Let’s face it: we’re obsessed.
Humans, that is. We’re obsessed with our own mortality, and have been likely since the first person ever had the conscious realization, watching their tribemates pass away, that one day they, too, would “move along”.
It was only natural, sooner or later, that people would start applying this notion to their whole tribe. Their whole village. Nation. The entire human race. As perception of the breadth of humanity grew, the notion that we were all sooner or later doomed grew right along with it. Our imaginations ran wild, especially fueled when out-of-the-ordinary events happened like solar eclipses, or comets, or especially nasty volcanic eruptions. Every time it happened seemed like a pretty good indication that The End Was Nigh to the people living at the time.
For all our advances, or perhaps because of them, apocalypse still weighs heavily on our minds. I think a subconscious part of us always has an idea of The End, but it changes with the spirit of the times (the zeitgeist), and I believe whatever form seems to resonate the most in pop culture can tell you a lot about the culture of people in a particular time and particular place.
If it comes in the form of a 100-foot Marshmallow Man, you can probably guess that’s someone having a laugh. Or is it? Yeah, I’m going to overthink here, but consider Ray’s babbling in “Ghostbusters” about the nostalgia of his youth roasting Stay-Pufts around the fire… and now it’s come to kill us. Back in the 1950s and 1960s when Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis’s generation was growing up, children still ate marshmallows with carefree glee. Not like growing up in the 1980s, where every Saturday morning I was bombarded with PSAs warning me of all the dangerous of unhealthy junk food. Sure it might seem like a good idea at the time, but that stuff would ROT YOUR TEETH and MAKE YOU FAT and possibly even SEND YOU TO AN EARLY GRAVE. There’s a sense of lost innocence, of something you once thought to be harmless and fun turning against you or being somehow secretly horrible, that I figure a lot of adults of that era had knifed into their subconscious.
Back in those same 1950s and 60s, radiation and invasions from outer space seemed to be the go-to pair for apocalypse scenarios. Bonus points if you could somehow combine the two. I think I’ve mentioned before about the modern zombie apocalypse scenario, how back in “Night of the Living Dead” when it began, it was heavily implied to have been caused not only by radiation, but radiation from a crashed space probe (nowadays it’s usually represented as a disease, because we are freaking terrified of plague). Anyhow, “Day of the Triffids”, “The Day The Earth Stood Still”, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, and “The Blob” were just a smattering of the unfriendly visitors the Earth was receiving back then. Oh, and in the U.S. and U.K at least, there was also a heavy element of fear of Communism to make the moviegoing public clutch their loved ones closer (but are they REALLY your loved ones anymore?!). The original novel of Day of the Triffids was actually much more explicit about it, outright stating the Triffids were a result of bio-warfare experiments from the Soviet Union. Then you have them getting loose, spreading and inflicting themselves on a world that is quite literally blind to their menace…
Across the pond in the other direction, Japan had some still recent national tragedies to deal with, and it was no accident that Godzilla was conceived as an unstoppable monster born in atomic fire, with a penchant for destroying cities. Japanese fiction to this day seems to often have apocalyptic moments, particularly in the form of very large blasts indiscriminately destroying cities or even entire planets. Meanwhile in the U.S., we were experimenting with irradiating food and otherwise tinkering with things through science, and the jitters from that (or should I say THEM!) have resounded down the decades to this day, with radiation giving way to genetic engineering as that became the preferred zeitgeist of chicks and dudes in lab coats playing God.
On the other hand, the specter of nuclear annihilation just doesn’t seem to have quite the gut-punching impact it did in popular fiction from the 1950s to the 1980s. It’s been sort of folded into the general fear of terrorism and just doesn’t seem as “big” anymore, perhaps because we’re thinking more in terms of suitcase nukes than a stratosphere full of criss-crossing ICBMs. Its relevance to the zeitgeist ended, along with the fear of Communist invasion, when the Soviet Union collapsed… which makes me really boggle at the fact that they’re remaking “Red Dawn”. It doesn’t matter that they’ve changed to current bogeyman North Korea, I don’t think the requisite fear is there. Your average American does not subconsciously fear Kim Jong-Il interrupting their barbeque. Bin Laden, yes (though his death may put a damper on that), but North Korea is not the current face of our fears.
In fact, even though the original Red Dawn’s premise was laughable, it tapped into the zeitgeist enough to get a pass. Fear is not logical. But now downgrade the USSR of the 1980s, The Evil Empire, the Dark Superpower, to North Korea, which at last count still doesn’t even have missiles capable of reaching U.S. soil. Now consider the fact that the original script bloody well knew this and had China as the invader, but the filmmakers had to change that because of the concerns of their distributors.
Think about that for a moment. I’m on the fence about whether a film about a Chinese military invasion of the U.S. would tap the zeitgeist, because in America we’re not really allowed to speak badly of China, on account of owing them way too much money and having most of our products made there. Fear of China is not hammered into our subconscious, even though it really is the emerging new Superpower of the 21st Century world, the one probably slated to supplant America (if it hasn’t already). That should make us terrified, but our terror doesn’t extend into either our politics or our pop culture, where instead, we’re terrified of portraying anything Chinese in a bad light. I don’t know about the rest of you nations out there, but in the U.S., even for the most jingoistic of Tea Party candidates, China is not an Acceptable Target.
Hauling things back from politics, let’s consider how many “crimepocalypse” and “robotpocalypse” movies were also popular in the 1980s. Where are they now? Well, the crime waves of the 1980s dried up in the 90s, rather than leading to the complete societal breakdown people feared. The urban decay often remained and gangs were (and are) still killing each other, but with most of the middle and upper class having left for the suburbs, it just wasn’t so immediate anymore. Even in movies made today you never see post-apocalyptic kids dressed in grunge fashion… it’s always punk, because that’s the callback to the era of “Escape From New York”, “Mad Max”, etc. … the time when the crimepocalypse was still possible in our fears. “Hobo With A Shotgun” realized this so well it just flat out was made top to bottom as a 1980s movie, and while I personally found it brilliant because of that, it was a critical and commercial flop.
The 1980s also was, I believe, the last time the robotpocalypse movies struck a real chord. By the 1990s Terminator 2 had a “good robot” fighting the “bad robot”, while in the 1984 original technology was pure, soulless, implacable evil. You could argue we had a resurgence in “The Matrix”, but I’d argue there were some very mixed messages going on there, especially in the latter two movies. Even the first one didn’t really tap into fear so much as tapping into our love for good ass-kicking action movies. Why? Because frankly, people afraid of technology are a dying breed in a land where your 50-year-old aunt is playing Angry Birds on her iPhone. It’s become an integrated, almost unconscious part of our lives, to the point where the police have to fine people because they can’t stop texting while driving a speeding car. Yes, in a way this is horrifying, but it seems like it’s Asian pop culture that was, at least for awhile, the place where Technology Will Doom You. Not in the form of robots, but ghosts. Ghosts in the machine. There’s all sorts of essays and notions on this, although personally I like the theory of the culture clash starting in the 20th Century between ancient spiritualism and the ultra-modern… the idea that on some level the evil forces of Ringu and Ju-On are an antibody reaction to the loss of their relevance, striking out through an antithesis that on the one hand displaced them, but on the other hand makes them very, very relevant again.
Over here in America? The movies were remade with varying degrees of success, and while I will say The Ring was one of the most personally disturbing movies I’ve ever seen, it didn’t make me want to throw away my VCR. Technology may be something we don’t really understand or control, but it’s just so fun for us.
Maybe like the marshmallows.