Letter from the Editor

"This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper."

—T.S. Eliot

I used to imagine the end of the world all the time.

To be fair, the first eleven years of my life were shaped almost entirely by a religion that grew out of apocalypse and failure, or rather, a failure to correctly predict an apocalypse. On October 22, 1844, thousands of people—then known as Millerites, after William Miller, the man who had predicted the Second Advent of Jesus Christ some eleven years earlier—sat anxiously outside their homes and gazed toward the sky in eager anticipation. Many had given away all their money and possessions, abandoning all vestiges of their life on earth, quietly assured of ascending heavenward on that fateful October day. At a certain point, though, the day grew long, and nothing happened. In time, they put a name to that day - The Great Disappointment - but even a name like that seemed quite an understatement. They were sure the world was ending that day, tens of thousands of them, but instead they were left to return to their lives. Some predicted different dates as a way of moving on, others left the movement entirely.

Religious or not, the end of the world has haunted all of us for as long as we’ve had the capacity to be haunted by it. Pattern-seeking creatures that we are, we know that every beginning implies an end, but just as we struggle to wrap our heads around how the world began, we often have just as much trouble imagining ourselves forward into a place where the whole thing simply…ends. We know many ways it could end, sure, but we are also quite invested in doing our very best not to think too closely about any of it. Because, whimper or bang, an end is an end. And to imagine a finite world reminds us that we are finite, too.

And so when the end of the world finally does come—and it will, whether in 1844, 2025, or 9820—it will be awful. Or spectacular. Or a million other things. What it won’t be, though, is something we have any frame of reference for. Which is perhaps why we’ve told ourselves so many stories about it over the course of human history. We’ve created apocalyptic tales—around the fire, on the page, and now on our screens—over and over again. We want to know what it will be like, but perhaps more importantly: we want to know what we will be like. When it happens; when it all falls apart; when everything collapses.

It’s safe to say that, when the end of the world approaches, we’ll still be telling stories. Even when we’ve run out of good water or clean air or electricity or nonfat lattes, we’ll have our stories—our histories and our imaginations—and a pressing need to share them with one another. Telling stories is a fundamental way we try to make sense of things, of the world around us, of where where we’re going and where we’ve been. Without them, it wouldn’t be much of a world to begin with. And when the whole thing draws to a close, we’ll need them more than ever.

With that in mind, we decided to take a closer look at films that deal with the end of the world—or the almost end of the world, anyway. Many of the essays in this month’s issue tackle movies that take place in post-apocalyptic landscapes (Sara Gray’s look at Planet of the Apes, Andrew Root’s unearthing of the mid–90s cult film, Tank Girl, and Fran Hoepfner’s experience with the waking nightmare that is Children of Men), while others wrestle with its imminent approach (Michelle Said’s imagining of what was being said on the other end of the phone line in Dr. Strangelove, Bob Schofield’s reflections on Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse). Chris Cantwell uses William Friedkin’s Sorcerer to prove that the world has actually already ended, and we wrap things up with Leslie Jamison’s prayer of thanks to the heroes of big budget apocalypse movies.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion once famously wrote. But in this issue—to twist Didion’s words in a way she’d likely enjoy—we tell ourselves stories in order to die.
 

—Chad Perman, Editor-in-Chief


I Am Badlands

by Gray Hendryx

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

It was a beautiful evening in February when my fiance and I decided to go for a walk. The dusty mountains encircling our little town glowed rose in the day’s fading light. We carefully avoided walking on the grass (or lack thereof) lest we encrust our shoe soles with burrs. The air was cool and fresh. We crested the rise just past the dry creek bed, aiming for a park bench that offered a perfect view of the sunset over the desert hills. It was then that we saw the dying deer.

A mule deer lay panting on the side of the road that edged the park. A breeze blew wads of her coarse fur across the blacktop. Stripes of blood oozed from her right side. At the sight of us, her eyes rolled in fear, and she struggled desperately to stand. She couldn’t move her legs. I could hear each wet breath she drew. Though it was nowhere in sight, the car that had hit her must have done so just moments before we arrived. We had walked into this scene of violence apparent, and yet implied. Where was the car? Why hadn’t we heard its squealing wheels, or the horrible thud of impact? Full of pity, we watched the deer suffer. We knew she would not survive.

Within minutes, a police car pulled up, and two officers stepped out. The officers stood over the writhing deer, then they gazed at us, their eyes hooded and grim. Move along, their silence ordered. Our desire to watch the sunset had fled after coming upon this bloodier ending. We turned our backs upon them all and headed for home. We heard the muffled popof a gun as we crossed the bridge over the waterless creek.

*

“No one sees us go under. No one sees generations churn, or civilizations,” Annie Dillard writes in For the Time Being. “The green fields grow up forgetting.”

Fields may forget, but deserts remember. They retain scars from cataclysms that shook the earth aeons ago. There is a canyon in Big Bend National Park made of a soft gray rock called tuff, which is the compressed ash of a massive volcanic explosion that occurred long before humans, or even mammals, walked the planet. On the trail to Devil’s Den, one can see a distant mountain marked with livid white scars, evidence of a rockslide whose boulders lay tumbled upon the mountain’s dusky flank. To my untrained eye, it was impossible to tell if the rockslide had happened yesterday or a million years ago. They seemed raw and new, those scars, but a friend later told me the rockslide had occurred in 1980, the year I was born. So, not so new, but this is a land that preserves in limestone the ancient seabed that once stirred under the swimming fins of mosasaurs. To the land, thirty-three years ago wasn’t just yesterday—it was mere seconds ago. I’d simply arrived a moment too late to witness it.

Deserts were almost always something else before they dried up. When it wasn’t a shallow sea, the desert where I live was once a lush swamp; fossils of ancient hippos have been found where scorpions and cacti now dwell. As I explore its sere hills, I can’t help but feel like I’m walking amongst ruins—toppled and flash-dried by some unimaginable disaster—when the truth takes more patience to understand: It’s only time that killed the ferns and forests and crinoid shoals.

It’s into a similarly blasted world that Taylor, Landon, and Dodge—three astronauts from a quaintly over-achieving retro-future—crash their spaceship in 1968’s Planet of the Apes. There are deserts, which can teem with a surprising variety of life, and then there are badlands, deserts almost entirely devoid of animals and vegetation. These men face miles of badlands, with only three days’ worth of water and food to hand. Their ship is sunk; there’s no going back. They shoulder their packs and go. Canyon rims curve in graceful arabesques over the men’s awkward scrambling upon the rocks below. Taylor (Charlton Heston), his wit as dry as the dust around them, is the only one who accepts their dire position. Landon plants a pitifully tiny flag, claiming this dead land for a country that, as far as they’re concerned, has ceased to exist. Taylor laughs in his face.

It’s no wonder that Planet‘s cinematographer, Leon Shamroy, chose to film these stunning opening scenes in Utah’s Glen Canyon. The badlands’ utter starkness is the definition of “otherworldly,” so we assume right along with the men that this place is such. I find that term ironic, despite using it myself to describe similar places. I’ve heard comparable words used to describe Hawai’i’s Ka’u Desert or Arizona’s Meteor Crater. “It’s like Mars/the moon/another planet.” It’s a cliche. But how can we say this, when this planet, Earth, is the only one we’ve ever really known? Sure, we have pictures from the surfaces of the Moon and Mars, but one could just as easily say their landscapes look like some of ours. All of them are badlands. There, water does not flow. Plants do not grow. The bare earth lies alone under the touch of wind (if there’s an atmosphere), temperature, and the occasional falling debris from space.

