With HBO’s new show “The Last of Us,” based off the hit video game that came out in 2013 from Naughty Dog, the supposed improbability of the show is hitting close to home for many people. You follow the characters dealing with quarantine protocols, paranoia around the virus and communities falling apart, all while inhabiting empty roads and abandoned buildings. Remind anyone of anything?
When I think of the beginning of the pandemic, I remember staying inside for months on end. I remember being afraid to go to the grocery store. I remember constantly watching the news to track any updates on the virus. I know many others had this experience as well. To deal with the stress of the situation, people turned to forms of escapism. Whether it be gaming, streaming or reading, people consumed more media than ever with their new free time. In the United States, gaming increased by 46%, and streaming by 60%. With this increase, apocalyptic stories had a rise in popularity as well. Many people, including me, have found themselves resonating with “The Last of Us,” and other forms of media that follow the end of the world.
I found myself starting AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and playing Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us” almost obsessively when the pandemic began. As opposed to shows and movies that have come out since 2020, which do not acknowledge the pandemic, these apocalyptic stories take that and run in the other direction. Instead of giving the audience an illness free plotline, they provide them with a worst case scenario. You are reminded it could be worse. COVID-19 became real for me when I hadn’t left my house in a month, but for these characters their pandemics became real when an infected person tried to bite their jugular. I might’ve been a pot of anxiety, but at least I wasn’t dealing with zombies knocking at my back door. Maybe you got COVID-19 — but you got through it without having the urge to devour your loved ones. When you see a character hack off a limb to avoid infection after a bite, it may make that painful swelling from your second booster shot feel more tolerable. Instead of groups of people pillaging neighborhoods for supplies, there are just anti-vax Facebook groups in your town. This isn’t to say the effects of COVID-19 were mundane or even tolerable — but it wasn’t the absolute worst case scenario — something people might have needed to hear.
Along with games, movies and TV shows, books following apocalyptic narratives experienced a boost during COVID-19. Two popular examples, “The Stand” by Stephen King and “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel, even got adapted into their own respective miniseries. I personally remember my mom rereading “The Stand” for the first time since college in the beginning days of COVID-19, and me promptly reading her copy once she was done. “The Stand,” a book published in 1978, following a deadly flu pandemic and its post-pandemic world, causes fear in people nearly 40 years later. The most horrifying part of these narratives is the beginning, the “pandemic” part of “post-pandemic” because it felt the most real to people. The chaos of watching the world fall apart, seeing news anchors panic and the genuine fear the characters have reminds me most of my COVID-19 experience. I remember the day my school got shut down for “two weeks,” along with that day two weeks later I realized that I wasn’t going back anytime soon. “The Last of Us” went so far as to rebrand their “Outbreak Day” to “The Last of Us” day, because the phrase “Outbreak Day” was too real. The difference is, our post-pandemic is political discussions over vaccines and their post-pandemic world is fighting the undead to survive. Many television networks, authors and game companies felt the need to clarify their respective plots were fiction. That, no, COVID-19 isn’t going to awaken the dead, or fungally destroy somebody’s autonomy like they have displayed.
But, I am aware and must acknowledge the privilege in my experience. I had a home to stay in, a steady income to rely on and loving parents around me during COVID-19. Many people were stuck in abusive or toxic homes, a home with no income or even no home at all. Although the worst effect I got from COVID-19 was my asthma getting worse, I have friends who still experience symptoms nearly three years after contracting it. Many peoples lives were halted by COVID-19 and many still haven’t, or may never, recover. The trauma of burying your loved one over a Zoom call isn’t something that will go away soon. That is the reality of COVID-19 and something people must face once the movie ends, their laptop dies and they flip to the last page of their book. It is important to remember the reality of it all rather than throwing yourself into world-ending plotlines. Even though these stories show the absolute worst, you must remember there are people out there experiencing their own personal absolute worst.
But with these stories, you were reminded it was okay. These stories followed people whose lives were destroyed by the apocalypse and they still found loved ones and a sense of home in their desolate circumstances — life kept on going despite it seeming to have ended. Even though you haven’t left your house in weeks, and even though three years later you still get anxiety when you develop a cough, at least you aren’t dealing with zombies. And that might make it a little better.