Zombies, Thanos' snap, imminent global destruction—why do we love tearing it all apart?
What happens when society begins to fall to pieces? What things do you see in your everyday life that make you worry the world as we know it might not be around forever?
Of course, these are the kinds of questions ordinary people might think about from day to day, but they're also the start of many writers' best ideas. And guess what? It turns out there's some real psychology behind all of these issues.
If you love a story that shows the entire world collapsing, and if some of your favorite tales are about when things go so wrong we have to rebuild society, this is the right article for you. Today I want to cover San Diego Comic-Con's panel that discussed the world falling apart... in fiction. I got to sit in and listen to "Zombies, Blips, and the Apocalypse! Why Write Stories about Disruptions?" This stellar panel covered world-ending ideas fromThe Walking Dead to Infinity War, 28 Days Later, and the Age of Apocalypse. It talked about why writers and fans have always been obsessed with tales of doom.
The panel of psychologists, anthropologists, writers, and fans included Dr. J. Scott Jordan (Dark Loops Productions), Dr. Stanford Carpenter (Institute for Comic Studies), Dr. Tom Bertolotti (Legosophy), and Ms. Brittani Oliver Sillas-Navarro (Black Panther Psychology). They discussed their favorite disruptive tales and examined the human condition of creators putting people in bizarre, extreme situations.
So why do we spend so much time thinking and writing about the end of days?
You can trace all this back to Plato's Cave and philosophers challenging what it means to be alive, and what humans owe to one another. When the world crumbles, we stop seeing the shadows on the wall, and instead see the reality behind every shadow. (And the world we probably were never meant to know about.)
The beginning of the conversation was about stakes. Many times, writers lean into stories about life and death because those are the most significant stakes available. When you deal with elements that big, it makes any genre feel important, and it keeps people on the edge of their seats.
As more and more stories are written, it can feel like we're running out of ways to destroy the earth. There are only so many zombies, aliens, and natural disasters that can take apart the world. With that in mind, the real twist for modern writers across mediums is how we see society, and how the destruction reflects our fears about what's going on in the world. Living through a pandemic made these stories way more tangible for a larger audience, for instance.
What I loved about this panel was the psychology behind every idea. In these works, we're confronting death, loss, and the ability to move on, knowing death comes for us all. We're gravitating toward these kinds of stories because people like seeing trauma. We're envisioning ourselves being better.
No one pictures themselves as a zombie. We imagine ourselves as the person who's acting in the name of humanity... even if that means doing inhuman things to stay alive. When people write about system degeneration, they're mostly writing about the totality of what it means to be human. We're looking at the complex dualities, yearning, and learning that exemplify what it means to be alive. These stories lend themselves to the study of morality and the fine line between chaos and order that we walk every day.
The writing here is also about systems. We see society as a system, but also, these stories confront our internal system as well. Whether that's a virus or plague or natural disaster, or some sort of emotional trauma characters have to face, the denigration of these systems is perfect for drama and conflict. And as we know, conflict is the root of all storytelling. We want to see characters overcome or be swallowed up by these major conflicts. What better genre than world destruction?
There's also a fun element of worldbuilding here. You get to build what the world looks like in chaos. And if the structure is coming back, you get to look for what the world might look like if we were going to build it back better. Also, you have to consider what flaws we would fall into no matter what, since power is handed off between fallible people.
All things considered, these types of stories will always be relevant and popular because it places a lot of work on the audience. We're always deciding the morals of the project based on how we think and feel about the actions of the characters. We also get to participate in the imagining of what we would do if placed in these hard situations. It challenges binary notions of morality and excites us. That's why it's popular.
Let me know what you think in the comments.