The Road, A Quiet Place, and the golden age of prepper pop culture

Photo: A Quiet Place (Paramount Pictures)

This piece was originally published September 18, 2018 and is part of The A.V. Club’s favorite features of 2018

It first hit me during A Quiet Place, as John Krasinski and Emily Blunt’s fictional kids quietly played a board game by firelight on a reclaimed wood table, a vertical garden growing out of planters on the wall. I had noticed earlier how nicely Krasinski stayed dressed in the film’s post-apocalypse, in unfussy but well-constructed flannels, his beard neatly groomed despite his family’s grim, life-or-death circumstance. He seemed healthy, like he was eating well—but how? Maybe that comes with the territory when you’re growing your own food, as locavore as it comes. His family’s quiet hovel was an urban parent’s dream of a farmhouse getaway, with acres of land and downtime and honest employment tending to their electrified fence posts. God, I thought—I bet he can get a lot of reading done in this hellscape. Visions of A Quiet Place-themed getaways danced in my head, sold to frazzled parents across the country. Babies could even get a novelty sound-proofed container to sleep in.

Infinite Scroll is a series about the increasingly blurry lines between the internet, pop culture, and the real world.

Of course, shortly afterward in the movie, the damn kids knock over the lantern and all hell breaks loose. Ultimately, A Quiet Place is no fantasy; nobody wants to drown in a grain silo or get disemboweled by a chittering bug-thing. But it does envision the end of the world pragmatically, with a hint of its more bucolic possibilities. There’s a domesticity to it all that’s echoed in other recent films like The Survivalist and It Comes At Night—harrowing works about returning to the land, shoring up the nuclear family after some cataclysm destroys society. These are works that seem either inspired by or playing into the same sort of pragmatic approach to societal collapse held by the so-called preppers—you know, the folks quietly corralling seeds and getaway bags nation-wide. Preppers are inspired by a whole range of issues, from the fragility of the global economy to the inevitability of climate change, and these pop culture apocalypses are precipitated by a similar variety of calamities, supernatural or otherwise. But the assumption among them all is the same: that the shit is going to hit the fan, and that if you can secure a plot of land for you and yours, and protect it against the evils of other men, you might just get by all right.

It’s not confined to movies either. TV shows like The Walking Dead, Z Nation, and Jericho imagine post-apocalypses defined by scavenging, homesteading, and raw survival; more often than not, the worst thing that can happen is a power struggle among survivors. These themes are perhaps most prevalent in video games, which turn the anxiety into a raw, mechanical compulsion. One of the most anticipated games of next year is The Last Of Us Part II, a sequel to 2013’s brutal story of a man and a young woman making their way across a decimated United States. You spend most of that game rummaging through abandoned shopping malls and water-logged suburban homes for needles and glue, evading fellow scavengers as much as monsters. A whole subgenre of so-called survival games has arisen, each of them plopping a poorly prepared survivor in the middle of a forbidding wilderness full of murderers competing for the same supplies and shelter. This once-niche genre—codified by 2013’s austere, punitive DayZ—has exploded in 2018 thanks to titles like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and its mega-popular cartoon copy Fortnite.

Illustration for article titled The Road, A Quiet Place, and the golden age of prepper pop culture
Image: The Last Of Us Part II (Sony)

The popularity of these mass-culture prepper fantasies marks a stark contrast with that of real-world prepping, which is generally perceived as a niche concern for far-right militia-men and the tinfoil-hat crowd. No amount of shocked articles describing the popularity of prepping—in the suburbs and in Silicon Valley, among leftists, people of color, and the ultrawealthy—seems to be able to change this. Americans have feared the future, well, forever, but began preparing for its terrible inevitability more earnestly during the Cold War, when the threat of a nuclear strike inspired enterprising home owners to create fallout bunkers in their backyards and basements. These tendencies reared their head again in the lead-up to Y2K, but really took off in their current form during the late Bush and early Obama years, precipitated by no specific threat beyond the notion that the government and the world itself were no longer reliable. The rise of Trumpism did little to assuage these fears, inspiring people further left on the political spectrum to make their own worst-case-scenario contingencies.

