Zombies, nuclear wastelands, hungry vampires, alien invaders, biblical plagues, raging illnesses concocted in labs, the desolation of protracted war, werewolves, or even unknown catastrophes that leave society irreparably destroyed; post-apocalyptic fiction has recently benefited from an explosion of interest. There are numerous novels, stories, and forms of digital media devoted to exploring a world where, in almost all cases, there is a significant depopulation of the earth. Against this backdrop of desolation and death, valiant survivors do their best to survive in a wasteland filled with harrowing dangers of both the human and non-human kind alike. The fascination with these types of stories is at an all time high, and the allure is understandable. In an attempt to explain the preoccupation and advent of the recent wave of post-apocalyptic fiction, one can argue that it is tied – from a sociological perspective - to French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s theories on Structural Functionalism.
As mentioned earlier, the types and reasons for the fall of society in these novels are manifold. From the wildly popular dystopian world of Panem in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, to the Pulitzer Prize winning bleakness of Cormac McCarty’s The Road; from the shambling, always hungry zombies of Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead graphic novels, to the snarling, vicious vampires of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Strain trilogy; we are fascinated by the end of the world. But how can we examine this fascination from a sociological perspective? There are three distinct ways in which we can better understand the appeal of a total breakdown of modern society.
The first is a longing for escape from our everyday, humdrum existence. In this case, the longing for a post-apocalyptic future is a reflection of Durkheim’s theories posited in The Division of Labor in Society. Organic Solidarity, as Durkheim explains, is a hallmark of a modern, complex, technological society, and leads to specialization of labor. As a society grows too specialized, the specialization becomes “a source of disintegration (Applerouth, Edles, 94). This dissatisfaction leads, in Durkheim’s view, to anomie. It is the idea of anomie that is at the heart of the longing for escape. Anomie describes a lack of social norms or self-regulation. It leads to a breakdown of social bonds between an individual and their community. It results in a fragmentation of social identity and the rejection of self-regulatory values. As Durkheim explained, while explaining the consequences of economic disasters in Suicide, A Study in Sociology, “…[Those affected by the disaster] are not adjusted to the condition forced on them, and its very prospect is intolerable; hence the suffering which detaches them from a reduced existence even before they’ve made a trial of it (Appelrouth, Edles 109).”
In other worlds, the fans of post-apocalyptic fiction are responding to the loss of individuality and personal self worth as a result of modernized society. As Paul Cantor explained, those members of society to whom an apocalypse most appeals to:
“…display an ambivalent attitude toward modernity in general, perhaps a general disillusionment with it, a sense that all technological progress upon which we pride ourselves has not made us happier and may, on the contrary, have made us miserable by depersonalizing our relationships and limiting our freedom “
A breakdown of society relieves people of their responsibilities and the things that should make our lives easier, causing distance between us.
Another sociological perspective that may help explain the proliferation of, and interest in, apocalyptic novels can be found in Durkheim’s idea of normative behavior, and the self-regulation of social order upon individuals. In The Rules of Sociological Method, Durkheim explores this when he talks about criminality. He argues that it is a critical and essential function of society to perform crimes; that criminal behavior is, in fact, normal and only bound by the larger moral judgment and regulation of society. He writes, “…crime is normal because a society exempt from it is utterly impossible (Appelrouth, Edles 91).
It is in this idea of normal behavior, and the morality of crime, that we find the allure of the apocalypse. The novels we’ve mentioned imagine a world where one is free from the normative expectations of their neighbors because they are dead, irradiated, or eaten by zombies. With the lack of the societal inhibitors on behavior – less the morality of societal expectations and community standards – one can find true freedom. In a post-apocalyptic landscape, the only law or moral is survival, and the constraints of society are secondary to this. The fiction of this genre appeals to a longing for lawlessness within us. We can kill, steal, and do things we might otherwise not do in a more regulated society. As Todd K. Platts observed, apocalyptic motifs, “serve as conduits of and for exploration of societal ideals, values, ideas, and ideological contradictions (551).”
Finally, the apocalypse envisioned in, for instance, Max Brook’s novel, World War Z: An Oral History of The Zombie War, is a reflection of our fears in a post 9/11 world. The novel details the fall, and eventual resurrection of society after a zombie apocalypse. Durkheim’s pivotal work, Suicide, addressed the significant social changes that bring about a lack of moral regulation. Again, as Apelrouth explains, a lack of moral regulation in times of intense social and personal change leads to individuals feeling unanchored. Furthermore, “In this case, the pursuit of individual desires and goals can overtake moral concerns (101).”
The attacks of 9/11 heightened this sense of low moral regulation and caused fear. Literature is a reflection of the mood of society, and in this case, the fear takes the shape of a bad economy, fears of terrorism, and the further breakdown of society – as Durkheim posited. As Aupers wrote, “Emile Durkheim in turn, lamented the increased power of a distant nation-state that undermined social cohesion and motivated feelings of anomie (28).” An apocalypse represents an opportunity to imagine a world where we are in charge of our own fates, and not subject to the whims and fear of larger, global threats.
At their heart, the novels discussed here, and others of the same genre, are about the degradation of social structure and fall squarely into the structural functionalism of Emile Durkheim. The fascination with a modern world that loses its structure and collapses as a result of anomie and normlessness, as Durkheim defined them, are a fantasy rooted largely in response to a post 9/11 era. The allure of post-apocalyptic or dystopian literature is primarily about the fragmentation of social identity and the rejection of self-regulatory values. But, besides that, they appeal to the survivor in all of us, and are glimpses into a world where social theory entertainingly comingles with zombies, vampires, cannibalism, and nuclear winter.
Appelrouth, Scott A., and Edles, Laura Desfor. Classic and Contemporary Sociological Theory. Los Angeles: Sage Pine Forge, 2012. Print.
Auspers, Stef. “Trust No One: Modernization, Paranoia, and Conspiracy Culture.” European Journal of Communication. 27.1 (2012). 22-34. Print.
Cantor, Paul A. “The Apocalyptic Strain in Popular Culture: The American Nightmare Becomes the American Dream.” The Hedgehog Review. 15.2 (2013). Web.
Platts, Todd K. "Locating Zombies in the Sociological Popular Culture." Sociology Compass. 7.10 (2013): 547-560. Print.