So I'm between classes (which means summer vacation! Yay!) and binging on Netflix watching apocalypse porn. My term for it, but it ties in with something TC said about porn this morning, so I'm using it purposefully as well as metaphorically.
I'm not a fan of apocalypse porn. I never watched "The Walking Dead" when I had AMC (always preferred "Mad Men"), and I don't think I missed anything. If you like that stuff, power to you. If you find it interesting, engaging, compelling, entertaining: I take nothing from you for that. I'm not here to judge the social value of such things, just to wonder why we watch it.
Violence and blood, mostly; at least, that seems to be it. Everything I've read about "Dead" focusses on the creation of gore on screen; violence against human beings, or against what used to be human beings, and by what used to be human beings. That seems to be the draw; and then you get to the "characters."
I don't want to talk about the characters; I want to talk about the genre.
Apocalypse porn has been popular for some time. "The Book of Eli" comes to mind, as well as Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" (one of his worst books, IMHO). Yes, those are a bit old, but movies have moved on to comic books now, so we have to reach back a bit. Curiously, apocalypse porn is popular in the richest and most stable and least likely to see such violence country in the world (nobody in America really wants to hear, again, about the cholera outbreaks and hell on earth we unleashed in Iraq after we accomplished our mission; or the dystopia that is now Syria; or life under ISIS, even.). We thought we were going to get that violence in New Orleans, after Katrina. Turned out those fears made the situation harder for the people in the city, but never did any part of the city, especially they SuperDome, turn into a dystopia like the movies told us would happen. We ignore real violence in the world and maps, as Auden put it, that can "point to places where life is evil now." Not interested, because it's not us.
"Dead" takes place in America. The one I'm binging on (and no, it's not very good, but I'm bored) is "Van Helsing." Yes, that "Van Helsing," of Dracula fame. Apocalypse porn, like real porn, works in standard tropes and with familiar features, the better to titillate you without too much distraction from what you came for: bloody violence and lots of it. "Van Helsing" takes place in the Pacific Northwest, because "Twilight," that's why. Vampires are real, but stay in the shadows; well, until a volcano erupts in Yellowstone and "wipes out the Western states." One character says that, by way of exposition; and you are left to figure out that, with ash filled skies, vampires can move around in the daylight, biting people (which infects them and "turns" them to vampires) or just killing outright. Our heroine is in a coma for three years as this world arises (no, we don't need to worry about why she's our heroine; not for this analysis), so she learns about it as we do. She wakes up in a hospital in Seattle, where vampires rule the sunless streets day and night. A few humans are still around, enough to make a story around. We learn later that vampires rule as far east as Salt Lake City, although Denver, being a mile up, is above the smog and fog and too daylit for vampires to enter. Supposedly.
One of the lingering questions of this narrative (and maybe it gets answered) is: where is the rest of the country? Did volcanic ash cover the continent, a la Krakatoa? Did the military, originally tasked with taking our heroine to a military base (they failed; Spoiler!) just give up and the government wrote off most of the country west of Texas-Nebraska-Minnesota? Don't know, doesn't matter; the point of apocalypse porn is that you know what's gonna happen when the pizza delivery guy shows up looking way more buff than the teenage kid who brings yours.
It's the apocalypse, and only the strong survive.
But here's the allure of apocalypse porn, at least now: it's not about "recreating civilization," or good guy v. bad guys. Most of the interest seems to be in who is worthy to live, and who deserves to die, and at whose hand? These people aren't just thinking about survival, they're guilt-tripping. Do I deserve to live? Is it right to fight to survive? Well, duh! But they don't want to be killers, they don't want to face the person they kill and see the light go out of their victim's eyes. Remember the climactic battle of "Saving Private Ryan," when the German soldier overpowers an American we've come to know and love, driving the knife into the American's chest slowly, leaning on it, forcing it in, as the American looks him in the eyes and pleads for life? And the German feels nothing: it was him or the American, this is war. We can justify killing in war, especially in "The 'Good War'". But killing to keep existing?
That's the allure: survival. Life reduced to its meanest stakes. What would you do to survive? How far would you go? Would you walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil because you are the meanest son of a bitch in the valley? Yeah, we all like to think so.
But that's Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Predator," or in any action movie he ever made. There's never a question Arnold is going to survive. Apocalypse porn lives and dies on: who will survive? And more importantly, on the question: how do they feel about that?
Superficially, this is to make us care about the characters; and that's why apocalypse porn works better on TV than in the movies. Movies have a three-act structure, and you can't kill off too many characters in the second act. You can kill off people by the score, but not characters. We need time to see the characters coping with the moral conundrums of survival, to see them come, through a series of unfortunate events, to a realization of what this brave new world has made them become. We need 7, 10, 13 episodes to get to that point, with characters dead along the way because, you know, this is the apocalypse: life is nasty, brutish, and short now.
Are you not entertained? And if so, the really pertinent question is: why? There is a widely accepted notion that vampires and zombies and other common tropes of modern entertainment are metaphors for what scares us. We fear our chemical/biological prowess, so zombies are victims of viruses and plagues. We fear the power and intimacy and dangers of sex, so: vampires (from Stoker to Rice to Meyers). We fear the power of science, so Frankenstein and then all those 50's movies about atomic war and atomic made monsters (a response to the thalidomide babies and what science had already wrought?), which we finally tamed into superheroes (the Hulk; Spider-Man, even Daredevil) who gained their powers because of radiation. So what scares us now?