Alone, badlands remember.

*

I work at a biological research institute that specializes in the desert’s large mammals, specifically pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and mule deer. While the former two critters bring us the most acclaim, the latter pay the bills. Private landowners are interested in knowing exactly what kind of food, weather conditions, and ranching practices result in healthy deer, and they are more than willing to pay big bucks for big bucks. In a region where cattle ranching is fading out due to drought and an increasingly volatile meat market, leasing land for deer hunting is one of the few environmentally friendly ways ranchers can make good money. (It’s better that than fracking.) Luckily for us, and the ecosystem, a sustainably run ranch is not only good for deer, but for many other animals and plants as well, so we try to help landowners out.

Thus it was that I attended my first mule deer capture one clear March morning. Though it was certainly better than being shot at and taxidermied, it was not a fun day to be a buck. Imagine going to a routine physical checkup, except that the doctor chases you down in an ATV, captures you in a net shot from a gun, and straps you to a helicopter—which then flies away, with you spinning dizzily beneath it—before dropping you amidst a bunch of bored men in their twenties. Imagine two of these men then hold you to the ground while you wriggle and cry, “Help! Please! Stop!” One prizes your mouth open with a metal bar to check your teeth. Another clips a chunk out of your left ear for a DNA sample, while still another pierces your right ear with an ugly fluorescent pink plastic tag. Despite the blindfold the men put over your eyes, ostensibly to calm you, you feel a fresh rush of panic at the tightening of a GPS transmitter collar around your neck. (In this case, be glad you’re a male. There is such a thing as a vaginal transmitter.) Then, as if you hadn’t suffered enough humiliation, a woman in her mid-thirties spray-paints a big green “X” on your ass before the men finally let you go.

West Texas is lousy with mule deer. It’s easy to assume they’re all alike, especially when you see herds of them standing in the middle of a country road at dusk, staring at you with gentle, stupid eyes and refusing to get out of your way. Spray can in hand, I stepped away from each buck with a fresh appreciation of each deer’s individuality. Some of the deer were stoic, suffering through our ministrations with quiet dignity, while others (particularly yearlings) bleated like little lost lambs. One huge bruiser had a truly inspiring rack–nearly two inches thick at the base of each antler–but nearly all the points were broken off from fights with lesser challengers. One deer farted constantly. They all had one thing in common, though. I don’t speak deer, but the look in their eyes was as plain to me as the writing on this page, and it said, “TAKE YOUR STINKING PAWS OFF ME, YOU DAMN DIRTY APES.”

*

Beware the beast man, for he is the devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport, or lust or greed. Yes, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him. Drive him back into his jungle lair: For he is the harbinger of death.
—The Twenty-Third Scroll, Ninth Verse

And so, after making friends with a couple of sympathetic chimps, Taylor escapes from ape civilization with his mute girlfriend, Nova. They go into the desert on a horse with no name, and thereby discover that there ain’t no one for to give him no name–no Taylor, no Bright Eyes, nothing. Dr. Zaius was right when he intoned, “You might not like what you find.” What I always found interesting is that Taylor’s cynicism is never actually disproved. If anything, his misanthropy is completely deserved. He hates humanity at the film’s beginning, and despite a half-assed admission that he “Needs people” (unsurprisingly, a cocky bro like Taylor could admit to needing a hot woman who can’t speak), the film’s famous twist ending proves him right. What he thought was an inverted, alien world was really his own neighborhood, transformed by human violence and time out of mind. All deserts were once something else, but this time we were the cataclysm that left nothing but sheer rock and the bluest skies above.

Each of the films in the Planet of the Apes franchise attempts to work through humanity’s collective guilt. The source of this guilt changes with the decade. The films made in 1968 and 1969 pondered racism and the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation. The films from the 1970’s concerned themselves with a working class revolution and animal rights. 2014’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes picked up these themes and expanded them into an unexpectedly complex exploration of non-human personhood. (As for the 2001 film, the guilt is Tim Burton’s entirely, for making such an expensive piece of crap.) Taken together, all of these films portray an uneasiness with humanity’s power over the oppressed, over the animals with whom we share this place, and ultimately, over Earth itself.

This uneasiness is what recently drove me to the desert. Like Taylor, I grew sick of living in a city filled with so many loud, violent, and selfish people, so I left. I took a job working to preserve an ecosystem threatened by humanity’s actions, hoping that would atone for the guilt I feel for my small role in our misguided dominion over Earth. And no, I will not breed in great (or any) numbers - my partner and I refuse to bring any more children into this overpopulated world. At times, especially after I read articles about climate change and how it’sacidifying the oceans and unearthing desert dust fungi that might kill me, I relate to Taylor. I want to gnash my teeth and scream, “You ruined it! Goddamn you all to hell!” I wish I could punch humanity in its collective face, but that, in the end, would only result in punching myself. So, like Taylor, I punch the unyielding earth at my feet.

At times like these, there’s always Annie Dillard. “The earth was plowing the men under, and the spade, and the plow. No one sees us go under.” Meteorites and rockslides and eruptions are cataclysms. So are we. “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” Does an earthquake feel guilt? Does the meteorite regret its crater? Does the canyon resent the flood that formed it? We are of this Earth: ashes and dust.

*

It was high noon the day I hiked to Devil’s Den, the harshest time to be out in the desert. Though I continually sucked water from my Camelback pouch and had covered every inch of my exposed skin with sunscreen and light clothing, the heat still sapped my strength. I needed shade, and there was none. I had to keep walking. I felt faint. My legs shook weakly with each step. Finally, I found a stone outcropping near an arroyo that offered a sliver of shadow. I lay my sweaty back against it, and it drew from me the heat of my racing heart. The stone was so cold that I shivered. I took from my pack some electrolyte capsules—minerals, tiny bits of earth—and swallowed them. I looked at the blue sky and marveled at how, here in the desert, hope and dread hold hands.


Gray Hendryx is a writer on the move between West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Peru. Next year, she’ll end up in Pittsburgh with her beloved husband and chihuahua. You can follow along with her travels at Material Spiritualist.


When the Lights Go Out

by Bob Schofield

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

As a child I would pretend the world only existed within the confines of my sight. What I imagined were two conical beams of light spilling from my eyes; they’d sweep wherever I turned my head. I was a lighthouse with arms and legs. The beams contained the world as I knew it, experienced it. Trees, school buses, other kids on the playground, I held them all in the strange light of my eyes. I pretended their existence depended wholly on my gaze, and that the world shifted whenever that light moved. Anything caught outside my periphery was suddenly rendered void, nullified, vaporized. Its existence immediately negated without my sight to sustain it. All it took was a little imagination, a tilt of the head, and a special kind of solipsism, that grandiosity of which only the very insane—or the very young—are capable.

I knew it was a game. I knew the world was round and whole and persistent. I knew China was waiting on the other side of the blue-green sphere, and that millions of people existed there, doing just fine. They went about their daily lives regardless of whether I could see them or not. Existence always just soldiered on. I knew that. Even when I blinked, or yawned, or lay down for a long night’s sleep. Over time, I found I could control how much I believed in this game I played. I could fine tune it. Especially at night, especially in bed, when the mind is primed to wander. I would sometimes let myself indulge the fantasy completely. I’d slide headfirst down the rabbit hole of thoughts, always ending up at the same place. Arriving at the center, the logical endpoint, orbiting some strange kernel of pity for each and every person left out in the cold, in the big black nothing, who I couldn’t stash away in the imagined ark of my sight.

