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The Disempowerment Fantasy: a short study on the catharsis that apocalypse media provides

Writing by Susannah Lee. Artwork by Heather Baillie



I can’t wait to see which of my favourite characters got their skull caved in!’. As with anything taken out of context, this seems a peculiar thought to have. Nevertheless, the 2016 premiere of season 7 of AMC’s The Walking Dead kept us hooked to the screen after their year-long cliffhanger, to see (spoiler alert) Abraham and beloved father-to-be Glenn die in the most gruesome way. Dart forward a few years and we have HBO’s adaptation of the popular game The Last of Us smashing the broadcaster’s own decade-long record for most watched premiere with 22 million viewers in the US alone. Who doesn’t love to see the downfall of society at the hands (or spore tendrils) of a microorganism, in conjunction with the most grotesque body-horror since 1982’s The Thing?


Why are we so hooked on anguish and destruction? So-called “apocalypse porn” by former OMNI magazine editor Keith Ferrell comes to us from books, films, TV shows, video games, online content, private daydreams etcetera. Is it due to a desire for catharsis alone, or is there more to it? Certainly, the appeal of apocalypse media fits with the traditional definition of catharsis found in Aristotle’s Poetics as he critiques the skill and appeal of tragic plays. Through the experience of psychologically dire circumstances we are able to achieve respite from daily life, and minimise its trials and tribulations. This is since the extreme emotions, in tragedy typically: fear, despair, and humiliation, can be borne within the safe dramatic environment and purged from the audience’s mind and soul. Thus despite seeing the horrors of the dramatic art, such as Oedipus blinding himself or Orestes murdering his own mother, the audience leaves feeling better able to handle their own problems and psychologically cleansed. This fits the disempowerment fantasy of apocalypse media well enough. For example, many fear that the man-made climate crisis will destroy humanity. Hark! Numerous shows abound with apocalypse triggered by climate change: The Last of Us, Waterworld, even the MCU’s Thanos, ad infinitum; the phenomenon has even been labelled as the cli-fi (climate fiction) genre. Through the overt manifestation of climate anxiety, the fear can be purged (at least temporarily) from the audience while riding the socio-political zeitgeist. By confronting such a beast head-on in fiction, we indulge simultaneously the mortal desire for escapism from existential dread, while also projecting an ego-defending sense of control over such disasters.


But maybe what we seek in fictional apocalypses isn’t only catharsis, but an ego-boost, an illusion of control? Writer Frank Buresis proposes that since apocalypses have gripped the human consciousness for generation upon generation, merely changing shape each time, from SARS to Y2K to AIDS, perhaps seeing our world as so fragile yet bafflingly complex despite the human desire for control means that the easiest response is to imagine it going BOOM! A real l’appel du vide that us mere specks in our limited powers project outward to imagine the Earth itself as mortal too, as an egotistical safety blanket. By ramming this fear head on and imagining the ‘be all and end all’ situation first, we can hope to conquer the fear itself, or at least allay it. We can trick ourselves into thinking that we have any control of the destruction that the anthropocene wreaks. Through apocalypse media, we can coddle ourselves and imagine how we might survive in a post-apocalyptic world as fictional characters do. Earlier in life this self-trickery guides our adolescent death-drives as we first begin to comprehend our mortality, after an unconscious childhood of relative safety and clear authority. In the face of slowly mounting existential fear we may dive into the macabre (looking at you goth phase and ‘dark academia’ teens) and begin to obsess over legacy and personal exceptionalism (a surrogate immortality to be hopefully achieved through literary genius etcetera). The YA media trope of ‘the chosen one’ holds enduring appeal for this very reason, especially when cast in a dystopia. The cultural phenomena of Collin’s The Hunger Games, or Roth’s Divergent demonstrate this, to name only a couple. Like the exceptional protagonist we too (the angsty YA audience) are misfits in a callous world, whose unseen virtue and keen wits render our existence vital and ‘special’. The obsession with legacy is also noted by philosopher Ernest Becker as continuing and adapting often into adulthood through an attraction to heroism. Even if one dies alone perhaps there may be some noble cause for which one sacrifices oneself for; the life had a continued meaning in reality, even if unseen. Through this, Becker says that we may allay and cope with the fear of death and inconsequential nature of our own mortality. As tacky as they may be, the Marvel superheroes appeal to people both young and old for a reason.


To be fair, apocalypses can also just be used as prime contexts for compelling media on human nature. In this regard The Walking Dead and The White Lotus have a lot in common; as people are isolated and undistracted by the humdrum of regular life, creators can examine and play with the human condition. The Walking Dead frequently explores the deep connections and dynamics that exist between people and within themselves, set against a backdrop of rhythmic zombie groaning. The White Lotus plays with the deep connections and dynamics that exist between people and within themselves, set against a backdrop of rhythmic beach waves crashing. Disaster-apocalypse films often play on this too, as the distracted protagonist must risk every danger to rescue their family- think 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, or Geostorm. These heartwarming tales of human connection in the face of annihilation also help us to allay our fear of the loss of connection, empathy, and compassion in daily life, through social media and the rat race, as we see regular folk step up and prioritise love and compassion to be the surviving victor.


Bibliography:

  • Farming the apocalypse: When my life came crashing down I took shelter on my farm, surviving with 11th-century tools like the sickle and scythe - Keith Ferrell

  • Apocalypse, please: The COVID-19 pandemic, like other catastrophes before it, got some of us hooked on phobic energy and terror. Why? - Travis Alexanderis

  • Dispatches from the ruins: The human world has become bafflingly complex and strangely fragile making apocalypse the easiest thing to imagine - Frank Buresis

  • End-times for humanity: Humanity is more technologically powerful than ever before, and yet we feel ourselves to be increasingly fragile. Why? - Claire Colebrook

  • Hunger games: A new wave of videogames offers lessons in powerlessness, scarcity and inevitable failure. What makes them so compelling? - Will Wiles

  • The Denial of Death - Ernest Becker

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