“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” – G.K. Chesterton
I saw this come across my FB newsfeed and I was instantly captivated by the truth of it. I think that TV shows and movies are the modern equivalent of fairy tales because they serve the same function in the modern world that fairy tales served in the past. Could the insight expressed in this meme be part of the reason why people are embracing TV shows and movies with “dark” themes in record numbers? I think so.
Because I spend a frightening amount of time in front of a screen of one kind of another I was reading an article this morning on some of the best upcoming TV shows in 2014. Some I already am a huge fan of, like The Walking Dead and Orphan Black. Others look really interesting. But with a very few exceptions they all had one common factor – they are all “dark”.
They are about zombies, vampires, killers, pandemics, freakshows, and future scientific discoveries and technology that creates a world fraught with dangers and war. Why has entertainment culture shifted to producing so many shows and movies featuring such dark themes? Obviously because that is what people want to see.
As I wrote about previously The Walking Dead, which is arguably one of the darkest shows on TV, is the most popular show in cable TV history and attracting new fans daily. So what is it about these dark themes that is so appealing to people? Maybe it’s because these shows are a reminder to the adults in society being battered by fears and stresses that the dragons, or the zombies, or the vampires can be beaten.
In all of these shows audiences see normal people thrust into extraordinary circumstances who need to adapt to the new threats in order to survive. Fans see themselves in those characters, the same way that children see themselves as the hero or heroine in a fairy tale. The UC Irvine online course based on The Walking Dead drew more than 65,000 participants. 65,000!
As they watch the characters in these shows make hard decisions, face life or death situations, and cope with catastrophic losses they wonder how they would react in similar situations and if they have what it takes to survive in a disaster. The characters in these shows tell us that it is possible to hang onto your humanity, find safety, protect your loved ones, and triumph in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Audiences want to know that they can not only survive but thrive if society falls apart tomorrow.
Like fairy tales these shows tell audiences that evil exists, and there is a bogeyman in the bushes, but that good triumphs over evil and the bogeyman can be beaten.
If you consider how the world has changed over the last decade it’s not that surprising really that culture has taken a darker turn. Hurricane Katrina, Super Storm Sandy, the hurricanes and typhoons and mega storms that have decimated huge swaths of the planet are serious threats for millions of people.
The economic collapse left people who previously were financially comfortable struggling for food and shelter and pushed those who were already on the edge of poverty into total economic insecurity. Flu pandemics and “super bugs” are killing people every year. 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and the increase in deadly mass shootings have taken away any sense of security that people used to have.
The country has been at war for more than a decade now and there are hundreds of thousands of vets who are struggling with PTSD, brain injuries, and severe physical injuries. People can easily relate to the sense of impending doom and the threats portrayed in many of these shows because they live with the constant threat of danger and disaster everyday just like the characters in their favorite shows.
People are gravitating to these dark TV shows and movies because they portray a world that is dangerous, unstable, and menacing – and that feels familiar. They also are watching these shows in record numbers because through the struggles and victories and perseverance of the characters they are reminded that they are strong and can beat the dangers and obstacles facing them.
The stories being told in these shows give us all clues about who we are as a culture and challenge us to look at ourselves and decide who we want to be when the chips are down. They give us hope that we can be better than we are and that redemption is possible. They ask us to confront the darkness in ourselves and others and assess our ability to hang onto our beliefs and faith in extreme circumstances.
These dark TV shows and movies remind us how fierce and tenacious our bonds to each other can be and encourage us to come out from behind our screens and make real connections. #TWDFamily is more than a hashtag. It’s more than a fandom. People are inspiring each other to improve their lives, create art, find their voices all because a TV show brought them together.
Fairy tales, and by extension modern TV shows and movies, help us shine a light on the type of people we want to be by showing us the kind of people we don’t want to be. We don’t want to be the people who break under the pressures and threats. We want to be the ones who stand up for the best that humanity can be. As Camus said, in The Stranger:
In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.
In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.
I realized, through it all, that…
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.
These dark TV shows are modern fairy tales that tell us that monsters, and zombies, and vampires, and pandemics are real, but that we are strong enough to beat them if we are strong, and brave, and clever, and compassionate.