I write this missive from the ruins of December 21, 2012, which came with blood and fire upon the heels of not one but two Raptures. I write to you from the propane-warmed heart of my Y2K shelter, where my fridge is stocked with Tang and canned juice, my shelved piled high with Maruchan ramen and bulging bags of Malt-O-Meal. The stock market has crashed: the dollar is worthless. The recently dead are walking the streets with food in their teeth, and we’re what’s for dinner. It is as we have always feared: the world has ended.
Before we discuss the end of all things and why we crave it, I want to talk a bit about fear itself. The two are connected, you see:
I fear—you fear. Fear motivates us. It debilitates us. It freezes us in our tracks; it sends us running. It makes us do stupid things. We use it against others and we are controlled by it, each of us, every single day.
What do you fear? I fear all sorts of things. Same as you—sudden accidents, sudden deaths. Injuries. Terminal illness. Someone smashing into your house at three in the morning, and you’ve only just gotten to sleep because you and your significant other were fighting again, and you see a shadow and there’s a flash maybe, and then you’re nothing.
Or worse: you see that flash and hear the blast, and it’s the back of your kid’s head that takes the shot instead of your stomach. Her pigtails twitch, her baby-blues go this way and that, and her face turns inside out. She hits the ground like a ragdoll with a rumpled fold of meat and hair for a head. One of her teeth is stuck to your cheek, and then the guy gut-shoots you and rapes and kills your wife on the floor beside you while you bleed out. And then you’re nothing.
Now, I know—that’s an extreme example. It’s not likely to happen to you at all. No way. But:
The vehicle jerking into your lane: nothing. The static charge when you touch the plastic gas tank brimming with noxious amber fluid: nothing. The sudden hot tightness in your chest during sex: nothing.
The slip getting into the shower: nothing. The errant blood-clot racing through your brain while you’re driving your family to the mall: all gone.
Me, personally—I fear becoming ill and dying before I get to see my son grow up. That shit scares me. What also scares me: raising a son. Shaping the fucking life of a human being who then has to go out into the world and figure out all this shit. I fear losing my son. I fear losing my wife. I fear one of our rare date nights becoming the night on which our son becomes an orphan.
I fear the moment when I learn that my mother has died.
What about you? Seriously—think about it for a second. Get yourself worked up. Roll it around on your tongue and taste it. Fear is everywhere and in all things. It is the thing that unites us. You and I pretty much fear the exact same thing, right down to those dark little fears that crawl about in the middle of the night when you’re trying to get to sleep and it’s almost four—the nasty little private fears we never admit to anyone.
Tornados terrify me. As in, I have tornado nightmares on a semi-regular basis, and they are horrifying. Tornados and cancer and getting shot in the head and car accidents and being decapitated by a maniac with a machete.
One fear, however, reigns above all: the bomb.
I was a very sharp, aware ten-year-old in 1985. I watched Nightline every night, network news daily. Sixty Fucking Minutes. Cable brought an onslaught of boobs and violence and twenty-four hour music videos and news. Loved the news, and followed all that Cold War business like religion. It didn’t help that my mom grew up in the fifties and was traumatized by the Cuban Missile Crisis as a young woman. Because of this, the motherfucking atomic bomb glows white hot at the center of my fears. I had nightmares for days after reading Alas, Babylon. I fear that flash in the distance—maybe it blinds me, maybe it doesn’t, but then there’s the rumbling, and it grows and grows and then everything around me is bursting into flames and I’m trying to hold my family, trying to say something to them, and then we’re on fire and our lungs boil and then we’re nothing.
Deconstructed, our varied individual fears boil down to the same thing: fear of losing control, fear of things falling apart. The individual fears personal apocalypse. Society fears Apocalypse.
See, we fear the sweeping upheaval of the infrastructure of our lives—but, on some level, we also crave it. We’ve grown sick of this world and the stream of injustices and indignities it vomits out on a daily basis, and we want to see it toppled, laid to waste. And rebuilt.This craving, this need to conquer our ultimate fear by embracing it, can even cloud our judgment. Four examples from within our own dark little corner:
George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Stephen King’s The Stand. Robert McCammon’s Swan Song. The Walking Dead.
Most Romero fans rank Dawn as their favorite of his films, and Stephen King has lamented that, for many of his Constant Readers, he may as well have have died after writing The Stand—to “Stand-fans,” nothing he’s done since will ever compare. Good luck finding copies of Baal, Stinger, The Night Boat, or any other early McCammon at your nearest B&N, but they have at least one copy of Swan Song in stock at all times. The Walking Dead is the most popular show on TV.
Is The Walking Dead the best show on television? Hardly—you can probably point to four TV dramas that leave AMC’s zombie opera looking directionless, muddled, and occasionally laughable (it’s all three). Swan Song, a novel that I’ve always considered to be, at best, an entertaining but ultimately shallow rip-off of The Stand, is not McCammon’s finest novel—readers will point to his later work instead. I cherish memories of reading The Stand for the first time, but King has written tighter, better novels—The Dead Zone, his follow-up to the sprawling tale of Stu, Fran, Larry, and that Walkin’ Dude, is but one example. Dawn of the Dead is a masterpiece, but Romero’s somber vampire thriller, Martin, is the finer film.
No—these works are not popular because they are masterworks (though some of them are). They have become indelible because they tap our shared apocalyptic fears. Constant-Readers love The Stand for the same reason that Bible-Thumpers obsess over Daniel and Revelation: they want front-row seats during the apocalypse, and they want that apocalypse to be manageable.
Ditto for the popularity of zombies in fiction/movies/video games in general these days—it’s got nothing to do with zombies. It’s about imagining the coming upheaval and placing oneself at the center of it, not as victim but as survivor.
It’s about fear—fear that drives us as individuals and as a culture—and it’s about conquering that fear, even superficially. Temporarily.
Because it’s only temporary, you realize. Your fears will come home to roost, and whether or not the bombs fall from the sky or society crumbles in riot and ruin, your world will end within the next fifty or sixty years.
You will know fear in those final, gasping moments leading up to your transition from something to nothing, and you will scream.
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