What is Doomsday Preppies? It sounds like a suicide cult founded by Stan Gable.
Do you live under a rock? If the answer is, “yes,” ¯ then National Geographic Channel’s Doomsday Preppers is the show for you. Each week the show profiles a group of hardcore survivalists, typically a family, and explains what they are doing to prepare for TEOTWAWKI when TSHTF.
That’s prepper internet jive talk for The End Of The World As We Know It and The Shit Hits The Fan.
So I assume that Doomsday Bunkers is some sort of hybrid between Doomsday Preppers and All In The Family.
Well… hmmmm…. actually, Bunker might be a prepper if he were around today. None of these preppers are Bunkers but they all want to buy bunkers so they can be prepped.
Doomsday Bunkers is about a small firm run by Scott Bale that makes custom bunkers for preppers. It is The Discovery Channel’s attempt to horn in on NatGeo’s Doomsday angle.
And what’s the “I Love New York” of prepper reality shows?
That would be Doomsday Castle, which focuses on one of the odder families from Doomsday Preppers. The dad’s life’s work is to build an actual castle for surviving the end of days.
I thought the believers all get sucked straight up to heaven before the end of days even gets rolling. Isn’t that what the rapture is?
I believe so, but nuts come in a lot of flavors. I think maybe the dude building a castle in the woods has has some inconsistency in his thinking.
So are these shows any good?
Apart from Doomsday Castle, which is just staged, family drama reality dreck in a new setting, they are interesting shows. I enjoy Doomsday Bunkers without reservation. It seems to be the least staged because they are really doing something concrete, instead of running around trying to create drama for the cameras. Somebody orders a bunker. We meet that person and they explain why they think they need it and what kind of bunker they want. Then Scott and his team build it for them. In the interim, Scott works on his pet projects for mass sale, like a pyramid pod, which is an indestructible teepee that he has set on fire while he is inside of it. As someone barely able to hang a picture, I really enjoy shows where they design and build stuff because those guys are practically professional athletes to me. Scott is a fun guy who has found a way to make a life building lifesized GI Joe toys. I also think this show treats the preppers with the most respect, which is cool because that’s the best path to understanding how they think.
Doomsday Preppers doesn’t do that?
It’s a bit inconsistent. The narrator is pretty clearly mocking the subjects at times. There’s no need for that. I can do it myself. The interview and editing process is slightly aimed at getting the subjects to hang themselves. Making the subjects look bad isn’t the primary goal of the show, but it’s an element of it. They also feel the need to debunk the prepper’s fears at the end of every episode with a few seconds of platitudes like, ”most economists agree, a total economic collapse in the United States is very unlikely.”
I fucking hate that part of the show. Part of the fun of all this is to entertain the possibilities presented by the preppers, however remote they might be. I don’t need the voice of Authority to tell me everything will be OK at the end. Also, it’s kind of a cheap slap in the face to the subjects because they spend all of this time explaining themselves, and then you just have this game show announcer come on at the end and say, “by the way, these people are all idiots.”¯ Sure, some of them are idiots. But then so are most of the people who appear on CNN. They don’t have a guy come on at the end of every Situation Room and say, “after Wolf Blitzer dies, I’m going to use his skull for a bed pan so that it contains more understanding and insight than it ever has before.”
But overall, you like the show?
Yes. I’ve always been fascinated by devout oddballs. I love Coast to Coast AM, the radio show dedicated to aliens, bigfoot and shadow people. It’s fun to laugh at the ridiculous moments and be reminded of exactly what absurd creatures human beings are. But it’s also interesting to understand what makes these people tick and enjoy all of the fantastic scenarios they dream up.
Doesn’t it get boring watching people polish their guns?
The most surprising component of the show is the examination of the relationships within the families. This is what keeps it from getting boring. Preppers are really close to their children and spend lots of time explaining stuff to them and teaching them. Obviously, the kids would be better served if they were learning something other than how to make their own bullets, but the involvement is what’s most important. They go through the same kind of shit everyone else does, except when a dude’s sixteen year old daughter is like, “do I haaa-aaaave toooo-ahhhh?” she is talking about being dragged along to practice shooting rifles from inside her dad’s armored fighting vehicle, which was formerly used by the British military in Northern Ireland.