Nothing seemed worse, in that moment, then to be condemned to the darkness. Some invisible hand callously flips a light switch to the ‘off’ position, and then poof, no more existence. You’re nothing, and you never were. It’s terrifying, when you think about it.

Which is why seeing Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, nearly twenty years later, felt like such a gut punch to that little boy still hiding inside me, all that magic light pouring from his eyes.

*

The title of the film references an incident in which Frederich Nietzsche witnessed a cab driver brutally whipping his horse when it refused to move. The philosopher—overwhelmed by the sight—threw his arms around the creature’s neck, breaking down into tears. It is believed to be the moment that marked Nietzsche’s psychological break, the beginning of a descent into madness that would claim the rest of his life. This anecdote opens the film, narrated over a pitch black screen, delivered by an anonymous speaker whose voice is so resonant and booming it could almost be God himself.

The film, however, has no interest in Nietzsche, at least not directly—in fact, after this single brief mention the legendary philosopher is shuffled quickly offstage, and the first shot is instead a jarring closeup of the horse and its driver; the two sad, forgotten bit players in the story, always overshadowed by the melodrama of the weeping Nietzsche, his torment and compassion and mysterious epiphany.

The horse trudges against hurricane winds. The camera is unbelievably close to its face; the wind pulls its eyes wide, peels its lips back, flashes those big, flat teeth. Its skull seems vast and alien. The black fur is mottled and filthy, a bit like torn paper. I remember wondering if it was possible this animal had been abused during filming. You never see horses like this on screen. Usually they’re glossy, strong; there’s some kind of cowboy planted confidently on top, and the whole thing is majestic. Not here. The cabdriver (János Derzsi) is faring just as poorly as his horse. He can barely keep his eyes open. The wind is ripping at his coat. He’s going hard on the reins. It feels like the pair could be blown away at any moment, right off the screen, off into who knows where.

The shot goes on for a long time. Every shot goes on for a long time. The film takes place over the course of seven days. This is the first. The cabdriver arrives at his tiny farmhouse, where he lives alone with his daughter (Erika Bók). They put the horse in the barn. Since he can’t move his right arm - the result of a stroke, perhaps - she helps him change clothes. She boils two potatoes; one for him, one for her, and they eat with their fingers, him clawing at the steaming brown skin with his one good hand. They drink brandy from small, dirty glasses; one for him, one for her. Then they both move to the window. They look out at the land. There’s a hill and the rest is flat and always the wind is blowing. This is their entertainment. Eventually it gets dark, so they go to sleep. As they lie there, opposite sides of one room - the only room - the man tells his daughter that for the first time in fifty-eight years, he can’t hear the woodworms. There’s no sound. Nothing but the wind. It’s like they’ve just disappeared.

By the second day the pattern has emerged. You understand the absolute drudgery of their lives. One dreary task follows another, a dull routine that carries on from one moment to the next. The girl heads out into the vicious wind, off to draw the day’s water from the well. The man hitches his horse. Again, it refuses to move, and now it’s stopped eating altogether. They go back to their chores, take turns staring out the window, until later that day when a neighbor arrives. A fat man, making his way down the hill in a giant fur coat, bracing himself against the wind as he approaches the tiny house.

He’s come for some brandy. He says he would have gotten it in town, but it blew away. The town, that is. The whole town just… blew away. He doesn’t elaborate, and neither the cabdriver or his daughter press him for details. They take the news with complete neutrality, so much so that it’s difficult to tell if he means it figuratively or not, but no, he’s being literal. And then he lets loose an epic monologue—the first sustained speech of the film, which hits you like a slap in the face, every exchange between the father and daughter for the past hour having been virtually monosyllabic—about good and evil, about injustice, about the decay of the world, and how it’s been headed in this direction for a long time.

“It’s been going on for centuries. This and only this.” His speech is cryptic, abstract. It travels in the bold, pitiless rhetoric of the prophets. The man spits while he speaks. He bangs his fist against the table.

“This is not some kind of cataclysm coming about with so-called innocent human aid. On the contrary, it’s about man’s own judgement, his own judgement over his own self.” He takes his bottle. He makes his way slowly back over the hill.

*

The world is coming down around the cab driver and his daughter. Their world is broken, cracked, and cracking further all the time. It can barely hold itself together. First the horse, then the woodworms. It’s the end of time, but not any kind we’re used to as consumers of popular entertainment. It’s an apocalypse without drama, without spectacle. There are no zombies or heroic survivalists. This isn’t tight leather and dune buggies and irradiated wastelands. There are no big meaty comets overhead, just waiting to be blown out of the sky by ragtag astronauts.

No, this is the oldest kind of apocalypse; a biblical apocalypse. And yet there are no choirs of angels present, no flaming chariots or golden horns. It’s just God—or some mysterious source of divine influence—simply snuffing out the world, without pomp and circumstance, not one ounce of grandiosity. A harsh force, something beyond human comprehension, blowing away piece after piece with a perpetual gust of wind. Like it’s puffing out a candle. Like it’s stubbing a cigarette in the dirt.

Now the needle moves steadily from monotonous to terrifying. A band of gypsy’s arrive, fleeing the same creeping existential cataclysm, screaming “The world is ours!” There’s little context, but it’s enough to reinforce the sense of anarchy, a certainty that everything outside the farmhouse has fallen to ruins. The world has been reduced to just the barest scraps, and all that’s left are these final loose threads flapping in the wind. By the next day, all the water has disappeared from their well. What are they to do? They pack their meager possessions. Load them up, and drag the catatonic horse over the hill, but where could they possibly be headed? Where could they go that’s safe? There are no rules to this destruction. It’s encroaching from all sides; Existence itself is shutting down. The camera stays rooted on the farm as you watch the trio turn to specks on the horizon; man, woman, and beast, headed towards a sheer wall of nothing.

It all took me back to that game I played as a kid, so many years ago. I thought about the man and his daughter passing over the hill, and how in the world of Béla Tarr’s film, where the bedrock of existence can slip away like a thimble of sand, what guarantee did I have that they would make it over the top? That they’d still be there when they reached the other side, and passed out of my sight? I realized I had none.

*

These days I live in Philadelphia, and every few months the power will go out. Never for long, never for more than an hour or so, but whenever it happens I’m suddenly reminded just how helpless I am. I remember that I’m really nothing but a small, bipedal mammal in a box; that I’m stacked on top of similar bipedal mammals in similar boxes, and that my fellow bipedal mammals and I depend on vast, abstract corporate entities to provide us with water and electricity; that if these entities were to one day decide to just stop, there’s nothing any of us could immediately do about it. Basically, if the lights go out, part of me goes with them. It’s a part that believes I have far more agency in this world than I really do, that ignores the fact that I am at the mercy of unknowable forces.

There is nothing more terrifying than the arbitrary, the irrational. Yes, the end of the world is always a frightful prospect, but there can be some tiny solace, in understanding how and why it happened. Tracing its causes back to their source. Once we’ve done that, we can reckon with it. We can point the finger back at ourselves and say, “Our greed did this! Our brutality did this! Yes this surely is hell, but at least it’s ours!”

You can plan around it, live through it. That’s the traditional arc of the post-apocalypse narrative. The heroes find something to hold onto, that keeps them going, trudging forward with some small hope clutched tightly to their chests. But with this film, Tarr has built a world in which that same dull trudging is already the status quo. The world itself is already a punishment, so what else could be inflicted upon the sad creatures who inhabit it, besides swatting them down with no warning or reason? To swat them down like flies.

