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?

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.

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