You wonder how these kids will turn out. It’s going to be so interesting for them once they go into the world and realize how limited their own perspective is. To be clear, that’s a process all of us hopefully go through. But for a prepper kid, it will be especially interesting. I’d love to read a memoir by a grown up prepper kid. Having worked in public schools and learned how common it is for parents to not give a shit if their kids eat well or learn to read, I think the prepper kids will turn out pretty well compared to average American kids.
So the preppers are all just a bunch of nutjobs, or what?
Obviously these are people who are out of step with the rest of the world. But as the intro to Doomsday Bunkers declares, according to preppers, we are the ones who are in denial. And they are sort of right about that. We non-preppers go around thinking today will be pretty much like yesterday, but that’s more of a useful posture than a rational reaction to facts that we understand. It’s not really possible for us to consider every doomsday scenario and there’s no real reason to think one of them won’t come to fruition. So we just say, “meh, I’m sure someone will know what to do.”
That can’t be true, honey. If it were I’d be terrified.
From what I can gather, we should be OK unless something causes people to stop going to work. That’s why I think, of all the doomsday scenarios, a pandemic would be the worst. Like, if the power grid goes down because of a solar flare, things will be bad, but we’re not going to just throw our hands up in the air and say, “welp, I guess we can’t transport food at all or have a police department.” But once guys decide they’re safer at home than driving trucks to grocery stores, it’s hard to argue against the prepper fear that a domino effect will ensue, leading to prolonged Katrina type situations or worse.
So you’re saying the preppers are right? Do you wanna be a prepper too?
Nah. I’m prepped for a flat tire. Anything worse than that and I’ll be dead within 4 hours. Preppers are very active and organized people who think of everything in the long term. One thing that struck me is that a lot of the preppers are cops and/or people with military experience.
That’s somewhat odd. You’d think that kind of experience would make you a hard bitten cynic rather than a believer in the fantastic.
That’s what I thought. But it reminded me of a little story from my own life that sort of encapsulates the rightness and wrongness of preppers.
Great. Of course, there’s no need to actually tell the stor…
When I was in college, my girlfriend’s dad was a CO on Riker’s Island. He would tell me about how social security is communism. Also, how we are all descended from seeds planted by the aliens who built the pyramids.
Sounds like an idiot.
Not at all. He was a very smart guy. It was just that all he read were books about aliens and conspiracy theories and stuff like that.
So one day, when the girlfriend is out of town, the phone rings and wakes me up. I roll over to go back to sleep and it stops, but then it starts ringing again a few seconds later. I guess it must be something important and so drag my ass out of bed and answer, half asleep.
“It’s Richard. Where is Susan?”
“Where is she?”
“She went to Vegas with her friends.”
“Listen to me, Erich. The country is under under attack.”
“Terrorists blew up the world trade center! They’ve attacked The Pentagon. The entire country is on full emergency alert. We don’t know where they’ll hit next. I need to get in touch with my daughter.”
“Really? Wellll… I’ve got the number of the hotel around here somewhere…”
So that’s how you found out about Pearl Harbor?
Yeah. And, of course, processing all of that information was extra complicated, given that the information was coming from Richard. I had to consider the possibility that he’d finally lost his marbles irretrievably. But that didn’t really seem likely. He was a perfectly intelligent, functional member of society. There was nothing to suggest that he’d had a psychotic break. My initial read was that he was just overreacting to some sort of Columbine level situation.
Needless to say, 30 seconds of TV confirmed his story. He’d actually responded to 9/11 quite evenly. Probably because he’d been expecting something like that to happen every day for the past 30 years.
So what’s the point of the story? That even a broken clock is right twice a day?
Yes. And it’s not like we’re all perfectly working clocks. You know, we might be right like five or six times a day. At some point, some set of prepper fears will probably be vindicated. It might be 250 years from now, but eventually something will go horribly wrong. There will be a massive earthquake or maybe even a total economic collapse creating social unrest. I mean, Marx predicted such a scenario for many of the same reasons given by preppers and Marx was much smarter than you or me. Oh yeah, global warming seems like it might end pretty badly for us.
Yeah. But the preppers still seem crazy to me.
With good reason. They might be right about things. Society can get ugly and dangerous quickly when disaster strikes and the government doesn’t always respond to emergencies capably. And, as I said, one of these scenarios will pan out sooner or later somewhere.
