Dark and Dystopian Entertainment

Dystopian and utopian stories come and go in popularity. But this present moment is dominated by the dystopian variety, for understandable reasons.

As GenXers, we grew up on post-apocalyptic movies along with other dark and demented entertainment-visions. It was the slowing down of the Cold War during our childhood. But fears of nuclear war were in still in the air. And the sense of doom lingered. The End of History with the end of the Soviet Union simply ramped up anxiety further. It led into a decade of school shootings and homegrown terrorism, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and the the last killing spree of the Unabomber, with a new threatening crisis following after that about every decade: 9/11 terrorist attack, 2008 recession, and now 2020 pandemic.

In the childhood of Generation X, there was an innocence to the idea of civilizational collapse. Even war was something that happened elsewhere, as no foreign power had yet attacked the United States mainland. The dark bent of public imagination mired in a post-Vietnam malaise did make for a less than optimistic mood in that era, but those post-apocalyptic movies were often playful and over-the-top, like The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). It was letting off steam that had built up from decades of Cold War paranoia and anxiety. Besides, the American imperial hegemony stood all-powerful, as the Soviet regime wound down into irrelevance and then disappeared. Amidst American greatness, doomsday entertainment could be taken as safe escapism.

Nonetheless, it may have led to a demented fantasy life for children growing up in it, an entire generation often thought of as cynical in adulthood. There was the beginning of a sense of decline back then, that America was somehow no longer as great as it once had been. The post-world war new car smell had faded. The economy was heading downward in the 1970s, as violent crime shot upward. This led to moral panic involving weird conspiracy theories embraced by the mainstream — like child molestation rings operating out of childcare centers and satanic cults abducting children for sacrifice. Some innocent people got caught up in the hysteria and were prosecuted and imprisoned based on the manipulated testimony of children. The line between fantasy and reality became blurred.

It was a strange time. Besides post-apocalyptic movies, there were all kinds of violent Vietnam War movies and horror movies featuring children as victims, demonically-possessed, monsters, psychopaths, violent punks, and devil worshippers. Even superficially patriotic movies like the Rambo movies (First Blood, 1982) gave expression to a sense of rot in America, that the government had failed. And as late as 1984, a movie like Red Dawn could still be made about the Soviet Union invading the United States. This is the entertainment GenX grew up on.

It felt different as American society moved into the 1990s, even if new fears replaced the old, such as a focus on technology in stories like The Matrix (1999). For the younger generation, the partisan culture wars were tiresome and posed no existential threat, no matter how shrill the right-wing screamed. Because real threats were hard to find, the Christian right turned to End Times fantasies, such as the first Left Behind movie in 2000. That turned out to be perfect timing with an Evangelical as president when Islamic terrorists attacked the United States — President Bush declared a “Crusade” and that gave a boner to fundies all across the land. Rather than fear apocalypse, many of these Christian lunatics have longed for the end of the world. Even their support for Israel has been inspired by the belief that the Temple must be rebuilt so that Jesus can return with a flaming sword of destruction.

The reality of American decline, though, is less dramatic. Even now in this global pandemic, the average person’s experience is boredom as we wait it out. It’s hard to imagine this as the first of the Four Horsemen, named Pestilence. As pandemics go, it is rather minor. It was the same with the 2008 recession, as the federal government intervened to bail out big biz and big banks in order to prop up the economy once again, albeit the economic problems were merely delayed and have been growing worse. Fear has been muted, even when the threats are real and looming. This era of gloom is hard to put one’s finger on, a general sense of unease or what some call floating anxiety. Even President Donald Trump as aspiring dictator and emperor is rather pathetic as compared to previous authoritarian leaders in the Western world, although his being elected at all is disturbing.

There is growing anxiety and it is seen in our entertainment choices. Dystopian novels were rising in popularity with the election of Trump. And that probably boosted Trump’s ego knowing that many Americans thought so highly of his prospects. There was already an interest in dystopian visions of America with The Hunger Games movies (the first in 2012), and that interest is even more intense now. Over the past years, numerous highly watched television series have come out that portray dark visions of alternative Americas: Amazon’s The Man In the High Castle (2015-2019), Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-2020) with a planned second series based on the novel Testaments, and HBO’s Plot Against America (2020-).

As for alternative Americas, there is also the recently released Motherland: Fort Salem from the Freeform network. In that world, the persecution of witches ended several centuries ago and the result was a matriarchal society. Still, it’s not exactly a utopian narrative. There are central themes about conflict and exploitation. And it has plenty of violence, including horrific terrorism. It might turn out to be a decent addition to the rest, but so far it’s not clear it’s of the same high quality.

