The Student Movement


Facing the End of the World: What Apocalypse Stories Teach Us About Humanity

Isabella Koh

Photo by Public Domain

How would we face the end of the world?

Humans seem obsessed with that question. For centuries, they’ve turned the question around in their heads and worked out the infinite number of ways in which life as we know it might come to an end. It’s a question religions, like Adventism, try to contend with, scientists try to prevent, and artists explore endlessly. It is that question that is at the core of the apocalypse genre.

There have been countless iterations of the “end of the world” in media. According to “A Brief History of the Cinematic Apocalypse” by Chris Nashawaty, one of the first apocalypse films was a Danish production about a comet flying a little too close to earth, aptly titled “The End of the World” (1916). From giant comets to nuclear fallout, massive environmental destruction or a particularly vengeful artificial intelligence, humans seem to have a fascination with the catastrophic. Good money has been spent to watch killer aliens and zombie hoards—or a combination of the two, if it’s available. 

But all of that takes place from a safe place behind the screen, tucked under the covers in bed. When we’re finished watching an episode of “The Walking Dead,” we can turn on the lights and queue up a comedy show. When a nail-biting ride through “A Quiet Place” comes to a close, we turn on some loud music and chat with our friends. Once you’ve explored the barren wasteland of “Fallout 4,” you can turn off the computer and grab a midnight snack.

That is, until we faced what felt like our own apocalypse. When Covid-19 hit, suddenly home didn’t feel like a sanctuary and screens didn’t feel like they were protecting us anymore. Our friends and our families were locked down and away from us. In those first few weeks and months, all of those fears and speculations about the end of the world suddenly felt much more real. Suffice it to say, when the pandemic hit, life as we knew it came to an end. That age old question echoed back at us, now with an overtone of truth: how would we face the end of the world?

Now, almost three years later, we stand at an uneasy distance from the devastation that followed the spring of 2020. But as life keeps moving and artists keep creating, the apocalypse narrative has taken on a deeper meaning. As far-fetched as the stories may seem, they carry a new sense of reality, weighed upon by our recent history.

On January 15, HBO released the first episode of its highly anticipated TV adaptation of the video game “The Last of Us.” The premise of the show centers on a species of Cordyceps fungus that mutates and infects humanity, turning them into zombie-like creatures who strive to spread the disease to others. The viewer follows Joel (Pedro Pascal), a seasoned survivor, and 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey) as they fight to stay alive. In just the first few episodes, the show doesn’t hold back in channeling the fear, anxiety, and devastation that results from the outbreak of the infection. The viewer is led through the early stages of the disease’s discovery, then are immersed in the aftermath of a paranoid, locked-down government regime that operates with force over every aspect of human life. Human rights are neglected in the face of safety. Protests and rebellions are answered with violence. In the struggle to stay alive, existence becomes solely about making it to the next day. It’s either this or the dangerous, wide open outside world, and many choose the “safety” of the former.

Another HBO show, released in December of 2021, was adapted from Emily St. John Mandel’s novel “Station 11.” The overall story tracks the aftermath of a mutated “Georgia Flu,” which unexpectedly spreads and kills people en masse, bringing society and the world to a screeching halt. The first episode features a glimpse into a hospital of masked and panicked patients and staff, all of whom are eventually doomed to die. A grocery store is raided, colorful cloth masks cover faces, and the whole world is forced into confinement. Then, twenty years later, the remaining humans must learn how to build a functioning society once again. At the center of the show, there is a mystery, tied to a young woman’s eerily predictive graphic novel. Mandel’s characters range in backstory and purpose, but the series leads the viewer through their lives as the end of the world arrives, then passes.

There have been countless pandemic-based apocalypse stories created throughout the history of film. These two shows, which were created and filmed during and after our real, worldwide pandemic, take on different meanings than they might have three years ago. Designed for an audience that understands the feelings of isolation, despair, and fear mixed with infection and death, it’s easy to feel like they’re hitting a little too close to home. It’s hard to see and relive those feelings—to imagine another pandemic that ends the world.

But the truth is, apocalypse stories aren’t just about the disease, or the bomb, or the aliens that set the world on fire. Usually, the narrative doesn’t end when the virus is unleashed, or at the moment the singularity occurs.

The stories exist to tell us about the survivors.

These narratives ask us: when the world ends, who do we become? What parts of humanity persist in the face of despair? How do we rely on ourselves and each other to face the end?

In the beginning of “The Last of Us,” Joel is reminded by his partner, Tess, that simply existing in the system doesn’t mean he’s truly living or happy. His ties to his remaining family are what give him a purpose for living, and his responsibility to (and eventual love for) Ellie keeps him pushing forward. Navigating a world in which infected, mutated humans threaten to end one’s life at any moment, he still finds reasons to go on in the people who surround him. Despite being a future based on the zombie apocalypse, the story is still about Joel and Ellie and how they keep each other alive when everything else is falling apart.

Likewise, in “Station 11,” a main character, Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis), who loses her support system to the flu, eventually finds a traveling acting troupe that becomes a second family. They perform Shakespeare together in the scattered towns that still exist, showing that life isn’t complete without moments of escape, artistry, and community. In the creation of a new society, humans still find ways to connect with and care for one another. Although plenty of darkness remains throughout the show, it often reiterates the importance of seeking out moments of light.

In each of these instances, there is a refusal to let life become meaningless. As much as these shows are stories about terrible fungus-like zombies and strange killer cults, they are also about hope and community. These apocalypse narratives tell us what their authors believe the core of being human really is. Perhaps it’s that we survive best when we can depend on each other. Or that we seek meaning in what we do—how we live. Or maybe they show us that survival is important, but it isn’t all there is to life.

Covid-19 is a worldwide event that will go down in our memories and the history books. It won’t be forgotten quickly, especially because people make art out of life. Already, there are countless documentaries and series that tackle the pandemic. Well-known TV shows and films like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Glass Onion” have even addressed it directly in their scripts, performances, and costuming. In the future, I can only imagine how many more productions will take inspiration from our past.

As harrowing and frustrating as it can be to relive those experiences, I think there is still value in these stories, in the ways that they go beyond the pandemic and give us insight into humanity. There is something meaningful in the memories of that time, as well as in the shows, movies, and games that replicate it: how we learned to care for each other, seek meaning in the face of the unknown, and go beyond simply surviving. Granted, there may not be a positive discovery experience in every apocalypse show you watch, but I do think that there’s something worth looking for. What kinds of survivors are we? What kind of people are we? How would we face the end of the world, and how might what we learn from that be used by us in the present?

As for the shows? I definitely recommend the watch. Maybe just watch with a friend. With the lights on. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Student Movement is the official student newspaper of Andrews University. Opinions expressed in the Student Movement are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors, Andrews University or the Seventh-day Adventist church.