Critics and viewers have been raving about HBO’s “The Last of Us.” Set in a post-apocalyptic world that has been destroyed by a parasitic fungus, the popular video game adaptation tells a dark story of survival, love and loss.
The series is the latest in a line of recent shows and movies centered on dystopian or post-apocalyptic realities, from franchises like “A Quiet Place” and “The Hunger Games” to streaming hits like “Station Eleven” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“Post-apocalyptic narratives have been around forever and as popular narratives in print and film since the 19th century at least,” Chris Begley, an archaeologist and author of “The Next Apocalypse: The Art and Science of Survival,” told HuffPost.
He noted that the threats in these stories change over time and reflect contemporary concerns, such as nuclear warfare in the 1950s and contagions in the 1980s and ’90s.
“Now they seem more popular than ever, and that could reflect greater anxiety created by climate change, political shifts toward authoritarianism, economic stress or any number of other concerns,” Begley said. “It’s not recent, but certainly the quantity of apocalyptic narratives seems to have grown dramatically in the last couple of decades.”
As the ratings show, this increasing quantity is meeting high demand. But why are so many people keen to watch all this “apoca-tainment”? HuffPost asked Begley and some mental health experts to break down the reasons behind the appeal.
We get to explore dangerous situations from the safety of the couch.
“My research shows that people are curious about dangerous and threatening situations,” said Coltan Scrivner, a behavioral scientist and researcher at the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University in Denmark. “Post-apocalyptic shows are replete with dangers and threats that most of us have never experienced. These fictions allow us to mentally explore unknown territories, which can lead to a feeling of enjoyment when done safely, such as from your living room couch.”
Morbid curiosity is incredibly common. It’s why so many people slow down and rubberneck when they see an accident on the road. TV shows and movies give us the opportunity to explore this interest in death and darkness, face our fears and offer a bit of a thrill in the process.
“When we watch shows like ‘The Last of Us,’ our bodies and our brains engage with the content as though it’s really happening ― although much less dangerously,” said psychotherapist and “The Truth Doctor Show” host Courtney Tracy. “We are able to experience the rush of fear, adrenaline, suspense. This can help make our own world, which may be mundane at times, far more interesting.”
He added that the ability to enjoy this type of content is a privilege, as many people are experiencing real-world despair (even if not as a result of zombies). So you might feel some relief that your life isn’t as much of a struggle or feel a sense of community and empathy with the characters as you can relate to their grief, loss, strength and weakness.
“I think people just need to be mindful of how they feel watching these shows,” said Dr. Sue Varma, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University Langone Health. “Sometimes binge-watching these shows can also cause a dip in our mood if we feel we are living the reality.”
These shows make us feel less anxious and more prepared.
“Most people simply get entertainment from watching post-apocalyptic shows,” Coltan said. “However, my research suggests that these shows may also ease our anxiety if something similar occurs in the real world.”
Indeed, studies have found that people who had seen pandemic-themed movies before the COVID-19 outbreak or watched them during lockdown reported less anxiety in the early months.
“While the pandemic was not apocalyptic, I think it raised the specter of widespread societal catastrophe from something hypothetical to something we experienced,” Begley said.
Consuming post-apocalyptic content helps people feel as if they’re preparing for the worst, which feels less far-fetched in this day and age. Viewers can get ideas about what they could and would do in the event of a wide-scale societal collapse or global catastrophe.
“These fictions allow us to simulate what it would be like to live in a world like that and mentally prepare for the dangers we would face,” Coltan said. “Ever since we have had the ability to imagine and mentally explore dangerous worlds, we have done so. One study I conducted in 2020 found that many people were watching not only more pandemic-themed movies but also more horror movies.”
They tap into our desire for simpler living.
“The popularity of post-apocalyptic or dystopian future shows like this reveal a lot about our fears, of course, but also our desires,” Begley said. “We see a horrific world, but it is also a world where worries are immediate and important, and life is hard but simple. The frustrations with complex, contemporary life are replaced by immediate needs, like finding food or avoiding the infected.”
Life today is filled with concerns like having enough money for retirement or for our children’s education and the constant urge to compare our lives to the impossible standards we see on social media. These worries are nonexistent in the dystopian scenarios that play out on the screen.
“Watching these shows can be frightening and cathartic but also represent a simple, meaningful, unambiguous life, which can be very appealing,” Begley said.
The heroes are usually ordinary people.
“Audiences have a long-standing fascination with post-apocalyptic stories,” said T. Makana Chock, a media psychologist and communications professor at Syracuse University. “Movies such as ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Terminator’ and ‘The Matrix’ were hugely successful. Part of the appeal may be that of watching ordinary people discover their heroic potential against appalling odds.”
She noted that the main characters in these types of stories typically don’t start out as heroes but rather find strength in their basic humanity and decency over the course of the journey.
“But post-apocalyptic stories add another dimension to the classic hero saga that may be particularly appealing these days,” Chock added. “In this type of fiction, the apocalypse usually occurred due to corruption and stupidity among the powers that be. The survivors are ordinary individuals who manage to build new lives that, hopefully, won’t simply repeat past errors.”
There’s a sense of hope.
“Faced with the real threat of global pandemics and impact of climate disasters, audiences may find hope in imagining that somehow people will still manage to survive and thrive even after the worst that can happen happens,” Chock said.
Indeed, despite the despair and darkness in shows like “The Last of Us,” the characters still manage to find moments of victory and work toward a common goal of saving the world.
“In many post-apocalyptic narratives, survival depends on individual heroics,” Begley said. “In looking back at actual societal collapses, we see that people survive as a community.”
He explained that “The Last of Us” and “Station Eleven” highlight community and the importance of relationships, not merely surviving the horrors of the apocalypse.
″‘The Last of Us’ addressed motivation for survival very directly, as in the third episode with the life that Frank and Bill built,” Begley said. “Going beyond survival to building an acceptable life is an important part of their appeal, I believe. In ‘Station Eleven,’ the importance of things like the arts is at the forefront, which is not typical. I think there is something hopeful in that, and that makes those two shows very compelling.”