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Research Paper, Disaster Films Essay, Research Paper

Disaster Films

In his poem “Fire and Ice,” Robert Frost addresses the preoccupation humanity has with its own demise:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

It is this fascination that is the subject of this paper, specifically the allure of disaster films.

What draws people to see disaster films? From seeing just one preview, anyone can tell what the movie is about and what the outcome will be. The climax is never in doubt. Besides that, why would anyone want to see a movie about ordinary people, in somewhat realistic settings, getting killed? What, then, is the fascination that draws thousands to the screen to witness cosmic disasters and humanity s own self-designed catastrophes?

Morbid curiosity explains this phenomenon. It is this curiosity about morbid events (a phrase that Jack B. Haskins of the University of Tennessee prefers to morbid curiosity due to the negative connotations of the latter) that impels people to see disaster films (1). Gary Webb, a disaster researcher from the University of Delaware, calls this curiosity the Popular Culture of Disasters (1). Morbid curiosity can be manifested as three separate but related human experiences: the thrill of vicarious risk-taking or the need of relief from boredom, our search for solidarity, and the mysterious impact of the evolutionary collective unconscious on our survival instincts.

On her web page, Tenebrous Kate describes the first facet of morbid curiosity: the thrill of vicariously participating in a cataclysmic event:

It s the icy tingle crawling over the skin as one reads an article detailing the actions of the Spanish Inquisition. Perhaps it s the wide-eyed stare of the viewer of a particularly bloodcurdling horror film.

What is it? It s morbid curiosity something we all share, but few of us are willing to admit to. As human beings, we crave knowledge of the unknown and the distressing it transports us from the mendacity of everyday life to somewhere unsettlingly familiar where we can indulge ourselves in a vicarious thrill or two. Morbid curiosity is not the desire to be in a haunted house it s the safety of knowing you re not there that allows you to keep the chill of fear pleasantly light (Kate 1).

Haskins describes this phenomenon as “comfortable arousal.” He explains our physiological need for a certain level of cerebral stimulation. Boredom, the lack of sufficient stimulation, is an undesirable state. Consequently, we seek various ways to achieve adequate stimulation. When our brain is actively engaged in novel and challenging situations, certain chemicals, such as endorphins and adrenaline, are released. These chemicals produce a feeling of well-being and excitement (Haskins 3).

Another component associated with our brain s chemistry is what Haskin s calls The Arousal Jag. This is a state which humans experience when they are brought to a state of arousal as a result of tension and then are brought back down to where they feel comfortable. The result is, once again, a pleasurable feeling. What could possibly be a better setting in which to experience this at than while viewing a disaster film? During the conflict of a disaster film, one s blood pressure and heart rate elevate. Tension is definitely present. When we leave a disaster film and see that all is well, however, we can rest easy and return to a state of equilibrium (Haskins 3).

Robert Frost used the universal symbols of fire and ice to describe the final devastation of humanity and the world as we know it. In the realm of disaster films, the more popular catastrophe is fire. The reason for this lies in the life of the fire itself. While ice is inert, and seemingly dead, fire is alive and consuming (Annan, 34). It has a much higher potential to satisfy the viewer’s pursuit of Haskins’ comfortable arousal and is symbolic of humanity’s insatiable, and sometimes destructive, desires. One of the most famous disaster films of all time, The Poseidon Adventure, uses fire to achieve audience catharsis. In fact, it was billed as Hell, Upside Down (Annan 100). The audience is able to achieve a state of high arousal by “courting disaster from the safety of the movie theater” (Askins 1)

Titanic director James Cameron understands the allure of fire and plans to direct another disaster film on the ancient city of Pompeii. The ancient city of Pompeii was destroyed when a nearby volcano erupted, burying the city. This cataclysmic event has been the subject of many films dating from 1908 when Italian filmmaker Maggi made The Last Days of Pompeii. The film was touted for its ability to portray the terror of the fleeing spectators, suffocated by the terrible effects of molten lava (Annan 22).

Like fire, volcanoes may be preferred because of their symbolic value. A volcano is a time bomb waiting to explode. People can relate their own lives to the destructive potential of a volcano. As a volcano continues to accumulate magma until its eruption, humans allow their angers, resentments, and unrequited affections to build up until a catharsis, or purging, of emotions happens. This parallel to human experience makes the task of creating an arousal jag rather elementary.

