Snowpocalypse in Atlanta and The Walking Dead

How media prepares us for havoc, even catastrophe

Maura Neill was stranded for eight hours in the gridlocked, apocalyptic aftermath of a modest snowstorm that crippled Atlanta this week. “It was like a scene from The Walking Dead,” she told USA Today, a reference to the comic-book-made-television-show-made-video-game set in northern Georgia, in which a zombie apocalypse overtakes, as far as we know, the world.

The sentiment was repeated all around the web. Business Insider ran a series of images under the headline, “26 Pictures From the Insane Traffic Jam That Has Atlanta Looking Like The Walking Dead.” Newsweek reported that the Walking Dead comparison “became a near-ubiquitous reaction to images of highways full of jackknifed tractor trailers and parked cars.” And it’s true. Just look at the two scenes side by side. In one, the abandoned cars of desperate living souls trying to escape the undead horde. In the other, those of ordinary working folk just trying to get home.

Left: An Atlanta freeway scene on Tuesday (Instagram/calkinswolfe22), Right: Detail from The Walking Dead promotional poster (AMC)

Even before the snow stopped falling, Atlanta citizens began sharpening their pitchforks in retaliation for the city’s ineffective planning for and response to the storm. Such blame games have become an obligatory stage in extreme weather mourning rituals. But as my fellow Atlantan Conor Sen argued here at The Atlantic in the wake of the storm, the real cause of the bedlam is complicated, a network of interwoven factors, from metro Atlanta’s balkanized politics to the ongoing effects of race relations on public infrastructure.

Everyone seems to agree that the outcome we experienced in Atlanta this week was calamitous, tantamount to the horror of a zombie apocalypse.  But what if, secretly, we actually wanted this calamity? What if we’d been waiting for it?

The media scholar Richard Grusin has a name for this effect: premediation. According to Grusin, premediation is a phenomenon in which the media ecosystem depicts possible future calamities in order to heighten public anticipation. Premediation is not new (just think of all the pop cultural depictions of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War), but Grusin argues that it became more common after the turn of the millennium, as a way to help global citizens “practice” their anxieties so as not to be faced with an unexpected trauma like 9/11. Collectively, we premediate not to predict the future, but to practice for its many possible realities.

Grusin deals largely with mass communication’s premediating function, but social media has allowed ordinary folk to premediate too. Just think of the many fake images of Hurricane Sandy that went viral online before the storm had even made landfall.  Or more recently, a fake 2011 image of Niagara Falls frozen over premediated the landmark’s actual freeze during this month’s polar vortex.

So, Atlanta’s post-snowstorm chaos didn’t resemble or recall the pop cultural zombie apocalypse so much as The Walking Dead premediated Atlanta’s infrastructural breakdown. Zombies might make for better television than snow and ice, but both phenomena terrify us because of their total unconcern for our human welfare, their willingness to overtake the grand machinery of our modern society for no reason whatsoever, not even because they hate us. In short, we practiced for the real “snowpocalypse” by means of the fictional zombie apocalypse. Even if we Atlantans may never admit it, we may even have hoped for such an event in order that our practice watching, reading, and playing The Walking Dead might have proven a useful investment, something more than mere apocalypse tourism.

Apocalypses are so common in popular media because the end of the world is the ultimate human fantasy. While no one would admit it out loud, we all want to witness the end of history—by which we always mean the end of our history. The zombies and the ice floes will continue whether or not we can fetch our kids from school or make it home to our suburban McMansions. In this respect, premediation cuts both ways. On the one hand, it heightens our anxiety, culturing an environment of fear in which we become willing to give up all rights in exchange for the removal of that fear, no matter the cost. But on the other hand, premediation also helps us rehearse those actions, to become acclimated to the idea of apocalypse so that we might behave more rationally and productively in the face of real chaos.