Over the past decade or so, American pop culture has been overwhelmed with images of the End Times. Virtually every television network that shows scripted programming has or has had an apocalypse-themed program, from The Walking Dead on AMC to The Leftovers on HBO and The Last Man on Earth on Fox. Movies, too, have been shot through with visions of destruction, from epics like 2012 and World War Z through to smaller art films dealing with the implications of tragedy. Even literature has seen its fair share of End Times scenarios, with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road even winning awards for its nuanced and thoughtful portrayal of the complete collapse of civilization. Although apocalyptic media come in wildly different flavors, ranging from adventure to tragedy to comedy, there is an underlying theme that America is facing collapse.
Many have wondered how we arrived at this theme, and there have been a number of explanations. One of the most obvious is that apocalyptic scenarios are a reaction to the economic challenges that the country faced following the collapse of the housing bubble and the Great Recession of 2007-2008. While this may have exacerbated the theme in media, there were apocalyptic narratives before then and they have scarcely abated in popularity with the recovery of the economy.
A second suggestion is that the apocalyptic theme represents cultural anxiety about the loss of American identity in the wake of globalization. In other words, it can feel like the end of the world to some Americans when they see their traditional way of life pushed aside in favor of foreign customs and global rules. While there is something to be said for this argument, the fact is that people who live in diverse areas where they are exposed to global diversity actually have less anxiety about culture than people who live in areas where their way of life has barely changed in the wake of globalization.
Perhaps then the third choice is the one that best explains the current interest in the apocalypse: racism. In these narratives, a hearty band of mostly white heroes have to stand up for the “real” America in the face of catastrophic changes that often take the form of an invasion of American territory by foreigners, monsters, zombies, or other outside forces. These narratives reflect to an extent the same feelings that engender efforts to build a wall to keep Mexican nationals from crossing the U.S. border illegally. In both cases, the self-described heroes see themselves as representatives of a pure America that is threatened by the appearance of outsiders.
In modern zombie narratives such as The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, these outsiders can easily be conceived as illegal immigrants and the formerly “real” Americans that their corruption converts into monstrous “takers” who literally feed off of the shrinking pool of mostly white American heroes.
In these narratives, we see the anxiety of the former American majority, who in fiction and in fact are worried that non-white people will “outbreed” them. Within the next few decades, white Americans will no longer command a majority in the United States, and already nonwhite births exceed those of white Americans. This demographic trend can appear to be an apocalypse to those who see American identity as intimately tied to white Euro-American heritage. To that end, the demographic shift to a minority-majority nation can appear to be an apocalypse, signaling the end of traditional power structures and traditional racial hierarchies.
Many argue that individuals within a culture are loathe to articulate the kinds of feelings that can appear to be politically incorrect, and in this specific case, many who enjoy apocalyptic fiction might not even realize the reasons that the stories resonate with them. But as we look deeper into the underlying meanings, we can see that fear about the demographic changes in American society might well be behind such stories. We don’t have to look far for proof. The zombie genre gives us plenty of ammunition. The zombie narrative began in the early twentieth century with movies in which white women were seduced into becoming zombies by evil Caribbean natives of mixed race, as in White Zombie (1941). In the classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), the entire narrative is undercut when white southern law enforcement officers treat the Black hero as indistinguishable from a zombie, with the clear message that the zombie uprising is meant to be an analogue for the race riots then plaguing America and threatening white power structures.
About the author: Jeremy B. is a professional essay writer who works on a freelance basis at SmartWritingService.com – online custom writing service. He has been helping students with writing academic papers since 2010.