This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
From occupying a rather forlorn place on the outer reaches of the public imagination, somewhere near Warhammer and Hollow Earth theory, suddenly doomsday prepping finds itself at the forefront of our minds. Recently, the National Geographic show Doomsday Preppers joined the Netflix elite, earning a place on the platform’s Trending Now list. This surge in popularity isn’t hard to read. It’s a decent measure of how peculiar life has become that people are turning to Doomsday Preppers out of pragmatism. Perhaps, on some more abstract level, it’s also reassuring for viewers to know that even before we all started risking our lives for loo roll and getting forced into our homes by Covid-19, people were out there eating snakes as a form of apocalypse cosplay.
If you’ve yet to see it, Doomsday Preppers is the steroidal cousin of other, less disquieting make-over shows, an End Times Grand Designs, Queer Eye with more "bug-out bags" and less bromance. Like these shows, Doomsday Preppers is at heart a programme about solving problems through architecture and design – working out who you want to be and how you want to live, but in a world gone feral. Examples of prepper ingenuity proliferate: retro-fitted nuclear missile silos, home-made hydroponics, literal bear traps, hand-cast bullets, customised amphibious boats, DIY geodesic domes, water purification systems built from things found in kitchen cupboards, more shipping containers buried into the earth as 'bunker homes' than would ever seem necessary. Sometimes elegant, always slightly unhinged, prepper architecture and design is an under-appreciated genre.
As a cultural experience, Doomsday Preppers is TV on the precipice, the kind of phenomenon that future historians will look back at and think: "We should have known then." A testament to how the twin traits of design genius and psychopathology seem to lurk within every decent prepper, the show is populated by men (it’s always men) who spend their lives fantasising about the end of the world as we know it. Like people who join the Territorial Army reserves, you get the strong feeling that these cosplayers yearn for real war. For them, the collapse of human civilisation would be the sweetest justification. Unless and until the very worst happens, their preparations are for nothing.
There are common motifs in prepping: gallons of water, tinned goods, tech, bunkers… and guns. Each week, new contestants guide us through their preparations. Some busy themselves with seed banks, others midwifery. Almost all, though, buy guns. Day-dreaming about societal disintegration creates an imaginary safe haven in which you can finally mow down your neighbours.
Apparently resentful at civilisation itself, preppers seem liberated by the idea of living in a state of hostile isolation. Immediately abandoning all social obligations is the first prepper response to almost any threat their imaginations are able to conjure: drought, wandering mobs, a mortally wounded family member. Solitude removes the need to repress anti-social behaviour, leaving them free to explore their own stockpile of deviant impulses, wander the darkest corners of their psyche. In many ways, doomsday thinking makes possible the expression of a truly free psychopathology.
Extreme situations draw our innermost anxieties to the surface. So playing out doomsday scenarios for TV is as revelatory as pay-per-view therapy. It brings out something primal. When you are prepping, you are you, but more so.
“I’m not obsessed with prepping, I’m obsessed with living… It boils down to the battle between good and evil… evil will win if you let it, you can’t let evil win…”
Father and husband Johnny O (season two, episode one) is speaking breathlessly to camera. His desire for the simplification of the whole world into two camps – Good and Evil – is a prepper community trope. For these people, civil society is a sea of confusion; basic interactions – like navigating your idiot line-manager, or silently negotiating with the person taking up 1.5 seats on the bus – are daily trials akin to childbirth, so forget the complexities of maintaining any kind of meaningful relationship. Most of the time, fulfilling your deepest desires would lose you a lot of friends. Somewhere in the prepper mentality is an aching to dispose of all that reality admin – the hell of other people – and reduce everything to you and your gun against the world.
None of which is meant to condemn these people. Watching the show from the couch, you can often detect a twinkle in the prepper’s eye. Sometimes the sense of a brilliant mind at work. If you forgot what they were planning for, for a second, you could marvel at their resourceful, visionary designs. In different circumstances these people would be the smug architect showing off their effortless manipulation of space to Kevin McCloud, or exhibiting at the Venice Architecture Biennale. As it is, the lot of the prepper is to exist permanently in a fetid silo of his or her (his) imagination, resigned to sharing their innovations and victories with no one besides the horrors that lie just beyond the horizon. At least, that is, until the team from Doomsday Preppers are suddenly in the earpiece of a hand-cranked cellphone, asking if you’ve ever seen the show, and would you like to come on?
It’s in its competitive element that the show is able to function as a surrogate apocalypse for the prepper community, blessing their lonely toil with rare validation. It ranks contestants and their doomsday plans in four categories: Water, Food, Shelter Security and X-Factor. This gamification adds an extra tone of bleakness to the projects: essentially, in the vicious world imagined by the contestants, the higher they score, the longer they outlive everyone they’ve ever known and loved.
“There’s a very thin fabric that holds together civilised society,” says Jay Blevins (season two, episode two), a law enforcement officer and family man. No surprise that someone who commits their work-life to enforcing the law with guns would advocate being armed during an apocalypse, but of course endless footage of looting and violence after natural disasters suggests that his calculations are at least partly correct. The irony is that prepping can only ever erode the fabric of which Blevins speaks – it’s a way of draining resources, individualising shared problems. Fantasising about our neighbours becoming a threatening mob would only really be useful if we were preparing to attack them. Such dehumanisation ultimately unpicks the social contract that holds us together.
Since Noah, we’ve been preparing for the worst; his Ark was the original prepper design solution. Preparing for the worst is a normal (and often good) response to anxiety about the future, but it comes at a cost. You can't help but feel that if the stars of Doomsday Preppers invested their design genius into solving some of the real and present dangers our society faces – the poor town planning and architecture that exacerbates dysfunction in social housing, for example – we would all be better off. But that might mean suppressing their innermost anti-social desires, anti-social desires that the preppers ultimately seem more fond of than society itself. Then again, if suppressing your unspeakable urges is the cost of entry to civilisation, right now it might seem like a bargain.
Thankfully – lockdowns aside – we are all still free enough to pursue our own paths through life, even if every path you can see stretching out ahead of you leads inexorably to oblivion. So let them eat snake, if that’s what makes the prepper feel less anxious about the future. For the rest of us, there is always television.