*

By the film’s sixth day, the lamps aren’t working. The lights are going out. Father and daughter sit in the darkness, picking at their potatoes; one for him, one for her. The only visible piece of furniture is the long, wooden table. Everything else is blackness. Who knows if the walls are still there? If the ceiling is still there? If the hill and the trees and the sad, old horse are still there? The darkness presses in on them, hangs from their shoulders and their cheeks. Any second now it will push in, and swallow them whole.

The world is so fragile, and our existence within it so tenuous. It can be taken from us in an instant. Some freak accident, a tragic car crash. Or quietly, in our beds. We press our heads to our pillows and lay down to sleep, and there is nothing promising us that we’ll wake up in the morning. The world is simply that which is given to us, moment by moment. It’s what we bathe in that strange light spilling from our skulls, day in, day out, a shifting of sets in a play that springs up around us. And if it is to end, if the world is to fold up and die, well that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s some great and terrible fire in the sky. The world doesn’t have to end in ash and brimstone. It ends whenever we close our eyes.


Bob Schofield is the author and illustrator of The Inevitable June. He likes what words & pictures do. He wants to be a ghostly presence in your life.


What We Talk About When We Talk About Doomsday

by Michelle Said

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

It had been a long, tough day for Dimitri. Cold as usual. A blistering sort of cold that made you feel like your blood would freeze over just thinking about it. He was tired. So very tired. As premier of the Soviet Union, he was always tired, but this night in particular he was recovering from an all-night session with his mistress, the beautiful Marina. She serviced him well, of course, but even with her uncanny ability to pleasure him in the worst of times, his mind still drifted to dusty corners where only one face appeared.

He could still see it now: the dome of his shiny scalp, his magnified eyes pools of calm reserve and preternatural acuity. Dimitri had only met President Merkin Muffley in person once or twice, but still. There it was: his face, emblazoned on the lids of his eyes every time he closed them. The American president’s silhouette danced before him even as Marina’s plump lips trailed down the bare strip of chest exposed by his open button-down shirt in the wee hours of the morning, a late-night, early-morning surprise.

“Stop,” he said, just before she unbuttoned his pants. He felt her fingers pause, their manicured tips poised and ready. She looked up at him with wide, inquisitive eyes.

“What?” she asked, her St. Petersburg accent tinging her words with a Western drawl, one he hated bitterly. The ends of her peroxide hair frayed around her face in wisps, amplifying her doll-like features. “What is wrong?”

“I cannot,” he said. His eyes drifted up to the ceiling. He couldn’t meet her gaze. Despite their bond, so often satisfying in so many ways, he knew he did not respect her. “I cannot, Marina.”

Her hand fell limp on his crotch. “What is this? What are you doing?” Every time she spoke, he hated her more.

“It is nothing. I cannot.”

“I can help?” she asked, tentatively. She began to unbutton his pants again but he swatted her hand away.

“Get out!” he yelled as he bolted upright, surprising himself with the vigor in his voice. For although he felt weak and feeble and desperate inside, the anger with himself, at this situation, was still at hand. “Get out, Marina! I cannot stand to see you anymore!”

Marina stood up, erect with anger and frustration. She snatched her robe and undergarments off the floor hastily.

“Get out, or I will throw you out!” he shouted, his voice reaching a higher pitch. He turned away towards the bar, poured himself a tumbler of vodka and swigged it down.

He heard the door slam behind him as he helped himself to another shot. His thoughts drifted to his colleague, Alexei, the Russian ambassador to the United States. An imposing gentleman with a taste for sweets. A man so close to his beloved, right this very second. A place he could not be.

His brain felt cloudy. This Cold War. So cold that other bodies couldn’t provide warmth. A stand-off, a frozen state. What was any of it good for? Power struggles helped nobody. But the Soviet Republic had to triumph. It had to be an example. And yet, and yet…

He tossed back the second shot and went back for another. And another. And another after that. But despite feeling numb, he could not erase that face from his mind. The only person in the world he would like to talk to was not there. He remembered their periodic chats with a fondness he had never felt before. Each phone call lasted at least a half-hour but it felt like it lasted for ten hours or five seconds. And each time it was never enough.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the record player, gilded and golden in the corner of the ornate bedroom. He fumbled through a stack of records until he came to the only disc that would help the pain.

Seems like the other day
My baby went away
He went away ‘cross the sea
It’s been two years or so

He thought of the Doomsday device. It would be so brilliant and perhaps his beloved would be surprised. Oh, how he loved surprises. Demonstrating this ingenious feat of engineering—yes, world-destroying, but perhaps peace-keeping?—would surely make the President of the United States stand up and take notice.

He began to sing along with the record. Once it ended, he skipped the needle back again and turned up the volume.

The phone rang. Alexei! Alexei began speaking quickly. Something about the president, something about planes. His brain was too muddled to comprehend the words. And then, before he knew it, the phone transferred to the American president.

“Hello?” he asked. He felt his heart skip as he heard the flat monotone voice on the other end of the line.

“Hello? Hello, Dimitri? Listen. I can’t hear too well. Do you suppose you could turn the music down just a little?”

“Oh, yes,” Dimitri mumbled. “Yes, of course.” He flipped off the sound and felt his cheeks blush with embarrassment. The Shangri-La’s, while terrific, were not the musical choice of a Soviet Premier.

“Oh, that’s much better.”

“Can you hear me now, Merkin? Is it fine now?”

“Fine, I can hear you now, Dimitri. Clear and plain and coming through fine.”

“You, also, are coming through fine.”

“Well, then, as you say we are both coming through fine. Good. Well, it’s good that you’re fine and I’m fine.”

Dimitri clutched the cord of the phone close to his chest, twisting it in circles around his fingers. “It’s great to be fine,” he said stupidly.

“I agree with you, it’s great to be fine.” The president laughed feebly. Dimitri knew this was not a friendly call. He felt something coming up. The president never called out of the blue, no matter how hard he wished for it.

“Now, then, Dimitri,” the president continued. “You know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb.”

“The what?”

“The bomb, Dimitri.”

“The bomb?”

“The hydrogen bomb.”

Dimitri, halfway shirtless, sipping slowly on a glass of vodka, listened to the American president tell him about a crazy general subverting the chain of command, ordering air bombers to attack several Soviet cities. His stomach sank.

“I can’t…” Dimitri started. “How can you… How am I supposed to…” He started several sentences, but he could not find the words.

“Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it?” The president asked, raising his voice. “Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dimitri? Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say hello?”

This was the worst possible thing Dimitri could have been told at this point in time. “What do you mean?” he asked, his voice shaky, slurred. “Do you mean you do not like talking to me?”

“Of course I like talking to you!” The president’s voice remained raised. “Of course I like to say hello! Not now, but any time, Dimitri. I’m just calling you up to tell you something terrible has happened.”

“So this is not a friendly call, then.” Dimitri ran a hand through his graying hair and stared at his palm.

“It’s a friendly call, of course it’s a friendly call!” The president paused. “Listen, if it wasn’t friendly, you probably wouldn’t have even got it.”

This one sentence sobered him up. He had to stop thinking like a childish schoolboy with a ridiculous crush. They began to make plans, strategic decisions. Something to fix this situation, to bring them closer.

“I am sorry, Merkin,” he said, finally.

“I’m sorry too, Dimitri. I’m very sorry.”

