Perspectives of the Apocalypse.Is there a coming apocalypse? Will the sun go out? Will the Earth be swallowed in darkness? Of course. It will happen to each of us in turn. A personal doomsday. We will endure our own individual Armageddon while lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by drip stands and ECGs, while the bustling world beyond our hospital room continues regardless. This, surely, is the root of the horror genre. Beneath the hyperbolic entertainment, the hoards of vampires, aliens and zombies, is a pre-occupation with mortality. Horror stories might be categorised as fantasy, but they demonstrate a clear-eyed appreciation of our precarious position in the world that plenty of supposedly realistic genres ignore.
Doomsday fiction thrives during times of catastrophe. The archetypal pandemic tale, Daniel Dafoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, was written in 1722. It is a fictional account of The Great Plague of London, however the events it describes (mass graves, mass suicides, an exodus to the countryside) were still within living memory. Dafoe’s novel is often treated as oral history.
The big-daddy of science fiction cataclysm, HG Well’s War of the Worlds, was also written during a time of existential threat. War of the Worlds was published in 1898. It was part of a phenomenon that came to be known as ‘invasion literature’, a body of popular fiction created during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries demonstrating a preoccupation with invasion from abroad. This was a period that saw a rapid expansion of German naval power, a threat reflected in novels like The 39 Steps, Dracula, and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.
In fact one can track the ebb and flow of western paranoia over the years by examining various productions of War of the Worlds. The original novel was published during the slow slide into the First World War. The second notable production, Orson Welles’ classic radio drama, was broadcast on Halloween 1938, and reflected a US fear of foreign attack borne out by the bombing of Pearl Harbour three years later. The 1953 movie was released in the dying months of the Korean War and was saturated with nuclear paranoia. The film featured the use of atomic weapons to repel the Martian invaders, and the central character was re-cast as a Manhattan Project scientist. The 2005 Steven Spielberg version added post-9/11 imagery. The movie featured dialogue references to terrorism and added a lengthy sequence involving a crashed passenger jet.
Dafoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year and HG Wells’ War of the Worlds both share a similar perspective. They are both stories of ‘little guy’ protagonists struggling to stay alive in a world gone to hell. The protagonist of Dafoe’s novel is a young man attempting to flee plague-ridden London and find refuge in nearby countryside. The hero of War of the Worlds is a London journalist struggling to survive the anarchic chaos of invasion and locate his wife. Both novels pre-figure the rash of found-footage POV movies which have become a standard feature of the apocalyptic genre, for example Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, The Last Broadcast, Cannibal Holocaust, and Rec.
This spate of found-footage movies is, of course, largely driven by technology. Narratives like Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead and Rec are only possible because the protagonists have access to light-weight digital camcorders. And we have been trained to accept this kind of shakey, poorly-focused subjective camerawork by news bulletins. The recent Japanese tsunami was considerably smaller than a massive tidal wave which swept across the Indian Ocean in 2004 and killed a quarter of a million people. Yet the Japanese flash-flood made a much greater impression on the global psyche. The reason is obvious. A combination of CCTV footage and camera-phone clips captured astonishing images of the tidal surge as it washed across Japan. Years ago, this event would be relegated to a paragraph in the foreign news section of a newspaper. But, thanks to cameras and social networks, we find ourselves on the streets, experiencing terror and confusion as the disaster unfolds around us. Similarly, the current civil war in Libya would, in times past, been consigned to the mid-section of a broadsheet newspaper. But thanks to mobile phone footage, we find ourselves sharing the dusty streets with placard-waving rebels, witnessing the bullet-strikes, blood and screaming.
This represents a welcome shift of perspective.
Compare two alien invasion disaster movies. Independence Day (1996) and Cloverfield (2008).
Independence Day was made during the complacently prosperous nineties. We have a God’s-eye view of the action. We follow the major players in an alien attack: scientists, generals, fighter pilots, the president himself. They defeat the alien invaders in a cathartic air-punch series of explosions. This wish-fulfilment is fun, but ultimately bogus. We know, deep down , that the cheap, implausible victory does not reflect the reality of life. The idea that the hero can defeat an entire race of aliens is an essentially a childish daydream of omnipotence and invincibility.
We instinctively understand, when we watch Cloverfield, that the reality of a disaster situation is chaos, panic and indecision. The hero of Cloverfield is an unremarkable guy struggling to survive in a city gone to hell. He is one of the crowd. He, like the narrator of War of the Worlds, is simply trying to cross a ravaged landscape and reach his partner. He has no hope of defeating the alien invader. He just wants to save his girlfriend and get to safety.
This, ultimately, is the great lesson of apocalyptic fiction. End-of-the-world stories are tales of tenacity and Stoicism. Skyscrapers topple, city populations are reduced to ravening undead, heroes face-down on-rushing death. Our lives may seem humdrum in comparison, but we wrestle similar anxieties. We may not battle zombies every day or navigate streets filled with smoking rubble, but we confront our own mortality each time we look in the bathroom mirror and inspect slackening skin and greying hair. Every human life is a story of disaster postponed.
A dark fate awaits us all.