Image by Leandro De Carvalho from Pixabay
Image by Leandro De Carvalho from Pixabay

The Imagination of Disaster 2.0: Revisiting Susan Sontag in the Age of the Pandemic Horror Narrative

Considering Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster” and modern apocalyptic narratives, are sci-fi and horror still “inadequate responses” to our world?

In her 1965 essay, ‘The Imagination of Disaster’, Susan Sontag argued that science fiction-horror films provide inadequate responses to major socio-political issues: while the concerns they raise may be valid, their conclusions tend to be formulaic and unsatisfactory. Sontag was concerned about the threat to the world posed by the atomic age and saw science fiction-horror films as cultural imaginings of the disaster to mankind that nuclear weapons represented at the height of the Cold War. She found these imaginings sorely lacking in moral and political urgency. Instead of challenging the political systems that had brought the world to the brink of destruction, such films created a fantasy for audiences that, according to Sontag, inured them to the reality of nuclear war and the possibility of the extinction of mankind. 

Considering Sontag’s influential essay in light of modern apocalyptic narratives raises a crucial question about popular sci-fi and horror: does it continue to provide ‘inadequate responses’ in the context of contemporary social and political issues? In order to answer this, we must first investigate how cinema and fiction have provided literary and screen responses to emergent ‘apocalyptic’ threats historically, before considering modern apocalyptic narratives in detail. 

Cold War Blues

Bear in mind that Sontag was writing only three years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and her essay reflects issues that had arisen from that. The crisis raised serious questions about the American government’s ability to protect the American people in the event of a nuclear war. It was the nearest mankind has ever come to all-out nuclear war, and for many, it seemed during the seven days of the crisis that the end of the world had truly come. War was averted through political solutions, but arguably America was never the same again. As Alice L. George writes in her book Awaiting Armageddon, the American people emerged from the crisis ‘like convicted felons who receive a reprieve after being strapped into the electric chair: they sighed with relief but they could not shake the memory of near-sudden death’ (2003). 

The crisis forced Americans to examine civil defense policy and other aspects of the cold war after years of averting their eyes from the details – and the plans that had been put in place to protect them were found to be lacking. During this era, public ‘information’ films taught children to respond to a nuclear attack by hiding under their school desks, and Cold War literature routinely assured Americans that they could survive a nuclear war. In reality, strategies to protect the civilian population were inadequate.

The Gaither Report, submitted to the President by the Security Resources Panel in 1957, advised the government to embark on a nationwide fallout shelter programme to protect the civilian population. President Eisenhower, however, elected not to follow these recommendations although he committed billions of tax dollars to defense spending and building intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Later, in 1962, President Kennedy’s bid for funds to institute a shelter programme was turned down by Congress. The population was instead left to build its own fall-out shelters and the few public ones that were built were not stocked with adequate food or survival supplies. The message was clear and the Cuban Missile Crisis brought it home: if war came, the vast majority of Americans would be on their own.  

As a cultural critic, Sontag was looking through this cold war lens at typical science fiction films of the time. ‘[There is a] sense,’ writes Sontag, ‘in which these movies are in complicity with the abhorrent… They inculcate a strange apathy concerning the process of radiation, contamination, and destruction which I for one find haunting and depressing’ (1965).

Genre Films = Cultural Work/Cold War Propaganda and Nuclear Fear

The idea of cultural work arises within the field of teratology, defined as mythology relating to fantastic creatures and monsters. In ’50s sci-fi, this mythology can be seen in aliens and radiation monsters. Such monsters are created to articulate certain social, political, and/or economic anxieties. As scholar Andrew Hock Soon Ng has written of monsters and ghosts in Southeast Asian horror cinema, they are often coerced into serving official agendas and deployed by the status quo to reinforce certain nationalist objectives (2014). In some instances, though, they exceed their remit and bring an element of excess that defeats their own purpose.

