I'm betting some of the people reading this get off, at least a little bit, on seeing the world end.
Admit it. There's a fun little zing that goes through some folks when they watch Los Angeles getting nuked in Terminator 2. There's something about scrambling through the ruins of The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, Revolution, Defiance, I Am Legend, 28 Days/Months Later, et any number of crumbling ceteras, that provides a bit of a frisson.
I've gotten that zing myself any number of times. I got it while watching several of the above-mentioned items; I got it while watching Kinji Fukasaku's Virus (a remake of that movie today would almost be a shoo-in, I think); and I got it while reading Earth Abides and even She: The Ultimate Weapon. I've been there, too.
So what is it about watching our world fall to pieces, whether from 2,000 megatons, a zombie overrun, or the spontaneous deaths of all living things, that galvanizes peoples' interests, not just once but over and over again?
My thought as of late is this: I don't think we groove on post-apocalypse per se. The easy answer, one I've had for a long time, is explained by the word vicarious. Apocalypse fiction is a way for us to explore something we don't normally want to explore, even as a thought experiment, by having it couched in the safety and the remove of a work of fiction. It's a sandbox, so to speak, where we can try out various ways the world might end, and then emerge from the experience armed with some degree of relief. How glad I am that I did not, in fact, have to dig a moat around my house and fill it with boiling oil to keep the hordes of the infected at bay!
As of late, though, I think there is another psychological mechanism at work, one we may be far less aware of.
I believe we're coming to a mindset that revels in this stuff as a kind of pre-emptive warding-off mechanism. Meaning that we watch/experience/read this stuff, arm ourselves with the feeling of having endured The End Of All Known Things, and thus the actual experience of it will have thus been warded off. We believe in the magical power of the image in ways we do not always fully credit, and as of late we seem to believe that to take something vile and put its image out there, to air out its dirty laundry as it were, is to automatically deprive it of the power to become real. By rehearsing the apocalypse tirelessly, we ward it off in all its manifestations.
Who knows, maybe we do in fact ward it off that way. Maybe by examining all the ways things can go wrong right out in public, we inspire that much more caution, that much more determination not to let things end this way or that way. I suspect The Day After and Threads did far more to convince people of the futility and ghastliness of nuclear war than any number of ban-the-bomb rallies; in that sense, they functioned as my generation's Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Jungle. And for all their inherent silliness, the zombie-apocalypse stories do make some points about how our own worst enemies tend to be each other, whether literally or metaphorically.