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From "Walking Dead" to "Doomsday Preppers," What's Behind TV's Post-Apocalypse Fantasies?

Long before the Mayan apocalypse loomed, people have been obsessed with doomsday prophecies. Look back to the Book of Revelation and count the times the world ends, then pops back into shape like a cartoon character flattened by a steam roller, only to be clobbered again in some new way. But this particular cultural moment seems obsessed in new and particular ways with the end of the world. Apocalypse is everywhere on television these days, from the zombie-infested horrorscape of “Walking Dead” to the post-technological wasteland of “Revolution.” (We might even add “Treme” in its portrayal of post-Katrina New Orleans.)

These shows are fantasies, but they highlight anxieties about societal dissolution that are all too real. In fact, this survivalist panic now has its own reality show, National Geographic Channel’s “Doomsday Preppers,” following right-wing survivalists preparing for the end of  civilization. One might see apocalyptic portents everywhere in the political and environmental landscape: the melting glaciers and northeast hurricanes; the collapse and zombie-like reanimation of the financial system; the decade-long wars, and the eternal war on terror; the gluttonous rearing-up of corpocracy. Notably, none of the current apocalyptic productions approach the major real civilization-threatening danger: climate change.  But for the contemporary apocalyptic imagination, it doesn’t matter how civilization as we know it ends; the apocalyptic event is just a pretext for the social breakdown—and justified violence—that follows.  

When civilization collapses, two types of society typically emerge from the ruins. One consists of people who try to maintain standards of decency, consensus, and altruism; the other forms itself into a quasi-fascist community, generally ruled by a charismatic leader who commits senseless and sadistic violence. In “Revolution,” General Monroe—the leader of the militia that controls the northeast—is a sadist, using torture both to exert power and to satisfy his own desire to inflict pain and witness suffering. The governor in “Walking Dead” likewise uses violence in ways that are both publicly symbolic and insidiously personal. He even, at what would seem absurdly unacceptable risk, keeps captured zombies for use in deeply disturbing gladiatorial games.

But in these post-apocalyptic worlds, the communities committed to justice and decency must use violence as well. A recent episode of “Revolution,” showed a flashback to a moment shortly after the universal failure of technology. A man armed with a knife is stealing a family’s food, having captured their young child. The husband is holding a gun, but will not or cannot use it. Even after the marauder releases the child and turns to go with the shopping cart of supplies, we see the husband holding the gun with a trembling hand. The camera pans back to the bad guy walking away. Then there is a shot; the man falls. The camera pans back to the family, but it is the woman who now holds the gun and has killed in order to save their food. According to the logic of the show, this is good, necessary violence. There is, after all, no law; only force.

This is part of what makes the post-apocalypse such a desirable, ecstatic condition: You can maintain your scruples but act violently anyway, because you must. The apocalypse reveals the savagery at the root of human social life, and so it allows the strong to be strong, and the true survivors and leaders to shed their humility, failure, and anonymity and become who they truly are.

The Doomsday Preppers want to protect themselves and their families from the marauding hordes who have not prepared themselves, who will flee the doomed cities seeking food and shelter in the suburbs and countryside. This is the terror: of society collapsed, gone mad, reduced to violent, fatal encounters between strangers–the provident and improvident, those who know how to survive (and therefore are worthy of surviving) and those who don’t, those who foresaw and those who were complacent, those who valued their families and those who were careless, those possessing the moral judgment of true Americans and those who lived in the sinful cities. None of the Preppers on the program live in cities. None are African American, Jewish, Muslim, Asian, or Hispanic. It is a Tea Party conservative demographic right down the line. The hordes they fear are the very same aliens who reelected Barack Obama.

Every apocalyptic fantasy emerges not only from fear but also from desire: the wish that the catastrophe occur. The real-life Preppers look forward to the days of violence when they can shoot down the useless, starving urban refugees the way humans shoot down zombies. They’ve stocked their weapons and ammo; they train, they teach their children. The basic fantasy of justified violence in a world without social structures or law is the same as in “Walking Dead” and “Revolution.” These are fantasies of an imagined world in which genuine, just, democratic, caring social life on a large scale is impossible; that the real human reality is violent struggle and the survival of those who know how to use violence to get what they want.