“I must say that I am sorrier. This device…” He trailed off, felt his stomach churn the vodka.

“I am as sorry as you are, Dimitri. Don’t say you are more sorry than I am because I am capable of being just as sorry as you are. So we’re both sorry, all right?”

“All right.”

“All right.”

Dimitri hung up the phone and released a dormant sigh. It may very well be his last day on earth, but he felt oddly relieved. He shuffled over to his bed and flopped down face first, his head smashing itself into an overstuffed pillow.

He slept soundly for the first time in years.


Michelle Said was one of the original founding editors of Bright Wall/Dark Room, and later served as media director and podcast hostShe currently freelances and works on her novel in New York.


Apocalypse Now: How Sorcerer Proves That the World Already Ended

by Christopher Cantwell

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I often say that the scariest horror movie is the one we’re all living in right now. There are no ghosts save the people you relied on who are gone. There are no monsters except the ones who take the corporeal form of daily mundane antagonists and interrupt your life, transforming it into a living hell. The scariest part of this “movie” is that it is incredibly nuanced and complex in its terror. It is real, and above all, inescapable. In the end, you will die. You’re the victim in this story. Bye.

A graduation of this disturbing thought entertains the notion that life is not only horrific but, in actuality, over. We just weren’t paying attention the moment it ended (whoops). About a year ago, I began to suspect that the post-apocalypse was already upon us. In the same way that an astronomer looks upon light from stars that have long since exploded, I started to wonder if some phantom hyper-consciousness of the future was in fact looking back on us, examining human existence through our limited vision and linear experience as a kind of post-mortem experiment to see where it all went wrong for Earthlings. If this is the case, we’re already dead and have been for thousands—if not trillions—of years. This thought first entered my mind because lately it’s been feeling to me as if we’re all caught in some glitchy instant replay, and what we’re missing (or cannot remember) is the Cataclysm itself—the moment it really ended and we became stuck in this purgatorial loop, collectively unaware.

It is said (at cocktail parties, not in science labs) that if one passes through the event horizon of a black hole, that individual will appear to be destroyed in an instant—but in that individual’s perception, time will stop, and his destruction will occur so slowly that it will feel like an eternity. So I wonder: what does an eternal destruction look and feel like? Are we even able to perceive such an infinite end? Do we become the frog who doesn’t know it’s slowly being boiled alive? Did the Earth slip into a black hole while we weren’t looking? Or did our civilization—our species—fall into some other kind of “black hole” (cultural, environmental, philosophical, undefined) of which we are equally unaware?

If so, when? How?

Perhaps it was the moment Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden, or maybe it was the Genesis Deluge that followed. Even if these examples are merely mythological stand-ins for the real Terminus, this specific “End of the World” might more accurately be called “The Loss of Innocence”—that instant when things changed and became self-aware, continuing forward but unable to shed the burden of What Once Was, now gone forever thanks to the Cataclysm, or in this regard, The Human Failure.

However, it’s my opinion that the world ended on one of the two following dates:

  • April 19, 1993.

  • April 19, 1995.

It’s a sweeping statement, but everything before those two bolded dates could arguably fall into the typical parameters of Human Strife. We can identify an expected pattern of trauma and catastrophe in our history: World War I, the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, the Black Plague, The Holocaust, all genocides, 200 years of the Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition, the Cold War, the invention of the atom bomb, the invention of gunpowder, the invention of the internet, all Diaspora(s), the expulsion of the Moors, the Military-Industrial Complex, the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, Stalingrad, the conquest of the American West, British Imperialism, the imposition of trade of the Japanese, the Ming Dynasty executions, AIDS, the crucifixion of Jesus, the Irish famine, William Jennings Bryan, Genghis Khan, the Dust Bowl, and so on and so on.

But I listed those two dates. Granted, those dates probably didn’t affect everyone. They’re both American events so I already realize their limitations in bringing about the End of the World for all people. So for argument’s sake, let’s for a moment shrink the World down to the pea-size of my experience.

I was 11 years old during the first event and 13 during the second. I’ll call the time immediately before this period the Pax Clintona because as a middle-class white kid things seemed pretty good. It had its robust share of Human Strife—Apartheid, Exxon Valdez, Rodney King, etc, etc. But for me, there was something called a Budget Surplus. The middle class still existed. Bruce Springsteen’s America was alive and well—and, at a showing ofJurassic Park, I saw my fifth grade teacher. Unity. Prosperity. All that. At least in my extremely limited, childish eyes, it was a nice time.

April 19th, 1993. The Mount Carmel compound in Waco, Texas burned to the ground. Four federal agents killed, 16 wounded, 87 Branch Davidians killed. I remember coming home from school and seeing the massive fire on the big-screen television my father had won in a sales contest at his job. He was sitting on our couch in shorts. “Holy shit,” he muttered.

To me this event defies explanation. Without even trying to assign blame, how can such an act ever make sense? Where is the logic? Where is the rationality? It is chaos.

April 19th, 1995. The Oklahoma City Bombing. 168 people killed. It was apparently a direct response to the government’s perceived culpability in the Waco Siege. But again… where is the logic? Where is the rationality? More chaos.

I don’t mean to put these events above any other tragedy that occurred before or after. But in my own life, in my own search for some sort of mile marker on the road we’re all on, I keep coming back to them. In my very limited world, this is when, at the very least, the World as I Knew It ceased to exist. Pax Clintona ended. Then there was Columbine, 9/11, the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, Katrina, the Economic Collapse. It was as if the progression up until then had been 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… and then was suddenly followed by ☉, then ⚗. I could no longer understand the pattern. Every moment suddenly had a new dreadful, chaotic flavor to it, and violent irrationally has been growing at an exponential rate ever since.

And this brings me to William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. Four men come from separate lives, separate worlds. One is an Irish gangster in Elizabeth, New Jersey. One is an assassin in Vera Cruz, Mexico. One is a wealthy businessman in Paris. One is a Palestinian terrorist working underground in Israel. These are all sinful men living in their own paradises. They do what they do and they do it well, and they enjoy the security of a status quo.

But they are sinners, and so each of their worlds end. They are cast out. They all end up in Porvenir, a tiny village in South America. It is the worst place on Earth. Its ashen, gray landscape is everything “post-apocalyptic” should be.

Here, the world as a whole ended a long time ago. This is Purgatory. This is the place where unclean souls toil and labor and dwell in misery forever. Our four souls want to escape, to get back to the world they knew, but the cost is too high. They literally don’t have enough pesos. They will never have enough pesos, and the more this dawns on them, the more they realize that they are doomed to Porvenir for all eternity. The world that once was is a dream more hazy to them by the day, and any hope of going back becomes futile and absurd. The four souls lose their very identities and grow more comfortable with the names assigned to them by fake passports. This is existence now. This is life After the Fall.

A dangerous opportunity to transport extremely unstable dynamite through two hundred miles of the jungle gives these souls hope. The payment promised to them could be enough to escape Porvenir. That hope is enough to motivate the men into action, become echoes of who they once were. In order to escape Purgatory, they’re willing to travel through Hell.

Hell is exactly what they find in the jungle. They encounter madness, chaos, hopelessness, isolation, nihilism—all of which could arguably be fates worse than death. Every triumph is marked by the larger notion that none of it will likely matter in the end (because the End already happened, remember?). They detonate a fallen tree in their path. They survive crossing a rope bridge in a storm. But what is the point? The arcade screen already reads GAME OVER. As the men push on, it’s a breathtaking and heartbreaking illustration of humanity’s unwillingness to accept that.

