Why are we attracted to darkness? What draws us to stories about dark times, dark places, and dark characters? I don’t mean straight up horror as Stephen King explores in the much-anthologized “Why We Crave Horror Movies” (Playboy, Dec. 1981), but rather a dystopian reality where life is really really bad for almost everyone. While dystopian stories never go out of style, there are times when we are more drawn to them. Why do so many of the stories we currently choose to immerse ourselves in offer such a dark and grim worldview inhabited by such battered and weary characters? What is it about the zeitgeist of this moment in time that draws us into the darkness?
The darkness draws us at this time because it reflects our reality. The stories of any period in time are driven by the events of that world and today we live in a dark, violent world occupied by real monsters, pandemics, and global crises. Even in America (aka the land of the free) we often feel powerless to combat political and corporate machinations, thanks to omnipresent camera phones we are more aware of violence in our world than ever before, the effects of climate change seem to be everywhere, and the our society seems more fragmented and divided by the day. There are no easy solutions or answers to these challenges and there is no endgame. How can it not feel like the end of days?
While it may seem counterintuitive to seek an escape from this grim reality into an even more grim fantasy, there are actually very sound emotional and psychological reasons for this choice of subject matter. First, there is the simple reassurance that no matter how dark our current reality is at least it could be worse. We could be living with zombies, an animal uprising, vampires, or a virulent virus causing one or more of these things. Even though our world feels increasingly violent and dangerous, at least there are still guardians, laws, and courts, no matter how corrupt or inept they may seem, we do not live in the wild west or the outer rim or a post-apocalyptic world. We still have hospitals, supermarkets, and running water, and even if some of these modern systems are broken and failing, we have the personnel and technology to repair or reinvent them.
However, I think we are also drawn to dystopian tales because of the human stories we find within them. We see our dystopian heroes suffer and lose, yet they do not give up. They face terrible odds and struggle with horrific realities and yet they continue to battle. They face down their losses and struggle through their pain. How can we not find hope and reassurance in these stories? These reminders of the indomitable human spirit can help us survive not only the present horrors of our world, but the unique challenges and trials of our individual lives. They provide inspiration when we need it. These heroes also show us that not all humans are a waste of space and resources. Dystopian heroes can help us find good in people and both simple and heroic acts.
Another aspect of these human stories is even more personal. In these heroes we can see ourselves as they explore what it means to be human, to respond to a crisis, and face our deepest fears. We can watch how these characters struggle with their own limitations to overcome challenges and survive. We can bond with these heroes and with each other as we consider how our lives are like a zombie apocalypse and what tools we need to get out alive. I believe, ultimately, one of the main attractions of the dystopian story is the exploration of our own humanity. What kind of hero will we be when we are put to the test? What sacrifices are we willing to make for the greater good? What price are we willing to pay to survive?
We are drawn to dystopian stories, because they reassure us that our world could be worse, humans can overcome terrible challenges, and we can survive and learn from adversity. What draws you to dystopian stories? Why are stories such as The Walking Dead and Hunger Games so popular?