When I was a teenager, I went canoeing in a remote Canadian national park with nine other high school students and two counselors. After three straight days of rain, far from any road or phone, we huddled under a tarp and wondered if the rest of society had suddenly fallen into chaos. We were making campfire biscuits, and as we held the sticks clumped with Bisquik dough over the fire, we wondered aloud, “How would we survive?” The light took on an eerie quality, green and glowing, like the canopy above us. We’d make tools! We’d hunt bear and moose! We’d develop a system of order! We’d sing The Cure all day long! This is stranger than I thought / Six different ways inside my heart… Because no matter what, we’d have each other. Eventually the sky changed, and we were back in our canoes, on to the next campsite, and then back to the van and pizza. But everything looked different after that—temporary and glorious.
All to say, everyone should, at some point in their lives, imagine life after the collapse. Of course, many have. You can readily find lists of post-apocalyptic books and films, but other works have also addressed the end times or something akin to them. Here are not six, but 13 ways inside my apocalyptic heart, across many genres.
1. “Garden of Earthly Delights” — painting (right-hand panel) by Hieronymus Bosch, late 15th/early 16th century
I’ve always loved this wonderfully trippy painting for its Where’s Waldo-esque nature. You can stand for hours and look at it—in Madrid’s Museo del Prado or via reproductions in books and posters. The left panel shows the Garden of Eden, full of animals, just two humans (Adam and Eve), and God standing between them. In the central panel, happy naked people eat giant fruits or sniff flowers (some out of each other’s asses) or ride giant ducks/tiny horses or kiss or get ready to do more than kiss. Then on the final panel, there’s the hellish scene, considerably darker than the first two, where presumably those same hedonists now pay for their sins. Cities burn; people fight; disemboweled animals eat human flesh, demons, and corpses. All the people are now ghostly and deformed, vomiting, shitting, or getting stabbed by sharp objects. I love the grotesqueness of it all. Can you imagine the HBO version?!
2. The Lorax — storybook by Dr. Seuss, 1971
Ah yes, the colorful, rhyming picture book for children that offers a harrowing message about the horrors of capitalism, greed, and industry. Down go the Truffula trees to make useless furry scarf-like things that look kind of snuggly, but no, you don’t need a “thneed.” Or do you? As the greedy capitalist goes on “biggering” his business, the Lorax emerges from a stump to “speak for the trees.” But to no end—soon all the trees are gone, the land denuded and polluted—until a young boy comes along and is given a little seed. You know what happens next. Today’s real-life thneeds could be any of the crap we value over trees, clean air, and oceans—plastic water bottles, Sunday Amazon Prime deliveries, the iPhone 15. Unless, as the Lorax implores, we start doing things differently.
3. “Thriller” — music video by Michael Jackson, 1983
The first night the video aired, I watched MTV huddled on a sofa with tweens and teens from the dance studio where I spent most of my after-school hours. We were rapt. At 14 minutes, it was the longest dance video we’d ever seen. That set, that makeup! The dead, they could dance. We tried immediately to replicate the steps. We knew it was the beginning of something, but we didn’t know yet what. All we knew was that Michael Jackson and his zombies were the best dancers on the planet. But genius sometimes has a flipside. Decades later, it broke our hearts to learn of the terrible, unforgivable things MJ did. That in itself is a kind of apocalypse.
4. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” — song by R.E.M., 1987
One of the best, most recognizable drum intros to what might be the most animated song about the end times out there. Conceived as a dirge based on Michael Stipe’s dreams, the song changed after the audience met it with enthusiastic energy. I get it. The song makes me want to jump around, too. I first heard it on a mix tape. To learn the words, I had to stop and rewind over and over. The litany of tongue twisting, seemingly unrelated statements—inspired by Bob Dylan’s beatnik storytelling—were fun to sing. It still is. And while the lyrics still trip me up, the chorus has gotten wildly easier and, sadly, more apropos with every listen.