There isn’t a through-line to any of these groups, except that they’re a) American, and b) responding to a mounting anxiety that the systems that keep society and biology stable cannot maintain themselves on our current trajectory. There’s no more revealing look into this mindset than, of course, Reddit, that great anonymous unveiling of the American mind at rest, where preppers and the prepper-curious gather in droves at forums like r/preppers. Discussions there are tactical: canning how-tos, experiential narratives, humblebrags about fully kitted “bug-out bags,” and secure, remote getaways. People plot escape routes and run tactical drills for their whole family. There’s a surprising amount of consumerism in the phenomenon, with people quantifying money spent on their “prep” and their progress toward some ultimate, ideal state of preparedness. The term “prepping” implies some sort of end point, but what does one do, then? Sit around and wait for the shit to hit the fan, a phrase used so frequently on the forums that it’s just abbreviated SHTF.

Still, many of these preppers aren’t readying themselves for the apocalypse, per se, but rather natural disasters, periods of brief disorder, moments of governmental incapacitation. (An electromagnetic pulse disabling the power grid is a particularly popular fantasy.) If you want to really stare the apocalypse in the face, you hang out at r/collapse, a community nearly equivalent in size to r/preppers but dwarfing it in terms of pessimism. They call themselves “doomers” for a reason. Collapse is not about logistical preparedness but something broader—cognitive, emotional, spiritual preparedness. Popular posts there share not tips and insights but raw, dispiriting data on sea-level rise, late-capitalist excess, fentanyl overdoses, the Flint water crisis. The closest thing to optimism is a post like this one, from last week: “Anyone else hoping that this hurricane is really destructive so that humanity has a better chance at fighting global warming?”

Illustration for article titled The Road, A Quiet Place, and the golden age of prepper pop culture
Photo: The Road (Dimension Films)

Both r/preppers and r/collapse circle around popular culture, sharing and debating the worthiness (and accuracy) of various works. Children Of Men comes up a lot, as do a host of survival-based video games and less curious reality shows like Survivorman and The Colony. One constant is Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road, as well as its 2009 film adaptation, which seems like the origin point and platonic ideal of all this post-millennial prepper art. It is as bleak in its forecast as any doomer could want, with a never-described calamity that renders the earth barren and turns men into roving bands of cannibal rapists. For the prepper set, it is a shockingly technical text, with long descriptions of elbow-grease fix-it jobs and itemized inventories of objects scrounged from the rubble. And it is, like both of these communities and much of the pop culture that either inspires or reflects them, an overwhelmingly masculine experience, following a father and son carrying the sole flickering fire of humanity against the gale-force winds of other men’s depravity.

I hadn’t read it in over a decade, so took a few days to do so recently. A lot had happened in that decade; among other things, I relate to the dad now, in a keening and visceral way, and McCarthy’s imagery of climatic apocalypse rang a bell in the back of my brain that’s been ringing far too frequently lately. Ultimately, the appeal of these pop culture post-apocalypses is the same as that of either Reddit community: to meet the gaze of the horrors lingering on the periphery. They assuage your anxiety by confirming it, telling you that you’re not insane, the signs don’t look good. That almost all of them involve fathers and sons, property and muscle, violence and territory, probably says more than we’d like to about how we got here in the first place. Collapse had a “Doomer Film Club,” a 52-entry series over which the community discussed everything from Planet Of The Apes to Melancholia, and ending, fittingly enough for our dumb dystopia, with Idiocracy. It ends with an omnibus post, as the club’s founder signs off from the forum—and society itself. “I have settled into my arctic doomstead life comfortably, and am ready to scrap my last remaining link to the internet,” they write. “The future has failed, and I am going back to a more mediaeval and sustainable level of living.”

Some of us doomstead in the arctic; the rest of us do it in A Quiet Place, where the flannels are sturdy and the hanging gardens bloom. I’m not sure who’s kidding themselves more.