Currently, The Walking Dead is one of the most popular television programs. And movies about the end of the world are more common than iPhone releases. Our love of apocalyptic narratives ranges from the relatively harmless interest in fantasy fiction to the darker and more concerning existence of off-the-grid militias and doomsday religious cults. But why are we so fascinated by running mental simulations of possible world-destroying scenarios? Here are a couple of possibilities.
First, as humans we think about the end of life as we know it because we can. Our capacity for complex temporal and abstract thought is unparalleled. The same ability that allows us as a species to defy nature with incredible feats of science and engineering also renders us uniquely capable of creating fantasy worlds of what-if scenarios. In short, we have imaginations and we like to use them. Just as we like to imagine super heroes and unrealistic romances, we also like to think about ways the world could end.
Second, this advanced cognitive capacity that paved the way for our dominance of the planet also paved the way for existential anxiety. We can imagine all sorts of exciting and wonderful things. But we can also imagine all sorts of terrifying and horrible things. And as existential scholars have long discussed, we can contemplate the possibility that we are insignificant organisms that exist by chance and are born only to suffer the same mortal fate as every other organism. In other words, we can question our existential meaning, our reason for existing. And this questioning, this potential existential anxiety, may make apocalyptic narratives rather seductive because most apocalyptic narratives allow humans (or at least some of us) to be more than insignificant mortal beings. For example, many apocalyptic traditions are religious in nature and pave the way for the chosen people (insert your religious group here) to be rescued from the horrors of the world and taken to a new realm that is not filled with the human suffering and injustices that we cannot make sense of in our world.