I remember watching Orson Welles’ The Man Who Saw Tomorrow with my brother sometime during the 1980’s. As a relative youngster at the time, I was terrified of the implications of the movie. I had very little knowledge of the controversies surrounding Nostradamus’ writings, and so I took it all very seriously. The world would end in the 1990’s, and that was that. Toward the end of the documentary, I turned to my brother and simply said, “Well, I guess we don’t have to go to college.” He nodded agreement.
That afternoon and our encounter with Nostradamus seemed to form a growing fascination with The End. Of course, during the 1980’s, I had plenty of apocalyptic movies and TV shows from which to choose. We feared the Russians and the atomic bomb, and these fears were certainly reflected in our entertainment. Growing up with those movies and shows, though, I felt the world to be ready for apocalypse.
Perhaps the most well known movie of the time was The Day After, which was released when I was in elementary school. That movie was extremely moving and disturbing, and in fact, it still is. At the time, I searched for information on the meaning of an EMP that was accessible at my reading level. The loss of all electronics seemed unimaginable even then; I can’t possibly begin to imagine the devastation now that we depend so much on our computers and phones. Too I attempted to read an adult novel about an atomic blast. I was unable to finish it but longed to know more about these bombs that were such a danger to all of us.
The next year I would see the movie adaptation of The Children’s Story, one apocalyptic story that was a bit different and yet even more alarming. Written by one of the most popular authors of the time, this story takes place in a children’s classroom. A militaristic younger teacher takes over the classroom and systematically breaks down their beliefs. We watched this movie in one of my classes to fill in some spare time. While the other kids seemed ready to leave, I wanted to stay and finish the movie. I was fascinated. The movie was perhaps even more troubling because it showed just how easily our steadfast beliefs can be eroded. Not apocalyptic in the classic sense, it certainly showed the end of our society.
My interest in The End would only grow after that. I would turn again and again to apocalyptic stories that allowed readers a glimpse of not only the depravity of humanity but also our resilience. Although I always love a little action in my movies and tv shows and books, that was not the attraction for these stories. The best of these stories explored the reaction of everyday people to the loss of all that they knew. Would they rise to the occasion and become even better? Or would they become worse than the animals?
It is a difficult question and one that seems even more pressing now that we see daily atrocities in our news. Is this the way of the future, the sight of unimaginable horrors, such as those images coming out of Syria? How can a person survive the total destruction of their world and retain their own humanity?
I wish I knew the answers to these questions. The impossibility of it all is almost enough to make me want to escape into LOL Cats land. I would hope that we wouldn’t do that, however. Apocalyptic fiction at its best can give us some hope for all of us. We, of course, who are reading that fiction must also remember that there are those who don’t have that luxury and who live daily through their own End.