They keep making this kind of entertainment giving voice to a troubled society. Apparently, there is a large audience for it. In another genre, there are also other less-than-happy portrayals of alternative Americas such as The Dark Knight (2008) movies and the X-Men movies (2000-), or even bleaker the Watchmen movie (2009) and HBO series (2019). More generally speaking, the Harry Potter movies (2001-2011) along with USA’s The Purge (2018-) and HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019), Westworld (2016-), and His Dark Materials (2019-) also give hint to underlying fears in our society about authoritarianism, corruption, political failure, and impending doom. Another series HBO almost made was Confederate about the South having won the Civil War and so probably would have been another story of a fascist America.

There is a theory that, during hard times, people are attracted to escapist fantasy. Some famous examples of this during the Great Depression were Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), King Kong (1933), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). That isn’t what we are getting right now, particularly not  The Wizard of Oz (1939). There is no present equivalent to a movie like that. There is no sense that we can click our heels and return home.

There is something else that is different right now. It’s not only the large number of dystopian entertainment, from post-apocalyptic to alternative history. It is increasingly mainstream. There have always been lots of movies in this genre, but we are seeing more and more series than was the case in the past. Some of these series are prestige shows with large financial backing. There is noting schlocky about them and they aren’t being presented as niche genre entertainment. They are popular shows that are being watched by people who don’t necessarily otherwise seek out speculative fiction.

This is a different historical moment. These shows are being made in a highly realistic manner and they are ambitious. Their intention is to be taken seriously and, in the times we find ourselves, they are being taken seriously. But it isn’t only about President Trump as an aspiring tyrant. Consider that the first seasons of The Man in the High Castle came out under the Obama Administration, as did the initial entry in The Hunger Games film series. A sense of dread about where society is heading has been growing for decades now. It’s now hitting a fever pitch, but that fever is a symptom of the disease, not its cause.

The infection began long ago and the disease has progressed without notice. The danger of dystopias is that they can be self-righteously comforting in making us think we know who the bad guys are. And as with white middle class feminists unconsciously wielding privilege, we can too easily learn the wrong lesson from a show like The Handmaid’s Tale, in not recognizing our own complicity. It’s not like being bottlefed on dystopian nightmares helped GenX to fight the system and stop the slow but methodical authoritarian takeover. If anything, it more powerfully inured our minds to the worsening conditions, not only with cynicism and apathy but moreso a numbed disconnection from the banality of evil, the creeping nature of worse becoming worse — such as being led along by the chains of lesser evil voting that made greater evil inevitable.

Dystopian entertainment, in its exaggerations and caricatures, can blind us to the evil already around us. It makes one wonder what it all means. The growing popularity of dystopias may not mean the public is waking up, no matter how nice it would be to believe we finally might begin to groggily open our eyes to the morning light piercing our nightmares. New generations are being raised on this mainstreaming of dystopia, not only in summer flicks but hyper-realistic dramas that go on for years and so becoming deeply embedded within the psyche. It forms the background of the collective imagination, for good or ill.

* * *

Let’s explore some further historical background to entertainment in the horror and dystopian genres.

As the Second World War came to an end, there was the baby boom and so a renewed focus on the young. The cover article of Parents’ Magazine, in January 1950, declared that, “Because in the next 10 years the United States will have a record child population, we are now entering upon what can well be termed the Children’s Decade” (quoted in the abstract of Andrew Scahill’s It Takes a Child to Raze a Village: Demonizing Youth Rebellion). A new generation of children offered not only hope but fear as well. “During the Cold War crisis, children’s bodies became the primary symbolic battlegrounds for political ideology” (Andrew Scahill, The Revolting Child in Horror Cinema). In both the United States and the Soviet Union, children were seen as targets of propaganda and so entry points of alien or corrupting forces.

There had been concern about youths gone wrong far back in history with moral panic rising in reaction to the mass urbanization and technological changes in the late colonial era (Technological Fears and Media Panics). So, children had increasingly become symbols of uncertainty and anxiety. Along with an emergent idealization of childhood, there was an ideological motivation to control children, as the ideal clashed with harsh realities. This underlying tension finally boiled to the surface with the under-parented Lost Generation of children working in factories and roaming in street gangs, although juvenile delinquency didn’t became a society-wide obsession until the 1940s and 1950s. The concern grew worse in the following decades. “Dixon notes that Rhoda in “The Bad Seed” was the first mainstream demon child, but the trope really took off with the 1960 British science fiction film “Village of the Damned” and the sequel “Children of the Damned,” in which a mysterious force impregnates all the women villagers simultaneously” (Douglas J. Rowe, Evil children chill moviegoers).

