Can you name the hit dystopian franchise being used with regularity by public officials as a comparison to our modern times? If you guessed The Hunger Games, then the odds were ever in your favor. It seems that the current rollout for COVID-19 vaccines conjures up the fending-for-yourself landscape found in this three-book series made into four films. That’s horrible. Which made me wonder: Is dystopia too horrible to watch now that we are apparently living in one?
I remember watching Bird Box on Netflix in 2018. It is a dystopian tale about a force that is spreading world-wide and capable of inducing Medusa-style suicide. If you see this force, then you kill yourself. People wear blindfolds for protection. I found the film far-fetched and far-removed from my circumstances but highly-entertaining.
Now consider the film Little Fish released last month in theaters and VOD about a proliferating virus that causes memory loss. People begin wearing masks and self-isolating. The focus of the movie is a couple grappling with their new reality: the possibility of losing themselves and each other, even if they survive the infection. I haven’t seen this film yet, intentionally.
The two decades prior to the pandemic were chock full of anti-utopias. WALL-E and Isle of Dogs offered animated versions for the kiddos. A mere sampling of contributions for the grown-ups included The Passage, 28 Days Later, World War Z, Snowpiercer, Blade Runner 2049, and The Handmaid’s Tale. In fact, it was a heyday for the thirteen and up crowd with film adaptations of the books The Fifth Wave, The Maze Runner Series, The Darkest Minds, The Divergent Series, and Ready Player One.
I’ll admit I had a blast viewing A Quiet Place in which society has broken down because humans are being picked off by aliens that have ridiculously good hearing. Hunkered into my theater seat, no sound but the crunching of occasional popcorn, I was engrossed watching the family make the harrowing trip to town to weed through the ransacked general store for supplies. I marveled at how brave the characters were and how they were surviving.
Our Dystopian Pandemic
Something changed for me when COVID-19 became our reality. When our world suddenly looked similar to those we had found amusing in the years just prior. When we were the ones wearing masks, sheltering in place, fighting over toilet paper and then, vaccines.
In the recently released book, Leave the World Behind, Rumaan Alam describes an America that is under attack (presumably the start of a world war scenario) with failing infrastructure leaving the characters without use of smart phones or electricity and forced to shelter in place with limited supplies. Not to mention, the characters start to fall ill with no medical help accessible. Alam has created a world where these humans are living wretched, dehumanized lives. Dystopia. Reading about it during the pandemic evoked in me a painful and intense fear. Horror.
The dystopian art form has given us a hypothetical way to express concern over the consequences of greed, individualism and indifference. Dystopias take the worries about illness, invasion, upheaval and natural disaster to their worst-case scenarios. Dystopias have always contained fear but at an arm’s length away. Until now.
As the original date for the release of A Quiet Place 2 approached last spring, my enthusiasm to see it had vanished. I didn’t care about whether the family would survive again. Their world was too similar to mine. Be careful going outside. Stay in your pod. Stock up on supplies. What you can’t see can hurt you. Their fears felt too relatable now.
The Appetite for Horrific Dystopias
Yet, despite the fear and the world-wide pandemic, dystopias are still having a moment.
Snowpiercer is now a series on TNT in its second season. Bliss is a movie streaming on Amazon Prime in which the main character cannot determine if the sad, dirty world he is living in is real or a simulation. Chaos Walking, out this month, will follow the fallout of another kind of germ invasion. Army of the Dead will feature a zombie heist in May. Even The Matrix is making an appearance again with its fourth installment in December.
Dystopian literature is also thriving. The sequel Ready Player Two and The New Wilderness, the story of fictional climate refugees, both came out the end of 2020. The End of Men, Reset, Notes from a Burning Age and This Fragile Earth are all set to debut this spring.
What is going on?
According to David Innes in his paper Psychological Appeal Driving the Popularity of Ultra-Violent Horror Films, horror can be an emotional outlet. In the midst of the grisly and unfathomable, horror is extending us a space to process deep, dark feelings.
But what about when the grisly and unfathomable become not only possible but real?
As Jonathan Gottschall said in his book, The Storytelling Animal, humans are the only animals that tell stories. They are more than entertainment. They reassure us that we are not alone. They remind us of our past while giving us a roadmap to move forward.
Still, there is a fundamental quality about dystopias that I must admit I had completely forgotten. President Snow of The Hunger Games nailed it when he said, “Hope, it is the only thing stronger than fear.” When dystopian characters find themselves in the worst of circumstances with their worst fears realized, they aren’t just surviving. They are fighting on because they still have hope. And hope is one thing that is never in short supply.
Perhaps, now is exactly the right time for us to be watching horrific dystopias to process our fears and connect to each other with a little dose of keeping the faith thrown in. So, if you will excuse me, I think it’s past time for me to see Little Fish.
What about you? Do you think dystopias are horror? What purpose do they serve? What are you watching/reading now and why?
Nicole Klett is a freelance writer specializing in all things related to books and film. When she is not writing, Nicole is busy managing her TBR pile, catching up on movies and sometimes, tending to her own tween and teens. You can check her out at nicoleklettwriting.com.