Have you ever wanted to be alone in the woods, drinking your own urine to survive? Probably not, that'd be weird. But you've wondered if you could do it, right?
There's something about a desperate struggle against the elements that entrances us. We love to root for the protagonists in Robinson Crusoe , Flight of the Phoenix , Into the Wild , The Perfect Storm , Apollo 13 , and Gravity , just to name a few. Not to mention pretty much everything on The Discovery Channel. But what is it about Man vs. Nature that's so intriguing?
Well, for starters...
Two trains leave Chicago at the same time, one travelling 50mph and the other at 30mph... already you're bored. You just don't care.
But what if it's real? The slower train is full of gold, and you're on the faster train. You need half an hour to set up your ambush. How long do you ride the faster train before getting off? Suddenly this 7th grade math problem is the focus of your life.
When you're motivated, problem-solving is fun. You feel great when you figure out a solution and fantastic when it works. By extension, watching a clever and resourceful main character run through that process is fun, too. Why do you think MacGyver ran for seven seasons? It wasn't just Richard Dean Anderson's magnificent hair.
The urge to solve problems is so pervasive that at a lot of you have already worked out the answer to the math question above (45 minutes). Why would you do that? Because it was a problem in your field of vision, that's why. Unlike most problems, it's a straightforward challenge you can sink your teeth in to, which brings us to...
Life's complicated. It's full of confusing things like taxes and the Infield Fly Rule. You'd love to get away from it all, but that involves booking airline tickets, reserving hotel rooms, making sure your passport is up to date, getting time off work, and arranging for someone to feed your Gimp.
A disaster would simplify your life, and you wouldn't have to do any preparations. No more hassles or errands. Just you, out in nature, fighting a ravenous pack of dingos. Your only objective is "don't die." Are you dead right now? No? Success!
Of course, if you were really in a situation like that, you'd be begging for toilet paper and internet access within hours. There's a reason mankind spent the last ten thousand years isolating itself from nature. "Man-vs-nature" was your ancestors' day job. And the instincts that helped them survive are still within you because...
That's the real reason we like survival stories. They drill down to the very core of what it is to be human. We all have a strong pack instinct, a fundamental desire to keep each other alive, and that kicks in when you see a fellow human battling nature.
Okay, granted—in our modern, civilized era, it's easy to forget that. When Bob from Marketing takes the last donut at the staff meeting (even though he's had like three and you haven't had any) you try to set him on fire with your mind. But if there were a real disaster, you'd help pull him out of the rubble—and he'd do the same for you. Unless it was a cream-filled donut, in which case you two are required to fight to the death.
The point is, humans have spent centuries working together in a constant fight to survive. Recently, we've gotten complacent about that battle, but when an earthquake or tsunami comes along to remind us we're still at nature's mercy, those instincts kick in immediately. Differences get put aside to help each other out, because we all know, deep down, what the true conflict is: all of us vs. the elements.
Watching a fictional story about a guy struggling with nature gets those same monkey pack instincts going. When any of us are in trouble, all of us want to help.
Pretty cool, eh?