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the tides, wind and rain, the noises of the forest and the movements of wild animals. Housing is still a very new thing, biologically speaking. We didn’t evolve to be sealed up in our soundless, airless apartments and tract homes.
But a uniform aspect of disaster, whether it’s a hurricane, a blackout, or a terrorist incident, is that it rips our comforts away and puts us back into direct confrontation with nature, and with our fellow humans. Such experiences are undeniably traumatic. But they can also be uniquely memorable, even strangely pleasurable.
In A Paradise Built in Hell, Bay Area author Rebecca Solnit writes about the paradoxical joy she saw on the faces of earthquake and hurricane survivors as they described their disaster experiences to her. “It should not be so, is not so, in the familiar version of what disaster brings, and yet it is there, arising from rubble, from ice, from fire, from storms and floods,” Solnit writes. She posits that disaster forcibly reminds us of the qualities that really matter: bravery, altruism, survival. “The joy matters as a measure of otherwise neglected desires,” she argues.
Solnit’s focus is on the way disaster restores a sense of connection and community, at least briefly. My own interest is in the way disasters highlight our relationship to technology. In fact, that was the whole theme of my MIT PhD thesis, which included chapters on blackouts, nuclear accidents, and chemical leaks.
Most of the time, I learned from the episodes I studied, people involved in disasters rediscover things they’d forgotten, like the satisfaction of walking home instead of taking the subway, or helping a neighbor, or playing Parcheesi by candlelight. When a disaster is induced by human error or design flaws, there are opportunities for other kinds of discoveries, which was the real focus of my thesis. But whatever the case, events like power outages remind us that our technological comforts are, after all, provisional. They break and take time to repair. And not only can we make do without them, but the enforced abstinence might be fun, at least for a little while.
Which brings us back to zombies. Most books, movies, video games, and comics about the brain-eating undead follow a common outline involving a civilizational collapse. What’s most terrifying and titillating in these stories is not the zombies themselves—they’re usually stupid, shambling, and easily dispatched. Rather, it’s the fact that the protagonists are completely on their own. (Novelist Justin Cronin puts the trope to very effective use in his 2010 blockbuster The Passage. Cronin’s monsters are more vampire-like than zombie-like, but the real story is about a small band of humans coping in a post-apocalyptic future.)
We like to imagine what it would be like to test ourselves against extreme adversity, without help from technology or the structures of “civil defense” or “emergency management.” We wonder if we would still be ourselves without cable or smartphones or Facebook—and we dream that we might turn out to be more than ourselves. Evidently, there aren’t enough headlines about real-life disasters to feed this curiosity, so we turn to Hollywood for a diet of zombie plagues, alien invasions, asteroid impacts, and other end-of-the-world scenarios.
It’s unfortunate that we have to devote such a big portion of our cultural apparatus to manufacturing fictional apocalypses. But if Sandy was any indication, it’s looking as if global warming will rectify this shortage. Meanwhile, I’m gonna go download Shaun of the Dead.