By the 1970s and 1980s, as another generation was coming onto the scene, it felt like the world was going to hell. Besides the peak of a violent crime wave, it was the period of economic recession and austerity, of farm crisis and AIDS crisis, of the final clashes of the Cold War and the lingering threat of nuclear catastrophe. “I’m a child of the ’80s,” writes David Sirota, “and I was deeply impacted by that decade and that pop culture — and for many reasons, that pop culture is back in a lot of ways. So I started thinking about why it’s back — and some of it is Hollywood laziness, some of it is coincidence — but it’s really kind of eerie, too, with the crisis at the Japanese nuclear power plant happening; you know, the last time that kind of thing was happening was at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, in the ’80s. So there’s a real zeitgeist of the ’80s returning” (from Jef Otte’s interview, David Sirota on Back to Our Future, Ghostbusters and the decade of “me”; see Back to Our Future: David Sirota on the 80s). There is also the fact that GenXers and their older siblings, the late Boomers, who were shaped by that era are now the majority of parents of youth and producers of entertainment.

Still, it’s the Fifties that must be given credit for giving birth to a particular strain of filmographic fear, and there were social circumstances to explain what went wrong. “While the media frequently portrayed teens as a monstrous threat to the stability of American society, these films show the teen as monster to be a creation of a corrupt adult world. If the teenager is vindicated in many horror films, mom does not come off so well” (Cyndy Hendershot, I was a Cold War Monster, p. 5). Yet, “In many of these films, the father is absent or bamboozled by his precious prince or princess; it”s left to the mother to come to the slow, horrifying realization about her offspring” (Douglas J. Rowe, Evil children chill moviegoers). In either case, it was a failure of adult authority figures, often the parents but also a sense of societal corruption in general.

Even when children were portrayed as dangerous, they often were also framed as victims and casualties of post-war changes or Cold War dangers. “With strong antecedents in the late 1950s (The Bad Seed, Village/Children of the Damned, The Lord of the Flies), the figuration of the revolting child—and specifically the child collective—is best understood as a Cold War monster. Indeed, […] public investment in the “good democratic child” and public outrage over the “juvenile delinquent” loomed large on the U.S. consciousness” (Andrew Scahill, It takes a child to raze a village: demonizing youth rebellion, p. 2). From a Fifties newspaper article, in reporting on the “Children’s Decade”, it was argued that all of society’s resources needed to be invested in children, as much out of fear as of loving concern: “The disturbed, hostile and rebellious child is a danger to himself and to the community, and a poor risk as a future citizen” (George Hecht, Today Is Termed Children’s Decade; Their Needs Cited, Madera Tribune, Number 75, 29 April 1952). “Beneath the insistence on creating a positive and healthy environment to foster children’s individual growth and social development was a concern over the nation’s future” (Daniel Gomes, “Sissy” Boys and “Unhappy” Girls: Childrearing During the Cold War). Childhood was the site of existential crisis.

There was something different, though, in the late Cold War era when horror movies fully went mainstream. Instead of the sins of the father and mother falling upon the next generation, it became more common for fictionalized children and youth to be made into something else entirely, ever more monstrous and alien. Youth culture was becoming its own force that diverged further and further from the adult world. This led to unsettling movies like the 1979 Over the Edge about juvenile delinquents running rampant and turning violent that shaped many minds of that generation of youth. “While somewhat raw and certainly not without imperfections, it’s easy to understand why Kurt Cobain claimed that the movie “pretty much defined my whole personality,” and why it so heavily influenced Richard Linklater in making his own ode to restless youth, Dazed and Confused” (Mike Sacks, Over the Edge).

Even so, most horrifying movies of that era didn’t put on a pretense of realism. That is what feels different about present entertainment. Movies and shows are so much higher quality in terms of special effects, script writing, and acting. It’s much bigger business these days and the profits are so much higher. Oddly, this has led to an increased popularity of gritty realism. Even alternative histories like The Man in the High Castle are made to be quite compelling in creating a plausible world that is fleshed out in great detail. Another difference is that the obsession with youth culture has completely changed in tone. In present speculative narratives of the dark bent, the younger generations are no longer demonized and made into scapegoats. Instead, when not simply ignored, they are heroes on a hero’s journey, rebellious fighters against oppression, and saviors of humanity.

We fantasize about the younger generation undoing our failures and making the world right again. At least, there is an acknowledgement of something being amiss and that someone had better do something about it. But what is our society supposed to do as GenZ reaches adulthood and they no longer are innocent children upon which we can project our failed aspirations? How are the young supposed to reverse centuries of damage to the environment, worsening inequality, and growing authoritarianism? Anyway, isn’t this rather convenient? Instead of doing the hard work right now, we can simply make and watch entertainment about alternative worlds and future worlds where fictional people do what needs to be done in fighting for a more just world.

