Something strange is haunting our dreams these days.

The teenage cashier at the grocery store is conversing with a customer in front of my sister.  “That’s right,” she says.  “The only thing that will work now is for civilization to collapse so we can all go back to nature.”

The next day I encounter a friend at a party, a married woman in her 50’s who has just completed an advanced handgun course, has stocked a year’s worth of food and supplies in her house, and hopes to purchase a farm in a remote area of Madison County.  “When everything collapses,” she had said to me earlier in the year, “I want a place for my family to feel safe.”  Seeing her reminds me of a dozen other acquaintances who believe our civilization is teetering on the brink of an apocalypse, men and women ranging from tax-hating libertarians to radical environmentalists.  Nor is this phenomenon restricted to the mountains in which I live: The web is rife with commentators and bloggers predicting breakdown and widespread disorder, and advocating ways of survival.

What is astounding about these visions of a postapocalyptic society is not the possibility of such an event occurring, but the positive note with which so many people entertain this idea of a collapse.  Those who make such comments seem less rueful or despairing than they do expectant—in some cases, even gleeful.  Bring it on, baby, they appear to say, apparently believing our system has become so rotted that only revolution or anarchy will set the foundations right again.

Some of the causes for these perceptions of decay and doom are clear.  Since World War II, and particularly since the 1960’s, television and newspapers have promoted daily crises from events great and small.  The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 deserves its name, but how many people today recall the Alar apple crisis?  Healthcare, education, foreign policy, social services, government itself: Commentators routinely describe these and other national systems as being in “crisis.”  Their urgent hyperbole, like waves on a beach, has eroded American confidence in our institutions, our social structures, our very way of life.

Government ineptitude in every enterprise from public schools to entitlement programs, the rumors and wild speculations common to the internet, our own propensity to believe these rumors, and the real possibility that we are indeed headed for a disaster have further added to this zeitgeist of doom.  A government as broken as our own in the management of its financial and foreign affairs can hardly be expected to inspire voters with confidence.  The internet is a breeding ground for dismay and alarm: Google “post-apocalyptic survival,” and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of search results.  A widespread ignorance of public affairs and the subsequent “Chicken Little” fears among the general citizenry, when mixed with a very real breakdown in respect for government, the Constitution, and social codes, have left many citizens wondering whether we have reached the end of law and order.

Literature and film have both mirrored and helped shape these visions of disaster and ruin.  In the last 50 years, in fact, writers and filmmakers have produced a body of work sufficient to constitute an entirely new genre: the postapocalyptic.  Their vision of a world in which civilization has crumbled and in which a few survivors battle for their lives and their humanity has attracted enormous audiences.  This interest in the destruction of civilization raises several questions.  Do we enjoy these movies and books only for their entertainment value?  Or do they offer deeper sources of pleasure and dread?  Why are we so enamored of television shows like Revolution, The Walking Dead, and Jericho, with movies like I Am Legend and Children of Men, with books like The Hunger Games, Patriots, and Defiance?  Do these works appeal to some deep, primitive longing for destruction?  Do some of us secretly wish for an apocalypse?  Do we realize deep down in our soul and gut that civilization is more fragile than we recognize?  Are these stories whispers in our ear, making us lovers of wreckage and chaos?

Before addressing these questions—questions that can provoke only speculation rather than real answers—it is necessary to distinguish between apocalyptic and postapocalyptic visions.

The idea of an apocalypse—the end of the world as we know it—is ancient and spans human history: Old Testament writings, particularly from the book of Isaiah; later speculation from various rabbis; the words of Christ; the Revelation (?ποκ?λυψις, from which we get the word apocalypse) of Saint John; the Six Ages of Saint Augustine; Thomas of Celano’s “Dies Irae”; and a library of other eschatological writings, medieval and modern.  Such end-times scenarios were and are a staple of Christian belief.  The Messiah will come; our present world will cease to exist; there will be a new heaven and a new earth.

With the advent of the Atomic Age, this eschatology assumed a secular character, with mankind rather than God being the instrument of utter destruction.  In his brilliantly written Canticle for Leibo­witz, for example, Walter M. Miller, Jr., follows the fortunes of a futuristic religious order that forms after one nuclear world war and which eventually finds itself confronted with another.  Though the novel delves into questions of faith—the priests and monks of the Order of Leibowitz stand at the center of the story, thereby allowing much discussion of topics like Original Sin, truth, and the place of God in the society of man—the end of the world (a few monks and some children escape on a spaceship) derives from a horrific nuclear war rather than from the return of the Christ.

In Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, a best-selling novel of its time and a popular movie, the earth again suffers a nuclear conflict that annihilates mankind.  With the Northern Hemisphere devastated by the war, survivors in Australia await the arrival of a deadly radiation cloud.  The government issues suicide pills to its people, who in turn anticipate the arrival of the cloud by indulging in everything from violent road races to fishing trips.  Like A Canticle for Leibowitz, On the Beach, published in 1957, reflects the concerns of the Atomic Age and ends with the destruction of the human race. Much more prevalent in the years since the bombing of Hiroshima, both because some hope is offered and because the storyline proves more exciting to the imagination, are novels and films dealing with the postapocalyptic.  Here the writers focus on some remnant of humanity fighting for survival against overwhelming odds.  The range of possible disasters in these tales runs from totalitarian dictatorships to man-made plagues, from economic breakdown to nuclear war, from alien conquest to drastic environmental change.  A very short list of such tales would include novels like the Left Behind series; William Johnstone’s Out of the Ashes series; Alas, Babylon; Patriots; The Camp of the Saints; and The Stand.  And then there are the movies (many of which are based on novels) like Planet of the Apes, Testament, Blade Runner, Mad Max, The Postman, and The Hunger Games; and television shows like Jericho, The Walking Dead, Revolution, V, and Falling Skies.

William R. Forstchen’s One Second After provides us with an excellent example of the best of such stories.  When a series of electromagnetic pulses, created by the explosion of nuclear weapons in the stratosphere, knocks out most of the electrical power in the United States, the townspeople of Black Mountain, North Carolina, find themselves dealing with looters, thieves, possible starvation, a lack of medical supplies, and an army of marauding cannibals.  Forstchen, who cowrote several novels based on American history with Newt Gingrich, is realistic in his approach here: He has researched the topic of EMPs, sets the book in his hometown, and creates as his protagonist a college professor named John Matherson, an ordinary man called to leadership in extraordinary circumstances.  What Forstchen does best, however, is to show us some of the side effects of disaster.  His grim depiction of early casualties among the most vulnerable—diabetics, nursing-home residents, hospital patients—reminds us of the terrible cost exacted when transportation, electricity, and refrigeration fail.  A seven-year-old boy dies from an asthma attack.  A girl eventually succumbs to diabetes when her insulin runs out.  And typical of other writers in this genre, Forstchen has written his book as a cautionary tale, not as a blueprint for the future.  As he states in the Introduction, “I pray that years from now . . . critics will say this was nothing more than a work of folly.”

Though many of these books and films are what Graham Greene once called “entertainments,” a few have become modern classics.  Both Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World are postapocalyptic novels, if we regard them as prophetic looks at the overturning of Western values and thought.  More recently, Cormac McCarthy published The Road.  Unlike other doomsday writers, McCarthy doesn’t bother to explain the source of the disaster afflicting his characters: Though he hints at nuclear war, he doesn’t tell us why the earth has suddenly turned colder or why everything is covered in gray ash.  Instead, The Road gives us the story of a man and his son—the mother has committed suicide—struggling to find safe haven.  Pushing a grocery cart filled with their belongings on dangerous roads, dirty, cold, and near starvation, this pair of survivors encounter gangs of cannibals and thieves, along with a few other decent humans who, as the father says of himself and his boy, “are carrying the fire.”  Despite horrific scenes of violence and human degradation, The Road is really a celebration of fathers and sons, manhood and sacrifice, duty and love.

So what gives?  Why have so many of us become so fascinated by such works of the imagination that we have created a post­apocalyptic genre?  Certainly, the fears of the last six or seven decades—atomic weapons, environmental disasters, deadly microbes and bacteria brewed up in laboratories, Big Brother in government—have sparked both our imaginations and those of our artists.  We also enjoy the thrill of being terrified while safe at home on a sofa or seated in a theater: The plethora of horror films attests to that side of our nature.  Certainly, too, many of these books and movies are entertaining.  The man or woman facing great odds is, after all, one of the premier themes of literature.

