Why Do We Love Disaster Stories?

As a few of us highlighted in class yesterday, disaster films, novels and television shows hold a certain fascination for the American public. From the cult following of The Walking Dead to the massive box-office success of the earthquake disaster film San Andreas, there is something about mass devastation that draws us in each and every time. Someone in class expressed a belief that it could be the interaction with our own mortality that makes us so enamored with these films; but I believe that something decidedly more positive plays a role in this mass consumption. When it comes down to it, disaster films, novels and shows play into tropes that are highly valued in our culture and by doing so, they become media that can reflect what we believe is the optimum society, the society we should be.

Disaster stories are rarely about the disaster itself. Rather, the event is just a vehicle for a much broader topic, namely people and their interactions with each other under duress. Thus, the stories are always centered on individual characters, fleshing out their relationships (or lack thereof) before throwing the catastrophe into the mix. This formula (used one way or another in all disaster media) allows for us to see humans just like ourselves engaging in a situation of extreme stress and terror and, as it often is, we empathize with them. We get invested in their decisions (and at times, even make the decisions with them), we cry when they cry and triumph when they triumph. And when the same values of heroism, love and finally redemption appear consistently in these films and novels, that empathy translates into a sort of understanding. Even if the characters who uphold those values die, we understand them to be the example to look up to. We understand the message that not even disaster should unravel our humanity; if anything, it’s meant to make it stronger.

Reading World War Z brought this topic to mind because I read the novel having already seen the film. Thus, I could see that though there was general inspiration taken from the novel,  as a whole, the film adaptation of World War Z didn’t touch on the intricate political and social considerations that the novel did. Instead, the directors went with that classic disaster film trope: the hero going above and beyond to save his family and managing to save the world too along the way. It is interesting to think about, then, how even criticisms can be turned around to focus on redemption.

All in all, disaster media shows humanity as unwaveringly good, even under the strain of absolute chaos, and I wonder if we hope that seeing it play out on screen enough times will make us replicate these heroes’ actions, should disasters like this ever come true.

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