It is said that the universe is moving from order to entropy, and that this is why we can remember the past, but are unable to see the future. What lies ahead is too opaque, too complex, too disordered. Too utterly chaotic to make any sense of it. As Dominguez (Roy Scheider, playing the anti-hero of all anti-heroes) progresses further, he drives into entropy. It’s no coincidence that one of his compatriots is violently killed the moment he fondly remembers his wife back in Paris.

Dominguez is Dominguez; he calls himself only Dominguez. There is no New Jersey. There is only what lies ahead on the road. By the time he reaches the badlands two miles outside his destination, he IS entropy. Chaos is all around him and within his mind. He—for lack of a better phrase—completely loses it.

The truck, a machine built of ordered logical parts, fails. Dominguez is reminded of the end of his world over and over (a brutal car crash in Elizabeth) as he stands at the edge of time and space itself. This is not the jungle. This is the Endless End incarnate, hewn into lifeless stone. It makes no sense to him. It cares nothing for him. His mind particulates into madness.

There is a theory crafted by Ludwig Boltzmann known as the “Boltzmann Brain.” It states, (if I’m understanding it correctly), that within the current constraints of our natural order, it is highly improbable that we as thinking beings actually exist. How can organized, self-aware entities exist within an organized, low-entropy environment? It seems improbable that two low-entropy states could co-exist. There actually is a much higher probability of an individual human consciousness existing much farther into the future, when the universe reaches a higher entropic state.

But the fact is, we do seem to have individual human consciousness, individual psyches. How is this possible? According to Boltzmann, these separate souls should theoretically exist trillions of years into our future, untethered to any physical body, alone in the entropy of the time/space universe. But each consciousness will have the memories and experiences of a human lifetime lived on Earth, even though it never actually was there. The Earth of course, and any life that may have existed on it, will have long been destroyed.

This means that I (and You) are actually memories of a life that never happened, that we are reflections of thoughts belonging to a future cosmic consciousness. The End? According to Boltzmann, we never even started. Maybe the World never was, and Dominguez never was. What’s worse: the World ending, realizing the World already ended, or realizing that there never was a World in the first place?

Dominguez (either a human or a Boltzmann Brain, you choose) eventually recovers, and hand-carries the dynamite the last two miles to a roaring spout of flames of an exploded oil derrick. The dynamite will be used to put out the flames so that production can resume, but in this moment, what is Dominguez seeing in that big spout of fire?

The Devil? The Big Bang?

Perhaps he’s seeing Uriel’s Flaming Sword. From Genesis: “So He [God] drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.”

Whatever the moment or reason of Cataclysm, there is no way back. It’s over.

And as I watch the fiery blaze on the big screen, I can only mutter “Holy shit.”


Christopher Cantwell is a filmmaker and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He is the co-creator, writer, and showrunner of AMC's Halt and Catch Fire, which is currently in production on its third season.


Lock Up Your Sons

by Andrew Root

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Spend some time with David Attenborough and one of his myriad documentaries about the natural world, and you’ll soon have a healthy appreciation for the ocean. Powerful and resilient, unpredictable and untameable; give the ocean enough time and its waters will carve out the Grand Canyon. Source of all life on the planet, and home to thousands of mysterious and undiscovered creatures, the ocean doesn’t need us. Untallied gallons of water would invade New York City and drown the Big Apple’s infrastructure if there weren’t pumps constantly working to keep it out. Influenced only by the moon, the sea has no regard for human affairs. It’s quixotic and mercurial, relentless in its habits, slowly but surely washing away the white cliffs of Dover, rotting the Santa Monica Pier, and drowning what streets there are in Venice. The sea is so vastly powerful that it’s paradoxically simple to completely discount it, seeing it only as the blue part of the map.

What you think of the sea, however, has very little bearing on the sea itself, and that kind of indifference can drive some to madness. There is the story of King Canute and his attempt to command the sea: the 12th-century king of England and Scandinavia, overly flattered by his courtiers, placed his throne on the shore and commanded the tides not to wet his robes. Three guesses how that went. Calming yet violent, peaceful yet destructive, life-giving and life-taking: whatever image you have of the sea, you are completely correct. You can always trust the ocean to fulfill its various personae, and in that way—despite its protean existence—the sea is a singular entity. It reminds me of a particular girl…

Set to Devo’s “Girl U Want,” the opening of 1995’s Tank Girl declares our heroine to be “just a girl/she’s just a girl/the girl you want,” a declaration which offers up perhaps the only possible description of the film’s lead character. Yet the eponymous Tank Girl (Lori Petty) defies dismissive description; she’s deadly and funny, sexy and intimidating, weird and magnetic, compassionate and cool, idealistic and completely irreverent. Is she the kind of girl you’d take home to meet your mother? I don’t know, how awesome is your mother? Tank Girl is troubling to some for the exact same reasons she’s amazing to others. Deliciously open-ended, she can’t be pinned down, and it simply wouldn’t occur to her to help you do so. She’s self-contained, yet influences every aspect of her post-apocalyptic environment.

It’s 2033, and eleven years since the last rainfall. An arid, desert landscape sets the scene in which an evil corporation called “Water & Power” controls most of the earth’s remaining water supply (and therefore all the power - political, economic, military, what have you). Tank Girl and her colourful band of compatriots operate outside the grid, illegally siphoning water from W&P’s pipeline; that is, until the heavies get wise to the bandits and raid them, killing most of Tank Girl’s friends and imprisoning our heroine. However, attempts to break her spirit are as fruitless as King Canute’s attempts to domesticate the waves; the ocean wasn’t meant to be contained in a bottle. Tank Girl’s gleeful disinterest in authority and her subsequent (inevitable) escape from prison sets the stage for the utter insanity that is the second half of this movie, the plot of which couldn’t possibly matter less.

Tank Girlthe movie, isn’t exactly a prestige piece. Naomi Watts, who plays Jet Girl, is reportedly ashamed of this movie. Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett (co-creators of the source material) call working on the film “a horrible experience,” claiming that the script was “lousy.” It also bears mentioning that rapper Ice-T is perplexingly cast as a genetically mutated kangaroo. The ambitious amount of bonkers-level content meant that Tank Girl was destined to be a cult film. The movie’s problems lie like boulders on the film’s landscape; irrefutable and immoveable. Yet trickling through this rocky terrain is Lori Petty’s Tank Girl, winding over, under and around the film’s formidable challenges as undeniably as a river carving a path to the sea. The title character is wrought with such irreverent unflappability that while she may not drown the boulders, she can deftly skip around them and joyfully leave them behind. Petty’s performance is one of rare energy and inventiveness, navigating effortlessly through a song and dance number, several gun battles, animated montages, and every other filmmaking trick that director Rachel Talalay throws at her.

Tank Girl’s resilience in the face of adversity (both the character navigating the film’s challenges as well as the actress navigating the filmmaking challenges) gives her an incredible sense of agency. The poster for the film proudly proclaims “In the future, the odds of survival are 1000 to 1. That’s just the way she likes it.” It’s a snappy throwaway line, but also incredibly apt; Tank Girl thrives in crisis, and she does so in a very positive way. This is a dystopian future—the end of the world as we know it—and yet our heroine flourishes; she has friends, she has fun, and she gets what she wants. Unfortunately, the irrepressibility of the lead character makes it difficult for the film to present stakes with any sense of urgency.

