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Why do dystopian stories like The Handmaid's Tale and The Purge scare us, and why do we love them so much?

The world is dark and scary, yet we know it could be worse (Couldn't it?)

The Handmaid's Tale screenshot
Image credit: Hulu

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The origins of the dystopian genre are a matter of debate among literary scholars, but the effect it has on us can’t be denied. Some deep, frightened part of us wants to see the world at its worst, with the systems that society has put in place twisted to exploit, subjugate, or even those they were meant to protect. You might argue that the world is dark enough as it is, that we don’t need to imagine a worse one, but that is part of what makes dystopian stories so appealing.

Dystopian films, shows, and books have a wonderful history of showing us what lies ahead of us when we give into our darkest instincts. The Handmaid’s Tale was conceived as a warning for what happens when women are robbed of their bodily autonomy. The Hunger Games shows us capitalism unchecked, giving us every possible warning sign that the end result of a society with such glaring, unfettered inequality. Snowpiercer is less about the effects of global warming and more about how utterly terrible people will be to each other when resources such as food and space are scarce.

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On a surface level, we know all these things are true. We know how easy it is for the rich and powerful to exploit us – we see it in the news every time there are massive layoffs at a company to make their stock market numbers go up and make a handful of investors and executives slightly richer. We know, on a fundamental level, that these futures are possible, but we need to see it happen to galvanize ourselves against it.

We love dystopian stories for the same reason we love horror movies but they are also more real to us. We can see the politicians from The Purge in every government official that would let humanity rip itself apart if it kept them in power. Dystopian films allow us to see the result of unchecked corruption and exploitation and, if we’re lucky, backtrack to the point where it becomes preventable. They are a thought exercise in how to save ourselves from ourselves as much as they are a form of entertainment. We need that assurance sometimes or what is the point of fighting?

The best dystopian stories are both a warning and a beacon of hope – things can most certainly get worse and it is up to us to prevent that from happening.


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