Much has been written on the historical trauma of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and how those events were represented allegorically in fiction and genre films. These studies emphasise the therapeutic function of allegory inherent in films like, for example, Gojira/Godzilla (Ishirô Honda, 1954). But can documentary propaganda depictions of the atomic bomb be said to fulfil the same function? To what extent did Cold War documentary films – operating in joint fashion alongside genre movies – actually function as projections of coercive ‘nuclear fear’?

The intended psychological effect of information films such as  Anthony Rizzo’s Duck and Cover (1952) was to keep the threat of nuclear war high in the public mind, but the deeper psychological effects on the Cold War teenagers living in the shadow of the bomb, knowing they could die at any moment, is still open to conjecture. Writing in 1953, journalist and photographer Albert E. Kahn, described Cold War propaganda as creating a ‘climate of horror’ for America’s children and teenagers, citing instances of acute sleep disturbance, hysteria, depression, eating disorders, and truancy as evidence of psychological trauma caused by constant exposure to such films and literature. He sharply criticized Duck and Cover for that reason, claiming that it stressed ‘the constant likelihood of disaster’ without offering any positive solution; that the emphasis on the possibility of a bomb falling when children were alone would produce ‘intense feelings of insecurity’; and that the main effect of the film would undoubtedly be ‘to promote anxiety and tension in children.’

One thing is certain: the fear of attack amongst children was pervasive, and nuclear war was seen by many teenagers as inevitable – a matter of not ‘if’, but ‘when’. This state of psychological high alert was reinforced by the authorities in other ways besides propaganda films: in regular school drills during which children practiced getting under their desks quickly to shield themselves against the blast; in regular tests of the Emergency Broadcast System, which often took place during children’s television, interrupting cartoon shows with a loud continuous beep accompanied by ominous instructions; and, of course, in the civil defence air raid warning siren that would sound in most towns and cities on a regular basis, often during the school lunch break.

These images of nuclear war conflated memories of Hiroshima with Cold War psycho-social anxieties, with the intention to confront and work-through apocalyptic scenarios as we, like Dr. Strangelove, learned ‘to stop worrying and love the bomb’. However, From Duck and Cover to Peter WatkinsThe War Game (1966) to Nicholas Meyer‘s The Day After (1983), representation of nuclear war, conversely, was seen to have traumatising effects on audiences, especially on children. This raises questions about the nature of trauma in representations of atomic war; and the extent to which ambiguities arise in the functions of these works. 

As projections of nuclear fear themselves recede into memory, new fears (of global warming, environmental collapse) have come to replace them, locating such films within the wider context of apocalypse culture. This suggests that we have indeed entered an age of complacence since the end of the Cold War and that even documentary representations of nuclear disasters have become narrativised and genre-formulaic. Like fictional allegories, they might be considered inadequate responses to the threat of disaster. 

Apocalyptic Horror/ Sci-fi 

One of the first film critics to identify the ‘horror of Armageddon’ as a major subgenre of sci-fi horror was critic Charles Derry. Derry surveyed American horror films made between 1960 and 1976 and found several prevalent themes in modern horror cinema: the horror of Armageddon being one of them. In regard to tracing the lineage of ’70s apocalyptic horror, Derry uses the term ‘horror of Armageddon’ in a similar sense to critic Robin Wood’s ‘apocalyptic horror’, denoting films that depict the ‘end of the world’ as meaning the collapse of modern capitalist society.

Scholar Christopher Sharrett locates the apocalyptic horror film within a broader tradition of apocalypticism in art and culture, one which insists on the ‘criticism of despair’. For Sharrett, the apocalyptic horror film ‘momentarily inoculates the spectator with criticisms of a failing dominant order, but then reneges on this criticism by denying that there is any worth in carrying this critical process through to a conclusion’ (1983). In so doing, the genre serves to inculcate the ‘strange apathy’ concerning impending disaster, of which Sontag speaks.