Our power. Our privilege. Our knowledge, however much we suppress it or ignore it or deny it, that we live as we do at the expense of so many others; those others who become zombies or vampires, and seek their revenge on the living. We, the living. Privileged, comfortable, safe Americans. Think of the audience for this stuff: it's not Trump's America, at least not the stereotype of the Trump voter. It's people who know, somewhere deep down, that there's a pea under all those mattresses, a grain of sand in the oyster, and they can't quite sleep comfortably, and they aren't quite sure what's getting made is a pearl.
It's the seed of guilt.
I know this sounds terribly puritanical and judgmental, but we judge ourselves all the time, and we can't escape our puritan American habits of mind all that easily. We want to believe each of us, individually, is special; that if we could, we would change the world; that really, that's what we were meant to do, but family and kids and home ownership and adult responsibilities got in the way but if we could, or dream job would be helping people; especially if somebody would just pay us a lot to do it. We would change the world, we were gonna change the world: it just turned out there weren't any job openings for that position, and we needed a job.
Guilt. We know our pleasures are lived at the expense of others. Why do we wallow in apocalypse porn on video games, TV shows, graphic novels; and yet we don't want to hear one word about life in Syria? We don't want to know about the refugees from the Middle East, let alone have them in our neighborhood! But we want to sympathize with the refugees cast out of their comfort by the monsters: the zombies, the vampires, the bad guys who took over when it all finally went to smash and civilization collapsed because of some world-ending event (neither "Eli" or "Road" ever specify what happened to change things. At this point, who needs to know? That all the girls want to have sex all the time is all you need to know in porn, and that there are plenty of places to do it, day and night, and nobody has any other job to go to, aside from the delivery guy who never gets back to the pizza parlor). We want to expunge our guilt, or at least enjoy the pleasure of experiencing it without experiencing the reality, in the way Aristotle identified almost 2500 years ago.* Aristotle said tragedy brought katharsis because it showed the Greeks that chaos really did lie under the best intentions of the best leaders. Our release of emotion is not because we expect chaos to one day return, but because we know all of this is fundamentally wrong and we can't keep it up.
Like a character in apocalyptic porn, we know we have to kill others to survive, that we will even be forced to kill people like us, people who are not the monsters. We know we are doing it now, long distance: through people flying drones, or just through people dying in polluted cities so we can enjoy cheap electronics, or people living by the trash dumps leaking heavy metals form our discarded toys, our phones, our tablets, our computer screens. We know we are doing it from far away, but we don't see them, so we tell ourselves it doesn't matter. We test that truth with apocalypse porn, where the characters we identify with have to kill face to face, and have to accept responsibility for what they have done: have to justify it, have to accept it, have to move on. When they don't, quite, we honor them for their compassion. But eventually killing becomes easier, or the moral quandaries just become talking points, and the calculus remains ever the same: kill or be killed. Dead=dead; living=living; keep to the right equation or get left behind. We think we are examining our moral codes this way, our moral systems; that we are looking deeply into our collective soul, and taking stock of who we are and how we got this way. (Even westerns have become theaters of violence that would appall Caligula; but westerns have always been about who we are and how we became who we are. Don't think too closely about that, it's disturbing.)
I think this is why the military never swept in over the skies of "Van Helsing," and simply firebombed the vampires out of existence. We did it in Vietnam, we did in Germany and Japan, but this is apocalypse porn: we have to make it personal (what, really, are the possibilities of remote-control porn?). The military can't sweep in and clean up the states: they use bullets; we came for samurai swords and machetes (and true to TV apocalypse porn, those are used sparingly; just enough to keep you watching because more violence could break out at any moment. TV a.p. is more interested in narrative than real porn, but only just.).
Porn is, in the end, about remote-control sex. We watch and don't have to get involved, except in our imagination. We never really experience sex the way it is portrayed, but some of us try to. Monkey see, monkey do; which is very disturbing both for what porn teaches us about sex and other people (human beings? or simply vessels for our pleasure?), and for what it says about what we learn from watching/reading so much violence. It's remote-control sex because we aren't actually involved, so we aren't really even experiencing sexual pleasure; certainly not sexual fulfillment. Apocalyptic porn is remote-control morality. We take our twinges of guilt out for a spin, in an arena where they won't do us any harm but we get to relieve, not our fears of chaos (that's Greek tragedy) but our sense of responsibility. We test it against the "ultimate:" survival. We feel the moral burden of choosing who dies so we can live, we face squarely our wholly amoral assumption that life is a zero-sum game, but we are never the 'zero' in the sum, and we go on assuring ourselves that if it came to it, we could do it: we could find reasons for others to die so we can live, and maybe even one day restore the world lost in the scenario.
And then we go back to our regular lives, feeling better about the decisions we've made.
*sorry that's the Bronze Age. Tout le internet knows you can't pay attention to things anyone "back then" said! Or is that meme too old itself, now?