The new apocalyptic horror film It Comes at Night dwells, like so many bits and pieces of pop culture lately, on what happens when a society disintegrates. “Preppers are crazy people and they’re kooky,” writer-director Trey Edward Shults told Slate’s Jeffrey Bloomer earlier this month, “but then once you start hearing that economic collapse is not insane, then you start thinking about what people do when things fall apart, and how primal that gets, and what you need to do to protect that, and that started to fascinate me.”
Most of the apocalyptic movies, books, and TV shows I’ve consumed have, like Night, taken an extremely dim view of human nature. Prepper fictions assume that weak “takers” will try to mooch off of better-prepared “makers” in the wake of the flu or an electromagnetic pulse, and that the makers will need to terminate the takers with extreme prejudice. Even more literary apocalypses feature chained-up human livestock in basements and infants on spits. I had to finally stop following The Walking Dead, once one of my favorite shows, because I couldn’t stand to watch the baseball bat scene. “There’s no trust in [the show’s] world, no kindness, unless it’s exhibited by some soft-hearted fool who’s about to end up as walker chow,” my colleague Sam Adams wrote after that episode aired.
But a commenter on Slate’s review of It Comes At Night declared himself untroubled, even mildly irked, by the darkness of this film and its kin. “I get a little bit annoyed by the constant ‘hell is other people’ themes of US post-apocalyptic movies, because it’s pretty well known what happens when society collapses, and it’s not dog-eat-dog every-man-for-himself, it’s society-rebuilding. Pretty much instantly,” the commenter wrote. “We know this because society has collapsed thousands of times, on smaller and bigger scales. What always happens is that the survivors regroup, organize, and rebuild.”
Can this ray of sunshine be trusted? I’d love to believe it can be. I asked Scott Knowles, a historian of disaster, what historians and sociologists who study collapses and disasters have to say. His answer: It depends. “We help, and also we don’t,” Knowles said in an email to me. Over the years, academic researchers have gone back and forth on the question. “This whole area of work really got going in the Cold War when defense planners wanted to model post-[nuclear] attack scenarios,” Knowles wrote. The Disaster Research Center at Ohio State University (which has since moved to the University of Delaware) “did the work over years to model community response, and they pushed back strongly on the idea of social collapse—they found instead too much of the opposite—people converge on a disaster scene!”
In a 1961 paper (unpublished until 1996), sociologist Charles Fritz laid out the case for this “contrary perspective” that disasters and other majorly stressful events don’t necessarily result in social breakdown and trauma. Fritz, who had begun his observations of disasters while stationed in Britain during the Blitz, reported that during that time he saw “a nation of gloriously happy people, enjoying life to the fullest, exhibiting a sense of gaiety and love of life that was truly remarkable,” with Britons reaching beyond class distinctions, sharing supplies, and talking to people they had never spoken with before. Marshaling sociological and historical evidence, Fritz recounts example after example of people pulling together in the middle of tragedy: black and white police and militia members uniting to maintain order during the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in 1878; enemies forgetting old quarrels during the German bombing of Krakow in World War II; community members reporting strengthened personal relationships with neighbors after the White County, Arkansas, tornado of 1952.
Since Fritz’s work in the middle of the 20th century, other researchers have tried to fill in the blanks, looking at disasters big and small in various countries across the world. “In general,” Knowles wrote, “there is an agreement that people are pro-social” (in other words, they will try to form alliances with each other and help out, just as the commenter argues). “But of course, that has limits based on the perception of government care and assistance, the actions of law enforcement, wealth of the community, stability of communities and families, and age.” Rebecca Solnit, in her 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, described the deeply contradictory, and not entirely negative, effect that disasters have on communities: “In each disaster, there is suffering, there are psychic scars that will be felt most when the emergency is over, there are deaths and losses. Satisfactions, newborn social bonds, and liberations are often also profound.”
Scholar Ilan Kelman runs a site called Disaster Diplomacy that collects case studies, trying to determine why some disasters lead to greater cooperation between groups and others don’t. In one post, Kelman explains how the United States and Cuba negotiated (mostly failed) offers of mutual aid after hurricanes throughout the 2000s. “Disaster-related activities can catalyze diplomacy, but are unlikely to create diplomacy” where none existed before, Kelman wrote. If two parties—countries, or groups inside countries—have been talking about extending mutual aid and friendship already, help is likely forthcoming. If they haven’t—according to the case studies Kelman and others have gathered—it might not be. During a big and ongoing collapse, like the one climate change (or an international pandemic) is likely to be, people’s actions will be increasingly difficult to predict, because so many countries will be involved.
People are not the same everywhere and across time. I know this argument doesn’t make excellent fodder for horror films. But there are fictions that approach the imagination of disaster carefully, without assuming that “humanity” is a constant across situations, and that scarcity will always end in war. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s new climate change book New York: 2140, most of the city is submerged by rising sea levels, but new organizational structures also spring up to allocate the resources that remain. This is not an idealized future—people go hungry, and predatory capitalists profit—but it’s not dystopian either. Characters form alliances and friendships, fight for one another, and share what they have.
As Robinson said in a 2015 interview about dark visions of climate disasters: “There’s another scenario where we get hold of our technologies, our social systems and our sense of law and justice and we make a kind of utopia—a positive future where we’re sustainable over the long haul. We could live on Earth in a permaculture that’s beautiful. From this moment in history, both scenarios are completely conceivable.”
I hope he’s right.