The Apocalypse Strain

by Mark McCann

From an early age, humans know that they are going to die. This isn’t an innate thing. What separates us from our primate cousins is language. We have recorded a rich history of death, and so from our early days, we are schooled, usually via our world religions[G1]  and media-platforms, in our imminent mortality.

So how does this relate to the post-apocalypse?

Humanities preoccupation with Thanatos, our spiritual and physical death, would seem appropriate in the context of religion. According to spiritual dogma, w[G2] e’re going to a better place. At least it’s been speculated since no one can actually tell us.

whether that be a heaven of sorts or a new life through reincarnation, the transmigration of the soul is something that offers a degree of security to life’s ending.

Why then, in an age of spiritual decline, do we find ourselves fascinated not just by our deaths as individuals, but as cultures, and more broadly speaking; as species in general?

Germanic Lutheran theologian Rudolph Bultmann wrote:

There is better comfort in the thought that life itself is a questionable good with its toil and tribulation so that it can seem to be better never to have been born or, having been born, to die again. Death does at least bring rest, and suicide can be represented as liberation from ignominy and suffering.[G3] 

But this release from life’s sufferings does little to explain why we’re so preoccupied with the suffering part.

The post-apocalypse tends to signify an end of civility and a descent into the sort of chaos that was normal to our ancient ancestors. Small roaming bands of hunters bound by tribal affiliations that require trust and reliability in dominance hierarchies based on merit and savagery if we were to survive.

When we watch Mad Max, we are fascinated by the struggle of Max Rockatanski for his family’s group survival, initially. Their deaths, the fall of the last vestiges of order, followed by Max’s own descent into madness, while initially appealing, is once again supplanted by director George Millers continued reintegration of the loner into group survival scenarios. Max becomes the de facto tribal leader and [G4] saviour.

Our heroic, messianic myths entwine with our group survival instincts, and as modern audiences, this is satisfying to us on [G5] a primal level. There is something appealing about the simplicity of hegemony within a group where everyone feels important; a functional, necessary member of a larger organism.

War correspondent Sebastian Junger wrote:

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact, they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.[G6] 

Deployed in Afghanistan, Junger tells of the deep bonds he felt for his platoon in the navel of the desert, surrounded and under fire. On returning home he was beset by a malaise, as the hollowness of modern society, the intrinsic disconnectedness became prevalent and depressing.

Whether it be the Zombie apocalypse of the Walking Dead, the Vampiric aftermath of Stakeland, or the totalitarian Ape society of Planet of the Apes, all of these landscapes have a common theme. Small bands, or tribes if you like, of humans. Come together for a common purpose; survival.[G7] 

Modern society is both insulating and isolating. Technology pushes us ever further from our nature, at once dichotomies as a species searching ideologically for peace, yet fuelled by a need to sustain this desire through war.

Yet to enjoy the idea of survival is a potent tincture that celluloid provides to a decadent west. In lieu of the real danger that other less fortunate cultures face daily.

Technological supremacy has allowed us to prosper and promulgate the idea that we are beyond the follies of our ancestors. It is perhaps this vast technocratic empire, with access to almost unlimited information on a whim that provides us with the ability to introspect in ways that older cultures never could.[G8] 

Had Romans the ability to foresee that their decadence, over-expansion[G9]  and elitism would lead to a fall at the hands of Alarik and his barbarian horde, would they not have thought about it, fictitiously even? [G10] 

Could the Aztecs have imagined a ‘Hernan Cortes,’ the Spaniard invader who would lead to their decimation, enslavement and virtual extinction, might they not have morbidly pondered their end? The Mayans, famous for predicting an apocalypse, succumbed to something they could have imagined.

The lack of forewarning. Indeed, the propensity for hope at the lay level and ignorance and greed at the bureaucratic – these all too human traits were the beneficiaries of invasion and subsequently an apocalypse for the aforementioned empires.

As an advanced civilisation, bipedal apes endowed with rich technologies that allow us insight into the fall of these empires, perhaps it is as much a curious thought experiment as it is an ancestral memory that drives us towards thoughts on our own apocalyptic demise.

‘It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves’ – T-800 Terminator

Industry has allowed us freedoms beyond even the richest of older civilisations, and with this comes the time, leisure and knowledge access to introspect and consider our mortality as individuals, but also a species.

The 20th century is thus a unique time to be alive. We can introspect on our own cultures gave the industrial means to prosper a[G12] nd luxuriate in our free time. But also, that of other, older cultures that have fallen before us. Their histories are open to us in ways no other civilisation could imagine. Or could they?

Westerners have the apocalypse broadcast to us daily. No news is good news and human brains are obsessed with stories and information that could affect our survival. War. Extreme weather. Natural disasters. Plague. Famine. Our speculative fretting has remained the same for centuries, though now it is part of our entertainment. But what about cultures who saw their decimation on a colossal scale first hand.

Alternative historian Graham Hancock proposed a fascinating theory based on an account of Atlantis in Plato’s Timaeus. Hancock writes:

‘the war and the destruction of Atlantis was said to have been in 9600 BCE: a date we now understand to have been in the midst of the end of the last Ice Age.’

A fuller insight into the claims can be found here, but the gist of Hancock’s theory, further explored in his book Magicians of the God’s, is that Atlantis was one of the original proto-apex civilisations. Its fall was due to the asteroid impact of the North American ice-shelf. The subsequent release of melt-water led to a global catastrophe. A flood spoke of in many cultural [G15] myths.[G16] [G17] [G18] 

The native people of North America and Mesoamerica, along with Asia, Australia, Africa and over 60 cultures across Europe and the middle-east all report a cataclysmic flood. For a period, our planet bore a striking similarity to Waterworld.

Hancock’s conclusions were that our descendants were the survivors of what would have been a massively evolved culture for its time period. The Egyptians, thousands of years later would be a seed culture of the once great Atlantean’s.

Of course, this is well-researched speculation. But [G19] it’s worth wondering that with the loss of the Great Library of Alexandria[G20]  to an 800-year decline following intellectual purges, accidental fires and various conflicts that took their toll, what knowledge of the ancients and their theorised post-apocalypse was lost with it?[G21] 

It’s worth wondering how much of our own post-apocalyptic obsession is simply genetic memory passed down through the ages. Of one mass extinction event from which our ancestors fled and barely survived.


Once we get past the grand thought experiment, there is a much smaller, more obvious and more potent reason for why we humans are obsessed with the post-apocalypse.

It may be a seeded dream passed down through our genes, our cultural histories and our religions and mythology. Maybe, it’s a defence mechanism against repeating the same disastrous processes now that we have evolved deeply knowledgeable and introspective cultures.

The simpler answer to our apocalypse strain of thought is to stop our own fear of a civilisation level extinction event by limiting its power over us. Through art, we can discuss the elephant in the room. Global warming, multiple wars, economic crises, natural disasters and all manner of human atrocity are horrors we tune into every day. [G22] We are intimately aware we might die at any time.

Author Matt Haig notes:

‘All that humans create serves solely to lessen the terror of existence.’

And this existential terror has preserved us since we were hominids grazing on the African savanna.

We are no longer the hunted, having achieved global dominance and vanquished our species apex predators. Yet in doing so we have come to prey upon ourselves.

The human struggle is to survive, and in looking at the post-apocalypse we remember that we have survived before. We may be required to do so again. But in thinking about it, we at least lessen that fear. In watching films, reading books and comic books and playing games about post-societal survival, we escape to a fantasy where tribal warfare and knife edge instincts strip us down to our baser needs.

And there’s a part of us that enjoys it. Even if only voyeuristically, and hopefully from afar.

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