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People are scared; could our stories be the reason?

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Tero Vesalainen | Shutterstock

Tom Hoopes - published on 05/06/24

Consider these examples of movies, music, and the changes in news over the last few decades. And then consider the Pope's suggested solution.

People are scared to death of the future and I think I know why.

Last week a much-linked article announced that “The end of the world is becoming normal conversation.” It cited growing fears of a “climate apocalypse” a “virus apocalypse,” a “nuclear apocalypse,” an “AI apocalypse” — or even an invasion from another planet.

Pope Francis saw this coming. “Stories influence our lives, whether in the form of fairy tales, novels, films, songs, news, even if we do not always realize it,” he said, warning about, “destructive and provocative stories that wear down and break the fragile threads binding us together as a society.”

Notice how stories have destroyed or built up hope.

First, look at the movies of the 1970s and 1980s.

The 1970s were known as the “malaise” decade, when everything seemed hopeless and drab, with a few decadent distractions. If you look at the movies that influenced the ’70s, you see why. Films like Bonnie and Clyde and Midnight Cowboy at the end of the ’60s continued with “slice-of-despair” films like Saturday Night Fever, Taxi Driver, and the Dirty Harry series in the 1970s.

As the 1980s approached, movies started perking up, with Star Wars and Rocky, and then the ’80s embraced heroic stories: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman, and The Karate Kid, to name a few. We were rooting for the good guys again, and this ushered in the “optimistic decade.”

Well, look at the films that have been popular through the 21st century. The Matrix kicked it off with a post-apocalyptic world taken over by computers. Ever since then, it’s astonishing how much the top grossing movies dwell on apocalyptic destruction: Avatar, about post-apocalyptic humans invading a new planet; Marvel movies showing peace to be so fragile we need superhuman beings to protect it; the Dark Knight movies about a dystopian metropolis; and the Jurassic movies, about genetic modifications turning destructive. 

All the Hollywood stars have joined the dystopian trend: Matt Damon, Charlize Theron, WillSmith, Anne Hathaway, Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, Jennifer Lawrence and Tom Cruise. Seeing our favorite stars facing the end of all things taught us to expect the same.

Second, think of news stories.

Another form of storytelling that has shaped our world is the news.

The Catechism quotes St. John Henry Newman as early as the 19th century, warning about the cheap fame media offers. But the 1990s saw something new: 24-hour TV news, anxious for subjects to cover, and primed to confer worldwide fame on wrongdoers.

The 1990s were a decade defined by news celebrities — the Menendez brothers, Jon Benet Ramsey, Lorena Bobbitt, Jack Kevorkian, Ted Kaczynski and Jeffrey Dahmer — and already-famous people became household names: Tonya Harding, O.J. Simpson, Princess Diana, and more.

The Columbine killers saw their chance for fame and took it. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris even imagined flying planes into the World Trade Center for maximum fame — an idea shared by Al Qaeda. 

Together they kicked off a 21st century obsessed by violence and tragedy, as the news introduced us to perpetrators of all kinds, up close, giving some of them their greatest wish: fame. Our macabre interest has metastasized into television shows from CSI to true crime streamers and podcasts

Spending so much time focusing on depravity has darkly shaped our assessment of humanity, and our hope for the future.

Then, there are the words we soak in.

On one popular list, 5 of the 7 authors chosen as the most influential popular novelists of the 21st century are known for post-apocalyptic works. Focus on the Family warns about dark books being promoted to children.

In music, Taylor Swift’s Midnights and Tortured Poets Department shows her starting to join a trend of dark music in a landscape that includes Billie Eilish and Slipknot and in which artists such as Lana Del Rey and Olivia Rodrigo increasingly focus on dark themes.

Pope Francis gave the answer:

“We need stories that reveal who we truly are … in the untold heroism of everyday life.”

It is vitally important to focus our minds — and our childrens’ — on the kinds of stories that will expand our horizons, increase our hope, and inspire us to strive for more in life.

The Aleteia search bar is a great place to start. Typing “movies” gets a number of great recommendations. Also try “fiction” or “books” — or simply type in “stories” to get remarkable inspiration.

At Benedictine College, we are beginning to update our 10-year-old list of 100 Catholic Movies, and our Movies for Future Men and Movies for Future Women.

There are many great literature recommendations out there. Look into the Well Read Mom club (I often read what my wife gets assigned), and its leader, Marci Stokman. My daughter swears by the Read Aloud Revival and we have looked into their recommendations. Holy Heroes offers great Catholic stories for children.

But best of all is what Pope Francis calls the “story of stories”: The Bible. Enter into it with Father Mike Schmitz or with me at the Extraordinary Story.

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