Further evidence for the power of the arousal jag can be found in viewer s disappointment when an anticipated cinematic disaster is averted. This occurred in the French film Paris Will it Burn? In this movie set in 1944, the audience is led to expect that Nazis will destroy Paris. When this does not occur, the crowd feels deflated (Annan 109). They feel robbed of their arousal jag.

Even though they may be detrimental to our mental health by compromising our sense of self-determination, the heroes of the screen that lead people through these cinematic catastrophes, deliver a kick (Pitman 104). One such actor who epitomizes this is Gene Hackman, who plays a protagonist in The Poseidon Adventure. It is this kick that we seek as we fixate on the latest catastrophe Hollywood can conjure up.

The second aspect of the popular culture of disaster is humanity s need for solidarity. We often find a sense of solidarity or belonging by uniting against a common enemy, the us against them mentality. We define ourselves by our opposition.

Filmmakers, like authors before them, have drawn on this basic human instinct since the inception of the industry. Annan describes this need for a common enemy as the dialectic of Christianity as well as the basic myth in the cinema (16). Films such as The Golem, the story of a created monster who saves a Jewish ghetto from annihilation, and Faust (as well as Fantasia, its modern version) are based on this theme.

In cinema, as in literature, there must be conflict for there to be a storyline. This conflict may be man versus man, man versus nature, man versus society, or a combination of these. In any event, the majority of disaster films give us a group of characters who must unite in order to achieve a common goal, survival.

Kai Erikson, in his book about disaster and community, states that a sense of community can arise out of trauma. There is a spiritual kinship there, a sense of identity (231). He goes on, however, to describe the corrosive effects of trauma on the life of the community (231). The advantage of experiencing the trauma secondhand is that we escape the negative consequences of the trauma and are left with only a sense of belonging to a triumphant community.

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a lack of international opposition (Askins 2). The improvement in political relations between the world’s super-powers would help explain the decrease in a type of disaster movie that was prevalent during the Cold War. During the Cold War era, the typical disaster film had in its plot the end of the world via some sort of nuclear catastrophe. Annan explains the genre of film that grew up during this time: After all, it seemed probable by the 1930 s that Fascism and modern weapons had achieved the capacity of the Armageddon once reserved for the wrathful hands of God (Annan 20). On the Beach is a primary example of this genre.

The final appeal of the disaster film genre is the mysterious link of our collective unconscious to our survival needs. Like all evolutionary principles, morbid curiosity in the form of an attention to possible danger somehow provided an advantage that contributed to survival the genes of the successful were passed on and the behavior has persisted in man as an intense interest in dangerous appearing stimuli, whether real or fictitious (Haskins 3). As we view the possible scenarios of our own demise we are perhaps rehearsing and learning survival skills.

Another facet to this experience is the unconscious identification with the hero. Annan explains it this way: What is common to all these films is that the superhero always wins against all odds, and the audiences feel that somewhere, somehow, their superego or dream man is protecting them from the worst that can happen (97). Audiences who view movies such as Airport and The Towering Inferno are able to leave the theater with an unreasonable confidence in their ability to withstand similar catastrophes simply because they feel as if they have already been through the same ordeal.

Our basic need for survival makes us fear everything from cosmic disaster to human enemies. It has been so since the beginning of the human race. When we existed in woods and caves, every day was a battle for survival. Famine could wipe out primeval men and women. So could plague, or cold, or forest fire, or volcano, or earthquake, or flood, or any of the natural disasters possible on the cooling globe (Annan 7). The film industry capitalizes on this broad spectrum giving us a steady diet of cataclysmic tribulations to feed our primal fears.

The final irony is that Hollywood, the birthplace of countless cinematic cataclysms, is built on the San Andreas Fault. It is, therefore, a disaster waiting to happen. After profiting from humanity s need for relief from boredom, desire for solidarity, and primeval fears, Hollywood itself may fall victim to a disaster of its own. Too bad it will not be around to film it.

Works Cited

Annan, David. Catastrophe! The End in the Cinema. New York: Bounty Books, 1975.

Askins, Justin. Courting Disaster. Roanoke Times & World News Metro; Vol. 12-156; Editorial Section

Erikson, Kai. A New Species of Trouble. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1994.

Haskins, Jack B. Why do Humans Have Morbid Curiosity? Morbid Curiosity Issue #1

Pitman, Frank. Lifesavers. Networker Oct.- Nov. 1997: 103-110.

Tenebrous Kate. Morbid Curiosity Award. http://members.tripod.com/ TenebrousKate/morbid.html

Webb, Gary. Popular Culture of Disasters. http://www.slip.net/`sulewski/morbid/introduc.htm

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