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Why America Is Obsessed With Survivalism


Lately we’ve become somewhat obsessed with movies, TV shows, books, and video games that envision a post-apocalyptic world. This October, “The Walking Dead” will premier its seventh season on AMC, while its spin-off “Fear the Walking Dead” debuts its second season in April.

Although zombie movies have been around for decades, it’s only been in the past 15 years or so that the post-apocalyptic tale has become an important cultural touchstone in America, particularly in imagining what life would look like in the aftermath.

What does this fixation on the idea of survival say about our society? And more importantly, what does it say about ourselves and how we interact with our own mortality?

The Apocalypse Craze Has Lasted More than a Decade

The recent zombie-pocalypse craze began in 2002 with Danny Boyle’s acclaimed “28 Days Later,” a story about a man who wakes up in a London hospital only to find out that a virus has wiped out most of England and perhaps the world. Those infected are like crazed zombies. “World War Z,” a personal favorite, is an adaptation of a novel in which the United Nations tries to find a cure for a zombie virus after all major world cities have fallen to the lightning-fast “zekes.” Video games like “The Last of Us” allow you to enter into these kinds of worlds and try to survive.

In all of these stories, something disrupts regular life for everyone on Earth.

Zombies aside, countless post-apocalyptic tales have utterly captured our imaginations in recent years. In films, we’ve had major productions like “I Am Legend,” “Children of Men,” the Planet of the Apes series, and last year’s Oscar-nominated “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Young adult fiction features an endless supply of these kind of stories, from the Hunger Games series to “Maze Runner” and “Divergent.” In literature, there was Cormack McCarthy’s harrowing novel “The Road,” which was adapted for film in 2009, and Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel “Station 11,” which features a virus that wipes out much of the world and breaks down society.

In all of these stories, something disrupts regular life for everyone on Earth. People are no longer going to their jobs, playing sports, or watching TV. Perhaps most importantly, no one is spending time on computers and smartphones.

The Meaning Inside Fighting for Your Life

Many of these narratives contrast a main character’s otherwise struggle-free pedestrian Western life with the disaster that is soon to strike. They are thrown suddenly into a chaotic world of roving bands of criminals, zombies, or government agents. They depict man going back to a near state of nature. He must recreate organized society, even if that society is made up of only the few people with whom he has thrown in his lot. They have to start over wherever they are. Water is scarce and must be fought for and protected. The survivors make their own clothes and grow and hunt for their own food. Life is hard but in some ways straightforward.

Existence is so easy, especially in the West, that it disconnects us from our humanity in some ways.

Here we get down to the kernel of why we are so drawn to these stories. They show people having to fight for their very life. They aren’t checking Twitter or posting a selfie on Instagram. They aren’t picking out their favorite variety of cruciferous leafy greens at Whole Foods. They’re just trying to make it one more day. We, as a society, are utterly out of touch with what it would mean to live every day with only one goal: survive.

We work hard, sure, but it’s not the same. Everything is easy. The water just comes out of the pipe. The food is sitting at the grocery store for us to pick up. What’s more, much of our existence is made up of leisure time. So we wonder what it was like when people used to have to work from morning to night just to keep their small household going. What if, like in “The Walking Dead,” my social network shrunk to just the people within a few miles of myself? What would it look like if everything in my life suddenly changed?

Somewhere deep down, perhaps we are aware of the superficiality of our day-to-day life, so we crave having to struggle for our survival. It puts us in touch with our own mortality, not by provoking fear and insecurity, but by awakening a desire to touch our human frailty and really feel it. Existence is so easy, especially in the West, that it disconnects us from our humanity in some ways. The numbness of modern existence becomes a burden. On some instinctual level, we want to fight for our life.

In Distress, We Drastically Simplify to What Matters

These days, we are overwhelmed with media and information and leisure. Surely some part of us wants to go back to basics, without cell phones and social media, gossip and politics. In most of these post-apocalyptic books and movies, technology has broken down completely. The stories appeal to us because they show people returning to the fundamentals of existence, struggling to meet their physical needs and maintain real human relationships—offline.

The stories appeal to us because they show people returning to the fundamentals of existence.

This phenomenon manifests itself, increasingly, in the survival industry and the more than 3 million real-life “preppers” in America who stockpile food and water, and sometimes guns and ammo. Some even take survivalism courses on how to hunt for food, do basic first aid or get clean drinking water. They aren’t restricted to the militia crowd, and they aren’t wackos out in the woods. They include professional upper-middle-class men and women who want to be ready if disaster strikes.

It wouldn’t be fair to say these people are hoping for such a calamity, but some part of them yearns for things to be hard yet simple again. There is a certain excitement in people’s voices when they talk about a possible EMP attack, or when Ebola first appeared in the United States. It’s not sick morbidity or ungratefulness for this prosperous Western life. Nor is it golden-age syndrome. It’s just a desire to put one’s finger on the pulse of life. To know and acknowledge our mortality in a society that constantly tries to shield us from it.

So we watch “The Martian” or “Revolution,” or play “The Last of Us.” We stockpile water and ravioli (high in protein and vitamin C to fight scurvy). And we imagine what it would be like to fight to stay alive.