5. “April the 14th Part 1” and “Ruination Day Part 2” — songs by Gillian Welch, 2001
I knew April 14 was an auspiciously bad day before I heard Gillian Welch’s haunting songs on Time (The Revelator). “Ruination Day,” she calls it. On that date in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot; in 1912, the Titanic hit the iceberg; in 1935, one of the worst dust storms, “Black Sunday” hit Oklahoma and Texas. Welch sings of these unfortunate events in “Ruination Day Part 2”. In “April the 14th Part 1,” she adds to the list the day a young rock ‘n’ roll band from Idaho played a “five band bill” in her town, offering a dim, haunting picture of what life in a band can really be like. It’s slow and droning, and the “girl passed out in the backseat trash” feels specter-like. You can imagine the beer cans and the torn jeans and bone-deep exhaustion—all of it, in a certain light, or maybe at a certain age, seems kind of apocalyptic-chic. April 14 is also my birthday, which, all in all, was a good day.
6. “We’re Back” — Adbusters magazine, Nov/Dec 2004
This issue of the culture jamming magazine imagined a cataclysmic event that brings down the economy and power grid. The issue, published on newsprint six months after the fictional fall, featured dramatic images along with letters from readers about how they were faring. It included scathing critiques of greed and consumerism, clearly the causes of the collapse. But there are also plenty of poetic musings on what ultimately might matter once commercialized desire is gone, as well as a slew of survival tips, like how to make moonshine, practice self-defense, and collect plants for medicine. Two of my favorite entries were a hand-drawn map of the U.S. railroads inviting people to go west on foot, and a letter to a lover—a lament to distance. Inspired by these two entries, I created a character that took up such a cross-country journey to find his distanced lover. Then I wrote The Lightest Object in the Universe, a novel about love in the post-apocalypse world.
7. Idiocracy — film, 2006
What can I say? This film isn’t exactly a tour-de-force, but it’s possible that it portends our future, which means maybe we should pay close attention. A sci-fi dystopia directed by Mike Judge, the story follows two people of average intelligence who participate in a hibernation experiment (think cryogenics). They wake, 500 years later, to an idiotic world. The smart humans stopped multiplying, but the dumb ones didn’t, thereby diluting the average human intelligence with every generation. In the Idiocracy, everyone watches really bad TV and shops at a gigantic Costco. Maybe watch it with a few beers or a joint—you know, get a little primed. Just remember, it’s not a documentary. Although in the last decade I’ve compared contemporary America to the one in the film more times than I can count. Especially since 2016. Sad!
8. “Freedom of Information, Reprised” — dance by Miguel Gutierrez et al., 2008
In 2001 choreographer Miguel Gutierrez challenged himself to move for 24 hours blindfolded in a room in response to the U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the tail end of 2008, he did it again, inviting a dancer from each state to join him. I considered being one of them, but wasn’t sure I had the stamina. On grainy, live internet feeds, I watched a handful of my friends do it, though. This was just a few months after the U.S. financial crisis hit and a month after the U.S. signed an agreement to withdraw troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. There was a lot to be thinking about, moving about. In a blog post after the performance, Gutierrez responded to what people often say about war being inevitable: “Have we really, as individuals, as a group, tapped into our total power as spiritual beings, as thinking bodies? Have we exhausted compassion?” Gutierrez is always pushing limits—of performance, choreography, the notion of dance itself. The reprise of FOI intentionally stretched the limits of compassion, making space for the thinking and spiritual body, even in solitude, to find community and solidarity.
9. “Midway: Message from the Gyre” — photographs by Chris Jordan, 2009-present
These images of dead baby albatrosses will make you weep, but you should look at them. In 2009 the photographer began documenting the birds on the Midway Islands, 2,000 miles from any continent. The young birds died of starvation or from choking, and autopsies showed why—their insides were filled with plastic, fed to them by their parents who’d mistaken it for food floating in the Pacific Ocean. The amount of plastic inside the birds is beyond belief. But the photographs stand as proof. There’s a film, too, if you can handle it (I couldn’t). If this doesn’t signal the horrific and deadly dominion humans have over the world, I don’t know what does.
10. The Walking Dead — TV series from AMC, 2010-present
This is the zombie apocalypse at its best. I binge-watched the first five seasons one stifling Tucson summer during a bad case of heartache. Aside from cinematically displaying everything I was feeling inside, the storyline also taught me a lot about how we might cope if and when the zombies come. Some will hold on to the past, some will run, some will get power-hungry, some will be kind, and some will turn on their neighbors. What will you do?
