In November, 1983, the ABC network aired the television movie The Day After, depicting the effects of a nuclear war on the Midwestern United States. Viewed by an estimated 100 million people, the film was considered deeply affecting, not to mention horrifying, and may have inspired President Reagan to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in Reykjavik three years later. Prior to the broadcast, ABC distributed half a million viewer’s guides and classrooms around the country worked to help traumatized children deal with their feelings of terror afterwards. (Here is the attack sequence.)
I was a nine-year-old boy, however. So my views on nuclear war were probably not as somber as they should have been. Me and my friends had been raised on a steady diet of post-apocalyptic action movies in the Mad Max mold, and our understanding of the Russians was that, after they bombed and invaded the country, we would be forced to fight them to the death using our cunning, preadolescent physical prowess, and lawn darts. Like all little boys, we believed in the Peter Pan myth: being removed from civilization would set the stage for untold adventures. The nuclear bomb would be the world’s loudest school bell.
Looking back, I’m not remotely ashamed that we manipulated other people’s apocalyptic nightmares. There’s something egotistical about all apocalypse scenarios, appealing as they do to our resentment towards the existing reality and our deeply subconscious feeling that it’s a bit unfair and unimaginable that the world should outlast us, carrying on after our death. The existentialists understood the truth- every death is the end of a created world. The apocalypse is a fantasy that our death will be epic and transfiguring and deeply meaningful; all of us will die alone and the apocalypse is a fantasy of dying together. Nine-year-old boys have no interest in such things, busy as they are with being alive.