Grand Rounds

Why we do the things we do

Apocalyptic Allure: Romancing the End

"No homework, no girls, no SAT's."

Last year, I had the pleasure of joining film producer George Romero in New Orleans at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association for a discussion of Roman Polanski's movie Repulsion--one of the scariest movies he'd ever seen. Repulsion is immensely disturbing, beautifully shot, and widely regarded as a masterpiece of psychological horror in cinema.   

The movie depicts the psychotic deterioration of its protagonist, a very young and stunning Catherine Deneuve, as her own psychic suffering drives her further and further into madness. In fact, a good part of the movie is spent watching Ms. Deneuve's character descend into greater psychological isolation that fascinatingly corresponds exactly with her self-imposed physicial imprisonment within her own apartment. In many ways, the apartment itself functions as an additional character, mirroring back to the protagonist the growing loss of reality into which she herself tumbles.

So, whenever the lights go on after a movie like Repulsion, there exists inevitably a kind of re-equilibration for the viewers. People stretch, check their wallets, perhaps smile reassuringly at the person sitting next to them and reach for the backs of their chairs for balance. In general, I think, the audience seeks to establish a firm grip on the actual reality of their surroundings that allows at the same time a fervent denial of the just-experienced claustrophobia on the screen. Fans of Polanski's work will note that Repulsion was the one of the films of what critics soon called his "Apartment Trilogy." These films accentuate the odd juxtaposition of horror and security that bunker mentality affords. Sure, you are cut off from the world, but perhaps the world is so lousy, either in reality or as a function of misperceived realities, that being outside four walls is something from which we really ought to hide. I always leave these films in search of wide-open spaces, hoping for sunlight, dreading any force that might place boundaries around my freedom.

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But, remember, the event in New Orleans where this discussion took place featured George Romero, and among the learned crowd there were a ton of zombie enthusiasts. (Who knew?) This perhaps drove the initial discussion of Repulsion to spark a more general inquiry into the allure and even romanticizing of apocalyptic scenarios. After all, here we had Mr. Romero, a legendary director who more than once has shown us a crumbling world from which we seek refuge behind closed doors. Imagine the fun a bunch of shrinks had in thinking out loud about the paradoxical desire to be left entirely alone in an empty house. What, exactly, is the draw of bunker mentality, and why, if the draw exists, must we create apocalyptic fiction to enjoy it? (Whatever happened to tree-houses, for example?)

This topic has been increasingly on my mind for the last year or so. I wrote a novel about a zombie apocalypse. I recently re-watched the first two Mad Max movies, and then, unconsciously I think, I decided to watch again the 1963 Lord of the Flies. I found these movies much more thematically similar than I had consciously expected. Before I knew it, I wanted a bunker of my own. I wanted to make the rules. 

What's going on?

Certainly the allure of "the end of days" is all over popular fiction. It is, more frighteningly, also all over the news. Any compunction we might indulge in wishing for these events outside of a fictional whimsy must surely be abandoned as we watch one of the most technologically advanced nations on Earth struggle when the Earth itself literally begins to shake. 

And yet, at that meeting back in New Orleans, there was a prescient comment from an honest and soft spoken gentleman in the audience. He was a local physician and had stayed behind in New Orleans when Katrina took her toll. Almost sheepishly he raised his hand and admitted, as if in confession, that sitting there trapped on the porch of his house, the hurricane and later its aftermath raging, there was something simple and straightforward about the gun he kept at his side. The buck really did stop with him, and though he was terrified, he knew, at least, exactly where he stood.  Anyone who feels this kind of thinking doesn't make sense needs to go back and watch Shane.  When there's no one to tell you what's what, when the law is a three day ride from home, there is a freedom afforded by taking matters into your own hands. As one of my patients recently told me after watching I Am Legend:

"Dude - a zombie apocalypse would be so cool. No homework, no girls, no SAT's. Just make it through the night, man...make it through the night."

So, in our modern world (and here I am aware that I refer more to the so-called "developed" nations), a world where we are fed data that feels miles long but only millimeters thick, perhaps the allure of destruction is the simplicity that it procures. But, let's be careful what we wish for...I can't believe that the good doctor on his porch wanted to stay there for too much longer.

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is the author of The Zombie Autopsies.

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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