11. “The New Plague” — short story by Frankie Rollins from The Sin Eater & Other Stories, 2013
It’s hard to pull off an apocalypse in a short story, but Rollins does it delightfully, which might be a strange way to describe a story about plague, but there it is. Likely transmitted by a stray cat the narrator lets inside, the illness starts with sores on the body. The narrator and her husband, Chas, are soon quarantined in their house, subject to prodding and chemical spray-downs by doctors in hazmat gear. With this particular plague, the end is heralded by the arrival of the “Visitor,” a smelly, gaspy, grunting Grim Reaper-like figure. And so, our couple is left to wait inside their marriage, with her guilt and his derision. Little joys arrive, the way they can in the midst of illness and fear. A friend smuggles them Chinese food, and they savor every bite. An art project in the basement delights the narrator: “The gestures of these hands, their movements and shape and heat, these things will be gone soon. There will be nothing left of them, no mark, this life I’ve lived nothing more than a breeze, a long exhalation.” Sadly for you, Rollins’s exquisite collection is out of print, the book’s publisher—Queen’s Ferry Press—is now defunct. A few copies remain on Amazon. But maybe the end isn’t really the end. Might we get a second printing?
12. Fifth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — scientific report, 2014
This comprehensive assessment of the climate represents the voluntary work of thousands of scientists and experts across the world, and it reveals the unequivocal consensus about the existence of climate change, its impacts on humans, and its acceleration because of us. The first sentence: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of green-house gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.” To see the impacts in real time, of course, all you need to do is watch the daily news. One year after the release of the report, 175 parties signed the Paris Climate Accord, pledging to keep global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius. But when President Donald Trump entered office, he announced he’d be pulling the United States out of the accord. Follow-up reports to the Fifth Assessment reveal the continued harrowing impacts posed by human-induced climate change and forecast many more. Trump continues not only to deny the science but also forbid it. Meanwhile, in 2019, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reported that one million plant and animal species now face imminent extinction, more than in any other period in human history.
13. Matieres Fecales — fashion designers/Instagram phenoms/musicians, 2016-present
I learned about the Canadian artist duo Matieres Fecales or “Fecal Matter,” on Instagram while making this list. I’m typically distrustful of fashion, but this work helps me understand it in a new way. Hannah Rose Dalton and Steven Raj Bhaskaran are millennials, but their work carries us right into the post-human future, making us question who we might become. Their looks, to me, are a blend of goth, zombie, cyborg, alien, BDSM, and Avatar. In welcome ways, they push the definitions of gender and fashion, in response to the child labor, low wages, and throwaway culture on which fast fashion often depends. “Calling our platform Fecal Matter was really a stab at the heart of the industry—showing that all of these material belongings we are all collecting and harvesting is all just shit at the end of the day,” says Dalton in ArtSlant. You can shop their provocative and affordable line on DePop, where you’ll find such wearables as a Facetox Harness, “a metal ring system that is applied on the mouth to pull it back to create a puckered face” (and can also be worn as a necklace), or a Hardcore Harness made with metal handcuff and designed to represent “the restrictions we feel sometimes within the system.” They also make grinding, industrial, futuristic music, to which you can dance in their special barefoot high heels. Trippy!
And because some say 13 is an unlucky number, here are a few more:
14. The Day After — made-for-television movie, 1983
Before this movie, we ducked under our tiny desks in classroom drills because our teacher told us to. After the movie, we knew why and we trembled.
15. Hadestown — album/folk opera by Anais Mitchell, 2010
Before the Broadway version won eight Tonys in 2019, this modern adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice was a folk opera sung in voices so achingly beautiful you can feel the underworld and its opposite come alive in your body.
16. “Inventory” — short story by Carmen Maria Machado, 2013
In this gorgeous chronicle of one woman’s inventory of sexual encounters, before, during, and after a flu pandemic, Machado explores the meaning of intimacy within the inherent fragility of life as we know it.
Image credit: Unsplash/Cata.