serve the function of fiction. In comparison to our collective daydreams, the reality is not only disappointing; it is increasingly similar to the traditional imaginings of dystopia we’re all familiar with.
Our lives are dictated by rules and regulations, identified increasingly by number, not by name. There’s little to assure us that we matter. Life scavenging in the wreckage of our uncaring society is in no way easy, but it is preferable in comparison. As much as I appreciate the roof over my head, the clothes on my back, and the wireless Internet connection at my fingertips, I too can see the appeal of overthrowing the restrictions that accompany them.
We crave the opportunity to serve a role to others, to be valued, to be needed. It’s no wonder that the scale of disaster in film has only grown as our global reach has broadened—as our “community” grows, the importance of our role in it seemingly shrinks, and that’s not something humankind was meant to dwell on. So we dream of asserting our importance to the survival of the community, of forging friendships in fire, of what it might be like to have some clear plan for our lives.
As easy as it might be to say otherwise, the popularity of on-screen destruction and decay is not indicative of American audiences’ desire to destroy. Rather, we’re seeking to fix, to rebuild, to chase after promises our society has failed to fulfill. Through the medium of film, narratives surrounding calamity offer a sense of belonging, inspire our faith in ourselves, and reassure us of our continued safety. Americans have cultivated and fortified their promised land, only to find themselves missing their days wandering in the wilderness—at least there, they didn’t wander alone.
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1. Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of German Film. Princeton: Princeton, 1947. 6. Print. (http://press.princeton.edu/titles/1369.html)
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4. “Strong’s Greek: 602. ἀποκάλυψις (apokalupsis) — an Uncovering.” BibleHub, n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016. (http://biblehub.com/greek/602.htm)
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