However the chances of a disaster severe enough to require the use of your own personal tank landing on your exact time and place seem to be fairly remote. Like, even if some terrorists spray a bunch of chemicals from a crop duster, the odds that they’ll happen to chose Asheville, North Carolina are way less than 1%.
So it’s worth it to have some extra food and water laying around but this isn’t something you need to build your life around.
I suppose so. Doesn’t really cost you anything. What characterizes the prepper is his obsession with these particular fears. There are a million things that can go wrong in your life without requiring solar flares or tsunamis.
You could drop dead of a heart attack, or your daughter could marry an Italian.
Right. And a fair number of preppers are in bad physical condition which makes a stroke, cancer or diabetes very real threats. And if you’re determined to live to as old an age as possible, it doesn’t make all that much sense to invest copious time, energy and money preparing for the remote chance of a chemical attack when you could almost certainly increase your life expectancy by working out for 20 minutes a day and eating some fruit and veggies once in a while.
So why do they do it?
I think that in most cases, it’s a kind of displacement of fears and insecurities. You’re going to die one day and quickly be forgotten. Everyone you know will die too. On top of that, you’ll probably never realize your potential, even accounting for the fact that you grossly overestimate it. You’re just a nobody farting around for a bit before you vanish and there’s nothing you can do about it. The most terrifying things about life are beyond our control.
So the preppers create stories about dangers they can control?
Exactly. As terrifying as the collapse of the power grid might be, you can at least theoretically prepare for it and control how the situation affects you. You can make sure you’ll have enough to eat. You can buy a bunch of guns so that you’ll feel protected. You can tell yourself this soothing, calming story that ends with you being safe with your family. It’s pretty similar to the religious story, where you wind up removed from the fear and chaos, reunited with your loved ones.
Another similarity between these stories is personal vindication. Even though you might not achieve great status in this life, in the next life it will be proven that you were in the right all along. You’ll be rewarded and sit in a privileged position, while everyone who thought you were wrong will be tossed into turmoil and suffering.
It’s starting to make sense that this is largely an American thing.
Americans love these stories. I think it has to do with our Puritanical roots, combined with accustoming ourselves to self-serving pretzel logic to justify centuries slavery and genocide, combined with a cynical and powerful business class that knows promoting such stories provides them with a great cover to do whatever they want.
The end result is that, even in 2001, you were about 5 times as likely to be killed by a regular old murderin’ American than a terrorist and about ten times as likely to be killed by yourself (just counting the times you’d do it intentionally). In most other years, nobody is killed by a terrorist. Zero people out of 300 million. But what are we afraid of?
Terrorists. And, in my case, physical intimacy.
Right. Because we can fight them off and prevent the terrorist threat, such as it is. Well, not really. But a lot of people can get rich blowing up innocent people in other countries if they convince you that we can fight terrorism with terror. I don’t want to get too far into that stuff, but the preppers illustrate this deeper pattern in American behavior very well. Instead of confronting the major threats and fears, we focus on some really flashy ones and try to comfort ourselves with a story about how it can be defeated. Liberals do this too, by the way. For example, rather than confront the fact that ameliorating the cultural devastation of slavery might take centuries, they get riled up about the 47 people in the entire country who are nazi skinheads and try to get Duck Dynasty taken off the air, as though that will repair everything.
So you’ve got this storytelling mechanism, where anonymous blips cast themselves as prescient and enduring. What does the kind of story you tell say about you?
For most people, behavior precedes justification. In other words, you do the shit you want to do and then find the reasons for doing it. If you ask people who cheat on their spouses why they do it, they’ll give you a story. Ask people who constantly talk shit about everyone they know why they do it, they’ll give you a story. Ask guys who get into lots of fights why they do it, they’ll give you a story. The story won’t be, “I’m governed by insecurity and feel like I need to prove myself, but no matter how many times I try to prove myself I still feel insecure.” It’ll be something about how they were just going on their merry way and this situation presented itself and they reacted to it in a reasonable way.
And this relates to preppers how?
The extreme behavior of the preppers makes this kind of behavior a lot more obvious and easily observable. A big part of prepping seems to be LARPing. For example you can go to driving schools where they let you smash a car through two other cars set up as a roadblock while people shoot paintballs at you. Preppers like having all kinds of drills that involve making hand signs while waiving machine guns around, driving trucks through fire, escaping through hidden tunnels and performing emergency surgeries that would never really work. They’re acting out their fantasies, which is the most extreme case of the phenomenon I’m describing.
