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Truth Scarier than Fiction

As our fears become real, will we become the heroes we need?

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CALEB WELSH ILLUSTRATION
  • Caleb Welsh Illustration

A disembodied voice, footsteps in an empty house, inexplicable coincidence, omens of doom and a feeling that something has gone horribly wrong. These hallmarks of the horror genre have likely kept you up at night and kept you coming back for more. This Halloween, the undead mingle with the murdered and the murderers, as we play with our collective ideas about death, the unknown and the taboo.

What fears most fascinate us today? Since the beginning of the horror genre, trends reflective of mass culture have provided an outlet for our suppressed ideas through metaphor. Werewolves and monsters, then vampires, then ghosts, botched science, aliens and zombies have captivated us for centuries and helped explore difficult topics of the day from sexuality to xenophobia to colonialism and consumerism. Some topics are so scary that we avoid direct discussion about them, yet still can't look away.

Today's dominant scary trope is definitively the apocalypse, whether zombie, climate or prophecy-triggered. While every generation holds some theorists who believe they live in the end times, the modern increase is measurable. Beginning in the 1970s, about three feature films debuted per year set during or after a global collapse. That number doubled to six per year in the first decade of the aughts, and in this decade sits at close to 10 per year so far, on average. This is true even if the genre of Christian fundamentalist propagation of Biblically based end times legend (and the creepily hopeful promise of Rapture) is not included.

Here's a scary story for you horror junkies. In a small, rural town in America, pools of fire rise up from the earth, sending clouds of foul, toxic smoke into the air. Lightning strikes often and triggers explosions and minor earthquakes. Industrial accidents are commonplace here and have left workers without limbs and otherwise disfigured. Young women disappear from their towns with little trace, kidnapped and forced into sex trafficking. Gangs of drunken men fight to the death in the streets at night while paramilitary corporations oversee the whole operation. As Laura Gottesdiener describes in her recent stories about North Dakota's oil boom, these are places that "display all the classic contemporary markers of hell."

You'd never know any of this by reading the fundamentalists' take on it, though. Not the Christian fundamentalists, but the arguably more dangerous and deluded market fundamentalists who dominate every conversation about the economy. When this group sees North Dakota's fracking "boom towns," they see them in numbers. They salivate over a million barrels a day, unemployment rates under 5 percent, two decades more of unprecedented production and profit for oil and natural gas companies. When growth is your religion, the consequences don't matter and the bottom line is always more. More fracking means more wasted water, more chemical pollution devastating land and human health, more vulnerability to intensifying weather, and more climate change-accelerating emissions. It also means more money.

If the reality of civilization in decline and the desperation of the people driving it down were a movie, would we believe it? I can see the trailer now. "In a world ... where trillions of gallons of clean water are destroyed to extract the last oil ... so it can be used to convert the last oil into the last stuff ... one man will represent the thousands who join the project with the belief that caring for his one family ... is more important than the survival of the species..." In a world so disconnected from the values that promote life over destruction, who needs horror stories? ♦

Taylor Weech, who hosts the weekly public affairs program Praxis on KYRS-FM, is a Spokane writer and activist. For more, visit truthscout.net.

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