After the End: A Look at Post-Apocalyptic Books and Films

August 8, 2013

The summer of 2013 has been a season of doom in theaters, with films like World War Z, Oblivion, and Pacific Rim bringing the post-apocalyptic theme to the big screen.

End-of-world scenarios are pervasive these days—a fact not lost on Sue Schopf, who decided to create an entire course on post-apocalyptic novels and films, which she’ll teach this fall. In the following video, Schopf invites us to ponder an existence “after the end.” 

Schopf is no stranger to genre. She taught a popular course on the vampire in literature and film. In the following Q&A, she shares what she finds compelling about the vampire and post-apocalyptic genres. 

Q&A with Sue Schopf

Why is a course on post-apocalyptic books and films relevant now?

For the last few years, we’ve seen a surge in novels, films, TV programs, and video games that focus on end-of-the-world and survivalist narratives.

The Hunger Games, The Passage, and World War Z have proven that the audience is huge. The Walking Dead is said to be the most watched series in basic cable history. And Doomsday Preppers is the most watched program ever on the National Geographic channel. The Last of Us scored the biggest video game launch of 2013 so far. 

All of these things made me wonder why these stories are so popular at this moment in time.

You have also taught a course about the vampire in literature and film. What is it about these genres that speak to you?

For many years, I taught primarily nineteenth-century British poetry—my first love. Eventually, I found my way to early-twentieth-century literature, which I also love. In truth, I had zero interest in popular culture. (Okay, I was an elitist.) 

But a few years ago, I began to consider how bestsellers, blockbusters, and television series reflect the anxieties and desires of the broader culture.

The vampire craze was at its peak. I knew these works were speaking to the largely female audience in a primal way. So I spent months researching the history of the genre and the folklore behind the vampire figure. I learned some fascinating things.

As I read more vampire fiction, I noticed that authors of all periods used the vampire as a metaphor for a range of cultural anxieties and repressed fantasies.

Delving into post-apocalyptic fiction and film provided me with another such opportunity.

Today we are exposed to constant talk about terrorist attacks, biological warfare, environmental disturbances, pandemics, and technological disasters. Writers and filmmakers are obviously responding to these cultural anxieties.

It’s important to remember, too, that these works about monsters and global meltdowns are also fun. They give us a safe space in which to contemplate the forbidden and the horrifying, to ponder what-if situations, and to observe human nature in all its complexities.

But when we close the book or exit the theater, the nightmare is over. 

Can you offer any tips for surviving in a post-apocalyptic world?

As nearly as I can tell from all these novels and films, you should choose five or six very reliable friends—one of whom should be a doctor—and assign each a survival chest to prepare and bury underground in an agreed-upon location, well ahead of the apocalypse. 

The stockpile:

  1. Sustenance: canned foods, salt, powdered milk, flour, cornmeal, spices, and lots of hard candy and chewing gum for the kids.

  2. Thirst: bottled water (lots!), soda, and whiskey (for medicinal purposes, of course!). 

  3. DIY: tools like hammers, screwdrivers, shovels, axes, crowbars, etc.

  4. The doctor’s bag: medication, disinfectants, surgical instruments, and lots of bandages.

  5. Personal: soap, shaving cream, old-fashioned straight-edge razors, toothpaste and toothbrushes, blankets, eyeglasses, a needle and thread, sunscreen, winter coats and boots. Oh, and bug spray.

  6. The practical: motor oil, gasoline, kerosene lamps, camp stoves, candles and matches, pen and paper, fishing tackle, flashlights, lots of batteries, tires, a short-wave radio, guns and ammunition, maybe a bow and lots of arrows.

  7. The cultural: We mustn’t forget about entertainment on those long, post-apocalyptic nights: so a chest of our favorite books would be most welcome, and perhaps a musical instrument. After all, we will eventually need to rebuild the culture, along with the community.

Finding five or six friends who have the time to assemble their survival chest these days may be our biggest problem!

Schopf’s fall course

Check out the course description for The Post-Apocalyptic Novel and Film. You can see the reading list and course syllabus here.

Registration is open through September 2 (with a $50 late fee through September 10).