And they are mostly fantasies of violence?
A lot of them are, which is very telling. Again, when people freely invest hours and hours of their time doing something, it’s generally what they want to be doing. So when you see preppers investing hours and hours of their time pretending to shoot people and deploying landmines against hungry refugees, it suggests pretty strongly that they want it to happen. With some of them, I think there’s kind of a disconnect, where they are living all of this out in a fantasy world and want to keep it that way. Others, I think, would genuinely take pleasure and satisfaction in such scenarios, which is probably another reason so many of them wound up in the police and military. Still other preppers are focused on building communities with their neighbors so that they can survive together, which just goes to show, you can write whatever you want to on the page.
But, of course, the gun nut preppers would say that they are just doing their best to protect themselves from very real threats.
Sure. But, again, most of them face much more direct threats from things like heart disease and they seem totally unconcerned about that. Many of them drive unsafe cars, though death by car crash kills almost a 9/11 worth of Americans every month. And like any good farce, the foolishness of these stories suggests a slightly more subtle and pervasive one. Why do many preppers only worry about threats that require them to build forts and waive guns around? Because they want to build forts and waive guns around. They’ll find whatever threats they need to justify doing so. Why are Americans, especially those on the right, so preoccupied with real and imagined threats that they can respond to by starting wars or putting people in jail? Because they want to start wars and put people in jail. They’ll find whatever threats they need to justify doing so.
So the preppers are fascist monsters.
No. Well, some of them are. But that is one piece of the puzzle. Another piece is this kind of extreme selfishness, which is also very American. Preppers think they know it all. How the economy works, and where it is heading (why not use that information to get rich? There’s no better prep than that.). They understand geopolitics and the environment. Much better than any of the so-called experts. And their sole application of this knowledge is self-preservation. To accumulate as much crap as they can for themselves and to go to extreme measures to avoid sharing it: the post-Reagan, post-apocalyptic American dream. And on another level, spending all of this time and energy indulging their fantasies is a kind of selfishness too. I know it sounds corny, but if you’re going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of labor on projects like this, why not do so for some charity?
I knew you hated the preppers!
No. Some of them are rotten people who clearly can’t wait for the day when they get to gun down starving people. But most of them just seem to be pulled by distressing social currents, just not only the ones they identify. As, I said, they also have very strong family ties and most of them seem to really love their family members, rather than seeing them as puppets in their LARP fantasies. So a big part of what they are demonstrating with all of this play acting is often love for their families. The dads talk a lot about their duties and responsibilities as fathers and husbands and part of the allure of the prepper fantasy is that it allows them to strongly demonstrate those qualities. Some of the wives have bought in completely, but you can tell that others are largely indulging their husbands. They want to help hubby feel important, so they drag themselves through escape tunnels and fire off guns that they hate. They find ways to look on their husband’s accomplishments with pride. Even if the apocalypse never comes, not everyone can build undersea storage vessels for hiding food and bullets. And if the end of the world was imminent, plenty of guys would go out and get drunk instead of staying with their families. So maybe Hubby’s a pretty good guy.
Other preppers are much less focused on violence. One family moves from Kansas to Costa Rica and strives to build a self-sustaining community with their neighbors. I’m not even sure those people own a gun. Instead they set up this big system where fish poop feeds their plants and the plants give the fish clean water.
One dad takes his eighteen year old boy on a grand LARP through the Alabama woods and scarcely mentions shooting other people. Instead he passes on life lessons and techniques for trapping animals and building shelter. The worst experience of the Father’s life was getting lost in the woods without any survival skills or tools. He claims he almost died. He wants to make sure his own son never feels that helpless or afraid and he culminates the LARP by passing on a handmade bullet to his boy, not so that he might use it to kill a sick child one day, but as a token. He wants his son to remember him and all of the knowledge that has been passed on. It’s his way of telling the boy, “I’ve given you all I have to offer because I think you deserve it.”
Well… now I’m going to cry. Here I was thinking all of these spiteful things about preppers and… they’re just human beings, man. In all their folly and beauty, human beings.
I loathe you.