There is perhaps only one scene in which its possible that our heroine might not make it; captured by the sinister head of Water & Power (Malcolm McDowell), tied in a straightjacket and about to be sent rocketing headfirst down an ever narrowing tube, Tank Girl—true to form—jeers at her situation. But just as she’s about to be plunged into the tube, her breath catches, and it becomes apparent that she’s afraid. Extreme close-ups of her bulging, heterochromatic eyes and wild, slashing edits to scenes of death and explosions make clear the deeply held panic crackling through her shackled body. Her eyes roll back, and mercifully, she faints. It’s a shame the film uses this tactic so early in the plot (only 30 minutes in) because it makes manifest the unsettling possibility of a world without Tank Girl. One of the first children of this new life without water, she’s a creature perfectly suited to her environment, and it’s haunting to think of that light being snuffed out. Picturing the world of the film—its expansive deserts, motley, tumbledown houses, menacing power plants, sleek nightclubs fashioned out of abandoned shopping malls—without Tank Girl is impossible. She comes with the set. You get one, you get the other, right? I sincerely hope so, because if not…

In a TedTalk from 2012, speaker Colin Stokes contemplated the way heroes in movies were being presented to his two young children. He saw that Luke Skywalker from Star Wars had a much different journey from that of The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale; namely, Luke saves the universe by using the magic he was born with, while Dorothy triumphed by making friends with everybody and being a leader. In this very important way, Dorothy has agency. She’s good at something, which is a disappointingly rare thing for women in films to be. Dorothy is friendly, organized, motivated, and she cares for the people around her, helping them realize their full potential. When contrasted with sepia-toned Kansas and the fiery powers of the Wicked Witch of the West, Dorothy is a cool drink of water. Let this girl use the things she needs—her resourcefulness, intelligence, agency, wisdom, kindness, and the strength of her friends and family—and she will get what she’s after, enriching the lives and experiences of those around her. These traits also apply to the kind and caring Mary Poppins, the clever and ambitious Clarice Starling, the observant, hardworking Marge Gunderson, and the resourceful Hermione Granger; these women are cool, cleansing rainfalls, patient glaciers, stinging snow squalls, and roaring rivers. Although the utter weirdness of her film may keep Tank Girl out of the commemorative portraits, the same element is present in her as in these prestigious women.

It’s keenly uncomfortable to imagine a world without an ocean. All that power, all that mystery, just one day…gone. The land cracking under the sun, trillions of marine lives extinguished, carcasses of ships and whales and giant squid littering the unfathomable depths. The blue part of the map is sort of a given; we just never think of it. The mostly deeply upsetting aspect of the apocalypse is that the parts of our world we take for granted suddenly aren’t there any more. The scope of that possibility invades every formally trivial aspect of our daily lives; no more allergy medication, no more sitting in the back row at the movies, no more dogs with mismatched eyes. A good day is any day that you don’t have to think about your own survival, and now suddenly you have to think about everything.

In a future where the odds of survival are 1000 to 1, you’d better be scrappy, capable, and at least a little irreverent. You need to be able to find the tiniest cracks in an insurmountable obstacle and squeeze your way through. You’ll need patience, and the ability to give strength to others. You’d better have a little bit of the ocean inside you.


Andrew Root is a professional part-time job holder, and a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He lives by a creek in Peterborough, Ontario.


The Stuff of Nightmares

by Fran Hoepfner

illustration by Tobias Kwan

illustration by Tobias Kwan

I don’t want to watch a horror movie with you. I probably never will. For the longest time, I would tell people that the most frightening film I had ever seen was Signs. One day, in fourth grade, we read those Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark books during a rainy day at recess. That night remains, to this day, the only all-nighter I have ever pulled. I am jumpy. I am squeamish. I’m the type of person who has nightmares easily. I’ll stay up with the covers pulled up to my neck and lie awake, willing myself to fall asleep but very likely staying up until sunrise. I don’t want to be scared or unsettled or traumatized any more than I need to be.

The nightmares started when I was a kid. They were of the standard, haunted house variety: I’d be in an abandoned home with a handful of friends and, as we made our way through the house, they’d be picked off one by one. Sometimes we’d be chased, forced to separate in the darkness. I can recall a specific nightmare spent entirely in the closet of a stranger’s house, my hand over my mouth, trying to stifle my own breath as something lurked outside. I would wake up in a cold sweat, sometimes in tears, and leap out of bed. I’d walk around my room, pace around the second floor of my home, anything to convince myself I was in a different, safer place. No one was chasing me. No one had to be saved. It was just me, alone, at 3:30 in the morning on a Wednesday. I’d wear myself down––I was young and tired––and eventually crawl back into bed, pull the sheets over my face, and hide until I fell asleep again.

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In fairness, Children of Men is not that type of nightmare. There are no monsters and there are no haunted houses. It can be described as post-apocalyptic, but even that feels untrue. It’s mid-apocalyptic; it’s not a dystopia because it’s our world, just handled poorly and left to the dogs.

The year is 2027. There hasn’t been a child born on the planet in eighteen years, and everything has quite literally gone to ruin. The only civilization (if you can even call it that) is found in Great Britain, surviving by the skin of its teeth. There are checkpoints everywhere. Illegal immigrants are rounded up and abused. But Britain thrives, don’t you see? It might be fractured—split into those that support the government and those that support a terrorist organization called “The Fishes”—but at least it’s there. That’s more than can be said for most other nations.

Clive Owen is Theo Faron, a former activist turned bureaucratic goon. He’s a cynical alcoholic, pushing his way through a crowded coffee shop, ignoring a report on the world’s youngest human’s untimely death. He pays for the coffee, steps outside, spikes it with a little whiskey and—boom, the coffee shop is gone. Exploded. Decimated. Smoke rises onto the streets of London. A woman, bleeding from where her arm once was, screams into the abyss.

In a nightmare, this is where Theo might wake up. It was all so sudden and so quick, and then it’s over. In Children of Men, though, no one ever wakes up. Theo goes about his day, has to sit at his desk, all the while knowing that, had he stopped to put some cream or sugar in his coffee, he might well be dead. It’s the kind of thing that keeps a man up all night.

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My nightmares as a teen took on less classically frightening tropes and drew more specifically on my social anxieties. Dreams where I suddenly showed up to school naked, forced to sit through calculus while trying to shield myself from my classmates. This gets to be the age in your life where you start to fear the cruelty of others. You become hyper-conscious that everyone is watching your every move and making a judgment call on it. In another dream, a friend tells me an ex only dated me because he felt bad for me, and then the next thing I know, everything is on fire.

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It would be generous to say things were going Theo’s way before he is kidnapped, but they were certainly less exciting. He’s suddenly pulled into an unmarked van on the streets of London, and briefly held by the Fishes. The leader of the Fishes—and the one responsible for taking Theo—is a woman named Julian (Julianne Moore). Julian is strong and beautiful and aggressive, not to mention Theo’s ex-wife. She’s not trying to get back together with him. In fact, she’s not even trying to be nice; she and her second-in-command, Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are simply trying to get some transport papers and be on their way. Theo agrees—a lingering soft spot for his ex—and is dumped back out onto the street.