* * *

Other examples of dark entertainment from the past couple of decades:

  • Children of Men (2006)
  • The Road (2009)
  • Dark Angel (2000-2002)
  • Jeremiah (2002-2004)
  • Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)
  • Jericho (2006-2008)
  • The Walking Dead (2010-)
  • The Leftovers (2014-2017)
  • The 100 (2014-)
  • Colony (2016-2018)
  • 3% (2016-)
  • Black Mirror (2011-)
  • The Twilight Zone (2019-)

Articles of interest:

The US writers who imagined a fascist future
by Sarah Churchwell

Uneasy About the Future, Readers Turn to Dystopian Classics
by Alexandra Alter

Field Notes on Fascism: Four Novel Revivals, One Theme
by Harvey A. Schwartz

The creeping fascism of American literature
by Adi Robertson

Dystopian novels are dominating best-seller lists
by Michael Miner

Dystopian Fiction Finds New Meaning In The Age Of Trump
by Ben Barna

Why Even the Worst Alternate Universes Can Feel Like Safe Spaces
by Liz Shannon Miller

The Plots Against America
by Matt Gallagher

The Handmaid’s Tale TV Series Isn’t Revelatory, But Unfortunately It Doesn’t Need to Be
by Katharine Trendacosta

A Cunning Confection, and Some Food for Thought: A Review of The Hunger Games
by Gary Westfahl

Dear Television: I Can’t Handle Another Prestige Drama About America as a Fascist Dystopia
by Chelsea Steiner

The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be
by Evan Kindley

7 thoughts on “Dark and Dystopian Entertainment

  1. Dystopian entertainment, in its exaggerations and caricatures, can blind us to the evil already around us.

    Or wake us to it. It’s not an either/or proposition. Remember?

    But, of course, not all dystopian “entertainment” (which is a word I refuse to use in reference to what are — despite or, perhaps even, in spite of it all — still forms of Art) is mere fantasy, but actually reflects the world in which we live — metaphorically, of course.

    • It could go either way. That is why, in reference to its potential to blind us, I chose the word ‘can’ over ‘will’. I’d like to think it could awaken us. Or at least, maybe it prepares the ground for our awakening. About calling it ‘entertainment’, I didn’t mean anything dismissive about it. Some of these shows are brilliant and indeed they are art. I have a soft place in my heart for dark visions in general, in how they can point to deep truths.

      I probably could have expressed myself better. On a personal level, dystopian art does give me some sense of hope, potential, or something along those lines. The fact that transnational entertainment corporations are putting out this ‘entertainment’ represents a turning point in our society, whatever that might ultimately mean. That is what motivated me to put significant amount of care and concern into this post.

      The conclusion to my piece could be improved. But I wasn’t sure what conclusion to come to. The main thing was noticing this pattern. Dystopian art is becoming ever more popular, mainstream, and realistic. It is being taken seriously, in a way it wasn’t not that many years ago. Corporations see it as an opportunity for profit, but in creating these shows they are fulfilling a genuine need.

      I do find it amusing that Amazon, in particular, would put out an adaptation of PKD’s The Man in the High Castle. In Bezos’ and his grandfather’s Pentagon connections, I consider Amazon to be part of the American fascism that PKD re-invisioned as an alternative history, but of course the real fascism he was writing about already existed in the US.

        • Yeah. An awakening is simply a starting point, possibly a place from which to get one’s footing, to pivot or leverage. Or else to stumble and fall. Or maybe to simply stop digging when someone find’s oneself in a hole. Or who knows what. It’s an awakening, ripe with all kinds of potential and risk, many unknown unknowns.

  2. I’ll never tire of sharing a tweet Wil Wheaton posted one fine day, long ago. To paraphrase: “The dystopian fiction we all loved was meant to be a warning, people, not an instruction manual.”

    Perhaps the distinctions we seek lie somewhere in there.

    • I’ve had that thought on many occasions. I suspect it’s occurred to many people. That is what feels so different right now. There definitely are people who take it as an instruction manual. Steve Bannon was one such nefarious mastermind who sought to shape Trump into an authoritarian leader who would enact his vision. In having studied history, he understood how the impulse for economic populism and progressive reform could be co-opted toward fascism. It would be interesting to know what are his favorite novels, movies, and series. Here is Bannon in his own words:

      “Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement. It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Ship yards, iron works, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution — conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”

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