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.

Is the Sci-fi/ Horror Genre Fit for Purpose?

There seems little doubt that the existential threat to the human race is as grave now as it was in 1965. Indeed, many consider the threat posed by nuclear weapons, climate change, and global pandemics to be greater than ever before.

This year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists issued a statement placing the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight, closer to apocalypse than it has ever been, even at the height of the Cold War:

[T]he pandemic serves as a historic wake-up call, a vivid illustration that  governments and international organizations are unprepared to manage nuclear weapons and climate change, which currently pose existential threats to humanity, or the other dangers—including more virulent pandemics and next-generation warfare—that could threaten civilization in the near future.

– Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Inadequate Responses?

Given the urgency of Sontag’s essay, then, it is not surprising that various scholars and journalists have revisited it over the years. Most notably academic Mick Broderick posits that a number of nuclear war-themed films subsequent to Sontag’s essay have focused on human survival rather than on images of disaster. However, these films, such as the Mad Max franchise, are, for Broderick ‘highly reactionary, and seemingly advocate reinforcing the symbolic order of the status quo via the maintenance of conservative social regimes of patriarchal law’ (1993). Nuclear holocaust in these films ushers the end of the burdens of post-modern life in favour of a yearning for the less complex existence of agrarian toil and social harmony. As such, they are wish-fulfilment fantasies.

This view is echoed by scholars Levine and Taylor who adjudge the new wave of disaster narratives such as The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004) as continuing to lack criticism of the real social and political conditions that bring about the fears depicted in the films. ‘Moreover,’ write the authors, ‘much like news coverage, images in recent natural disaster films…typically finish at the point where survivors are obliged to pick up the pieces and start all over again—the latter is not regarded as newsworthy…The films are primarily concerned ‘with the aesthetics of destruction’ rather than rebuilding (2013).

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)

Contagion provides a fascinating example of a film that works hand in hand with government education on pandemics. Public appetite for the film during the Covid-19 pandemic saw a huge increase in torrent downloads and iTunes rentals until Netflix streamed it for a year up until April 2021. The UK health secretary at the time claimed that it had influenced his vaccine rollout policy

A number of articles appeared discussing the film’s relevance to the pandemic in terms of its depiction of a virus outbreak, containment, track and trace protocols, infection control for health workers, and vaccine development and deployment. A common element of these articles is the inclusion of comments made by scientists and health care professionals on the film’s accuracy and plausibility with regard to these matters. In other words, Contagion‘s depiction of a pandemic was judged to be a realistic one.

More contentious, however, are the film’s political messages regarding the preservation of the existing social order in the aftermath. Contagion bails out when it comes to confronting the implications of mass civil disorder and the government’s response to it, preferring instead to negate any messages that might be construed as anti-government. 

The Walking Dead (Frank Darabont 2010-2022)

By contrast, several articles have appeared recently on how zombie films have helped us prepare us for the pandemic. John Johnson, professor emeritus of psychology at Penn State has stated, ‘these kinds of movies apparently serve as mental rehearsal for actual events.’ Forbes Magazine claims that ‘tales of the zombie apocalypse are so popular, the CDC uses zombies as a way to teach people about disaster preparedness.’

The Walking Dead provides an interesting case study of rebuilding, which may challenge some of the inadequacies of apocalyptic horror. Much scholarship has been done on the subject of patriarchy and hypermasculinity in the series. But what of renewal? Does The Walking Dead challenge the wish fulfilment of modern post-apocalyptic horror? Does it offer any solutions to the impending real-world apocalypse?

Derived largely from the films of George A. Romero, The Walking Dead – concerned as it is with the end of patriarchal capitalism – appears to present the metaphysical apocalypse (the end of the world) in social/political terms. The question constantly facing the survivors is one of communalism. Is it possible to organise in groups of federated communes without sinking into tribal violence? How should such groups be led? How to prevent the rise of despots? Can social values of the past be redesigned to fit this brave new world or must they be rejected as defunct? 

Such is the urgency of these themes that The Walking Dead has spilled over into franchise series and thinly-veiled knock-offs such as the video game series (Naughty Dog, 2013-) and forthcoming TV show, The Last of Us (HBO, 2022-). Although these themes have yet to be brought to conclusion, The Walking Dead raises questions about what the new society should be like, and whether it should attempt to preserve the values of the destroyed civilization.

Indeed, The Walking Dead’s willingness to imagine a world beyond apocalypse marks it as a potentially optimistic vision of human survival, with the suggestion that cooperative social endeavour is the key to a new society. There is every indication that it is willing to imagine beyond the nihilism usually associated with apocalyptic horror. As such, can The Walking Dead be considered atypically as an ‘adequate response’? 

Works Cited

2021 ‘Doomsday Clock Statement’. Science and Security Board, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 27 January 2021.

Broderick, Mick. ‘Surviving Armageddon: Beyond the Imagination of Disaster’, in Science Fiction Studies, #61, Vol 20, Part 3. November 1993. 

Derry, Charles. Dark Dreams 2.0: A Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film from the 1950s to the 21st Century. McFarland. 2009.

Escalante, Alison. ‘Why the Zombie Apocalypse Prepared Us for The Pandemic’. Forbes Magazine. 15 January 2021.

The Gaither Report’. George Washington University website. 7 November 1957.

George, Alice L. Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis. The University of North Carolina Press. 2003.

Heritage, Stuart. ‘Matt Hancock’s vaccine rollout was inspired by Contagion. Here’s what he should watch next’. The Guardian. 4 February 2021.

Ng, Andrew Hock Soon. ‘Sisterhood of terror: The monstrous feminine of Southeast Asian horror cinema’ in A Companion to the Horror Film. John Wiley & Sons. 2014. 

Johnson. John. ‘Zombie movies and psychological resilience‘. Science Daily. 11 January 2021.

Kahn, Albert E. The Game of Death: Effects of the Cold War on our Children. Cameron and Kahn. 1953.

Levine, Michael, and Taylor, William. ‘The Upside of Down: Disaster and the Imagination 50 Years On.’ M/C Journal, 16(1). 2013.

Sharrett, Christopher. Apocalypticism in the Contemporary Horror Film: A Typological Survey of a Theme in the Fantastic Cinema, Its Relationship to Cultural Tradition and Current Filmic Expression. PhD Dissertation. 1983.

Sontag, Susan. ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ in Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1966.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. Columbia University Press, 1986.