The papers are for a young girl named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a refugee—or “fugee,” as they’ve become known in Britain—desperate to get to the coast to catch a boat. The arrangement of papers requires Theo to stay with the girl as her companion, and so Theo, Julian, Luke, Kee, and Kee’s companion, Miriam (Pam Ferris) make their way to Canterbury in the woodsy, abandoned countryside of Britain. They all laugh and talk. Theo and Julian flirt. There is a chance, Theo thinks, that he and Julian could get back together. They are smiling and joking and kissing. Miriam peels an orange for Kee. Luke turns around, tells them to—

It happens very, very quickly. First, there is a car on fire, barrelling down a hill right into the road. Then there are people everywhere. Luke is driving backwards. There’s a motorcyclist. There are guns. There are rocks smashing through windows. A bullet flies through the windshield into Julian’s neck. There is blood everywhere. It doesn’t stop. It covers her chest, it’s all over Theo’s hands. Luke is driving backwards and backwards and backwards, and the blood still flows.

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I have nightmares about blood sometimes too. The frightening thing about blood isn’t the pain. It’s watching it all come out. It doesn’t stop. In a particular nightmare, I’m at a tattoo parlor and something goes wrong. My arm leaks blood, and despite covering it in paper towels, the tattoo artist keeps shaking his head. “There’s nothing we can do,” he tells me, “it just won’t stop.” Blood keeps going as long as your heart does. It just doesn’t stop.

In real life, I’m not particularly bothered by needles. I don’t have to look away when I get blood drawn and, within reason, I can look at injuries without being too grossed out. It’s not bothersome in reality, but my nightmares take this moderate, human squeamishness and blow it all out of proportion.

I have a lot of nightmares about zombies, which is ridiculous, of course, because zombies are ridiculous. They’ve become a staple in pop culture, and I, for the most part, ignore them. I don’t watch The Walking Dead and I’m only able to sit through about half of Shaun of the Dead, on a good day. And yet, zombies flood my nightmares: stressful, anxiety-ridden dreams where I’m running through buildings and locking myself in bathrooms. I can recall being handed an axe in one, being told to take out anyone that comes near me but I can’t do it. I can’t harm anyone. I’m not brave in my nightmares. Instead I’m at my most fearful, and that, perhaps, is the most terrifying aspect of the dreams.

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Kee stands naked in a barn filled with cows. She’s pregnant, don’t you see? It does not make right Julian’s death nor the needless violence but it does meansomething, Theo understands. She is worth protecting in this world. Theo takes her away from the Fishes, away from the public, and begins to transport her to the coast, alone.

Post-apocalyptic Britain is otherworldly. Theo and Kee stop on the road at an abandoned schoolhouse waiting for a rendez-vous. A deer trots through the hallways. There are torn down posters, and tables and chairs flipped over. The place has been ransacked—and why not? No one has needed it in years. Kee’s baby, however, will need it.

Theo was a father once, in a slightly different time. He and Julian had a baby boy named Dylan. He passed away during a flu epidemic, before he reached the age of five. There was nothing that could be done. It just happened. Theo and Julian went their separate ways. Kee gives birth in a refugee camp. A little baby girl.

It feels fitting, in a universe with such violence perpetrated by men and soldiers, for a strong, young woman to give birth to a girl. Children of Men is a story about men and the destruction of men. There are arguably two main female characters—Julian, strong and beautiful and killed so soon and so swiftly—and Kee, just as strong and passionate and capable. In a world without children, it’s men that rip at each other’s throats, start wars, make bombs. With the birth of Kee’s child, though, it seems appropriate for the dawn of a new era to begin, one that focuses on women and the strength of women in the rise of the failure of men.

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The scary thing about nightmares, for me, is that I immediately go from feeling safe to everything happening all at once. Real life is stressful and scary, but sleep shouldn’t have to be. Sleep should be a place of comfort. But on some nights, I drift, slowly, and then wake up in a horrifying situation, heart racing, sweating, fearing for my own life.

This is the terror of the world in Children of Men. Everything is going along mostly fine, perhaps deteriorating a bit, but then, all at once, it’s horrifying. The characters don’t know the apocalypse is happening until it’s too late. Until coffee shops are being blown up and people are getting shot and refugees are rounded up like Holocaust victims.

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In the midst of a battle between the refugees and the Fishes and the British military, Kee reveals her baby to a group of soldiers and the world goes silent. She walks through hallways of men, sniffing and setting down their weapons. Luke even admits he cries when he holds the baby. “I forgot how small they were,” he says, echoing a thought shared by everyone, these people who haven’t seen a child in so very long.

The second Kee leaves the building, though, the gunfire and bombing starts up. It begins once more.

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You will always have your nightmares. Even when it’s been months on end—even when you tell people that you never remember your dreams—they’ll still crop up every now and again, just to remind you how scary everything—or anything—can be. For me, there’s no thrill in being scared, no joy in it. Instead it serves as a reminder of what’s out there and what can still, despite all the bravado of my waking hours, keep me up all night.


Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.


For the Unlikely Heroes of Apocalypse Movies

by Leslie Jamison

illustration by Hallie Bateman

illustration by Hallie Bateman

Thank God for the beginning of every global ending: toilet water flushing counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere, too much lightning or not enough wind, tsunamis littering beaches with the old plastic of dead jellyfish, birds flying rabid into European plazas, wolves dying of inexplicable disease above the permafrost. Thank god for the wolves and for their dying, because how else would our lowly lupine expert become The Only Man Who Can Possibly Save The World? We need to see him, every him—the humble analyzer of DNA, the quiet arborist, the loneliest ornithologist, the crypto-meteorologist in bifocals—we need to see each man close his laptop and take a bullet or an asteroid to the chest. Let him turn away from his swivel chair, throw off his lab coat, clutch his sheath of charts and surge forth into the gloaming. Let him sound the alarm. Let him rise into his mythos. Let him claim the junior high school that will someday bear his name.

Thank God for our crypto-meteorologist’s estranged wife and our lupine expert’s disabled son, because they will make our heroes men again. Let them be trapped by terrorists, buried by too much snowfall over the shelled ruins of iconic skyscrapers—let their peril drive our heroes onto snowplows, or speedboats, so they can ride over the frosted or flooded Eastern Seaboard while their sidekicks seduce the beautiful daughters of third-world presidents. Thank god for these fools’ errands. We would feel nothing without them. And thank you for the inscrutable and gratuitous technology that makes them possible: for screens that are played like pianos and keyboards that glow in the dark of the night, for computers that hold crawl spaces like circuit-studded stomachs—thank you for these spaces in which our crypto-meteorologist does the right thing or types the right code or maybe punches a shark in the face, if he has to, if a limb has been lost.

Thank God for the end of every world. May no ending happen too quickly. May the major cities of the world fall like dominoes in slow-mo: give us the leaning tower finally crashing into Pisa; give us Big Ben exploded and Cairo on fire; give us Tokyo businessmen fighting dolphins in the street. Give Manhattan to heaven and Los Angeles to hell. Give our meteorologist and his marriage a second chance in all the wreckage; give him a love that can withstand statistically impossible tsunamis and jellyfish strewn upon the sand like scarves and armies of brown birds flying straight from the white hot eye of the sun. Let his sidekick fuck that dictator’s girl at least once before the second meteor hits. Let their progeny start the colony on Mars.

But dear lord—in the end, at the last—please let the second meteor hit. Don’t deny anyone his junior high school. Give our secondary heroes their embryonic Eves and Adams. Let everyone fall into the asteroid chasm. Let everyone blister in the too-close sun. Let everyone perish. Let no one live.


Leslie Jamison is the author of an essay collection, The Empathy Exams, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Her first novel, The Gin Closet, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction; and her essays and stories have been published in numerous publications, including Harper's, The Oxford American, A Public Space, and The Believer.