Lately, however, certain individuals and groups appear to embrace these visions of Götterdämmerung, to hope for a collapse of civilization as we know it.  For years, radical environmentalists have dreamed of a day in which mankind—much reduced in number—exists in a state of nature, foregoing technology and returning to the primitive.  Despising the middle class and technology, this radical green crew yearns for a society of organic farms subsisting in vast swatches of wilderness.  On the left, it is clear that many who participated in the Occupy Movement, frustrated and confused by the shenanigans of bankers and brokers, would happily overturn our system of democracy and replace it with anarchism or communism.  Some on the far right, enraged by our increasingly dictatorial government and by the displacement of the Constitution, see the disintegration of our present political and economic systems as desirable, a falling-apart that would restore to them what they regard as their lost freedoms.  They view themselves as old-fashioned patriots, minutemen who will arise, when the crisis comes, to reclaim their patrimony.

What all of these millenarians fail to grasp are the true contours of the change they envision.  Like the rest of us, they identify with the heroes in the movies they watch and the books they read.  They view The Hunger Games and imagine themselves as Katniss; they read One Second After and become John Matherson.  Unlike the rest of us, however, these denizens in the realms of doom want their fantasies brought to life, seeing themselves as the survivors, the ones who will put everything right again, the noble souls who by their wit and grit will create a brave new world from the ashes of the old.  (Boredom may also be a factor in their dreaming; those lacking a rich interior life might well be so dissatisfied with modernity as to long for change, however cataclysmic.)

The reality would be quite different.  Relatively few Americans have actually fired a weapon in anger or with an intent to kill.  Few of us trap, hunt, or fish.  Few of us know what it is to be cold and hungry for days on end, to go unwashed for weeks, to work with our hands, to do without the thousand little daily luxuries we now take for granted.  Whether we recognize it or not, most of us enjoy those luxuries and would be appalled—and soon likely dead—if thrust into conditions where we had to provide our own food, live in unheated homes, or thwart attacks by armed savages.  Furthermore, to believe that people will gentle their condition by a return to nature, to believe that the erasure of technology will lead to deeper brotherhood, to believe that the collapse of our political and economic system, whatever its flaws, will automatically bestow the gift of greater liberty: These are the conceits of the armchair and the box office.  Rip away the fabric of civilization—and we seem at times to be doing just that—and what you will uncover is a nightmare of blood, dirt, tears, agony, and death.

Escapism and a disinclination to face our present troubles are a dangerous byproduct of such beliefs.  Those who spend their time preparing for an apocalypse rather than repairing our broken culture are in some ways abetting the very termites eating away at that culture.  They are directing their time, money, and passions toward a highly improbable event while the forces which may cause that event—economic, political, cultural—chew through the structures of society.

Should we pay any attention to what these writers and directors have to tell us about wreck and ruin?  Should we prepare for catastrophe?  You bet we should.  My father, age 86, ends many of our telephone conversations with these words: “Keep your powder dry.”  Though his repetition of this aphorism over the years has annoyed me at times, he is absolutely correct.  If we are wise, we will be prepared for upheaval, whether from nature’s cataclysms or from murderous human hearts.  Reading One Second After, for example, should compel most sane readers to stock up on canned goods from the local grocery, to invest in a home first-aid kit, to learn to handle a firearm.

My mother preferred another adage: “Be careful what you wish for.  You just might get it.”  Can we dream ourselves to death?  What if more and more of us come to believe in the efficacy of destruction, or in the attainability of some sort of postcivilization utopia?  What might happen if growing numbers of people keep visualizing destruction, keep wishing for death-dealing bacilli, nuclear attacks, mobs of savages hunting down the planet’s last few intelligent beings?  We just might get what we wish for.

As for me, I enjoy these books and movies as much as the next person.  They get the blood racing and excite the imagination.  But I also enjoy hot showers, a pot of coffee, a heated apartment, my car, my cellphone, my computer, and the many other gadgets and amenities of civilization.  These possessions are more than just pleasures.  They are visible signs of life, liberty, and my own pursuit of happiness.  They are, in short, things worth fighting for—here, now, in the political and cultural arenas of the real world.

One final note to that female cashier at the grocery store: You’re young and, in my opinion, foolish, but you are spot on about your return to nature.  If the civilization that now coddles you does indeed crumble, I’d give you and millions like you about two weeks before you were food for worms.