SEVERAL YEARS AGO A FRIEND and I hatched a quixotic plan to watch every movie in the Criterion Collection, an eight-hundred-plus catalogue of classic films from around the world, in a single year. We were both teaching creative writing at Stanford at the time. The idea was to hole up each night in our shared sublet in San Francisco’s Mission District and screen hundreds of movies, sometimes as many as two or three in a sitting. Making our way through the catalog’s highbrow priorities, especially its classic postwar European and Japanese directors, we revisited the works of eminent filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Yasujiro Ozu, and Jean-Luc Godard. By the end of the year, the project remained unfinished, but a century’s worth of breathtaking films had revealed themselves to us. A surprise favorite? The 1958 disaster flick The Blob.
François Truffaut once said that in “the era of Bergman... cinema is an art form, on a par with literature.” In no way was he referring to movies like The Blob. It’s the Campbell’s soup can of American cinema. Not Warhol’s ironic recasting of the image into iconic Pop Art, but rather the original mass-produced product itself. The thing that plops out of the cranberry sauce can at Thanksgiving dinner, complete with the can’s creases, a gelatinous high-fructose corn syrup bomb. In cinema history, the movie is distinguished by Steve McQueen’s first major screen role and by a massive red ball of slime from outer space that threatens to absorb an entire Middle American town. It came with its own hit theme song composed by Burt Bacharach, a ditty called “Beware of The Blob” that stands as one of the most irritatingly catchy pop tunes ever concocted. One of the Pennsylvania towns where the movie was filmed, Phoenixville, continues to celebrate the picture with an annual Blobfest, in which audiences reenact the scene of moviegoers fleeing from the blob after it invades the Colonial Theater.
Why do we like disaster movies so much? People have been asking this eminently fair question for decades, in various tones of bemusement, curiosity, bafflement, condescension, and, from time to time, snobbish academic hostility. There’s something about them that suits our contemporary sensibilities. This subgenre, which continues to flood multiplex and television screens summer after summer, lives or dies by its ability to elicit a type of laughter that flies in the face of some of the least funny things imaginable: the sudden collapse of urban civilization, science gone mad, out of control diseases, implacable threats from outer space. Our ability to laugh at our own demise surely makes us simultaneously sick and sophisticated; doomed, perhaps, yet also saved by a sense of our own absurdity. So this is the way the world ends? Not with a whimper or a bang, but rather an alien blob oozing like raspberry jelly through the walls?
Ever since they first appeared, disaster movies have been largely dismissed as little more than a reflection of our culture of fear, exploitation pictures designed for moronic escapism, proof that something has gone awry in the minds of the masses. To treat our planet’s destruction as an evening’s light entertainment must surely stem from an impulse to distract oneself from the problems of the real world.
Yet the standard line on these movies overlooks the most important benefit they offer, which is laughter. Disaster movies play for laughs a dream vision of humanity at its most vulnerable and insignificant, allowing us to see ourselves for the ridiculous creatures we are. That extra in the corner of the screen fleeing from the Armageddon du jour? That’s us. The humor derives not necessarily from jokes but rather the saturnalian spectacle of a topsy-turvy world, the kind in which authorities are useless and only a lone scientist or teenager can save humanity. These impious amusements are more than just an anesthetic; they permit us to vent our worst terrors, calm our minds, and return us to our everyday climate of hysteria with our heads just a touch clearer. “The essence of humor,” Sigmund Freud wrote, “is that one spares oneself the affects to which the situation would naturally give rise and overrides with a jest the possibility of such an emotional display.” A rebellious gallows humor represents not a diseased mind but one that is fighting back, whether that mind is watching the world being zapped, roasted, or fried, overrun by giant insects, or invaded by the Man from Planet X.
My earliest suspicion that disaster films might help save us from ourselves occurred during my wasted youth in suburban Wisconsin, gorging myself on bad movies. I was a media-addled kid; the deliberatively abrasive ethos of the “horror punk” music and low-budget horror flicks I soaked up was anti-everything at a time when Reagan’s America felt like a lie. Many subversive directors spent those years hiding out in genre fiction, inhabiting the dark spaces where science fiction intersected with horror. Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) featured television sets that melded with their spectators, creating obscene visions such as a human stomach with a slot for videocassettes. In John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), the ruling class is revealed to be exploitative aliens with the ability to manipulate the public through the use of subliminal messages like “Obey,” “Consume,” and “Conform” in mass media and advertisements.
These films and others like them hid in plain sight as ridiculous lowbrow entertainments designed for hordes of teenagers wearing neon T-shirts, but their messages were clear enough. Martin Scorsese, in his A Personal Journey Through American Movies, describes how in the 1950s directors who wanted to criticize society had to become cultural “smugglers,” importing contraband political messages through metaphors into downmarket Hollywood genre pictures. By the 1980s the sharp-edged metaphors of pulp fiction—and science fiction in particular—continued to operate as before, but the messages were far more overt. Irresponsible punks and high-level global scientists could all agree: the end of the world would likely come as the result of “nuclear error” (as noted in The Clash’s “London Calling”), and the Doomsday Clock hovered at five to midnight.
The old master of science fiction-horror-disaster movies, as far as I was concerned at sixteen, was George A. Romero. I must have watched his 1968 splatterfest Night of the Living Dead a dozen times or more. Romero’s choice of a black protagonist, Ben (played by the classically trained actor Duane L. Jones), as his Everyman facing the end times was novel and subversive. If dealing with the undead wasn’t bad enough, Ben also had to contend with a paranoid Nixonian government that responded to the zombie uprising with military force, sending out the National Guard and a sheriff’s posse with orders to shoot anything that moved, human casualties be damned. There’s a pivotal moment when Ben is arguing with another man who wants the group to hunker down in the building’s basement, a surefire way to get everyone killed. The scene ghoulishly mocks the era’s bomb-shelter mentality and the national policy of calling on Americans to build pointless fallout shelters in the event of nuclear war.
In 1985, the year Reagan’s Morning in America campaign culminated in the mind-boggling inauguration of a nightmare second term, Romero released Dawn of the Dead, a sequel that ratcheted up the satire by depicting zombies milling about a post-apocalyptic shopping mall—a reductio ad absurdum of the national obsession with grotesque and meaningless consumption. In their office ties, baker’s outfits, and police uniforms, the undead resembled a macabre vision of Reagan Democrats as revenant consumers marauding mindlessly through suburbia, devouring everything in their path, billing everything to their credit cards or charge accounts.
Parents, coaches, and teachers lacked the delicate sensibilities required, I felt, to appreciate these productions, and they generally recoiled in horror from the lyrics of the music and the special effects of the movies, missing the radical politics. These pictures relied on gross-outs and so-called “body horror.” Watching deranged zombies munching on fake human innards was a good way of literally and metaphorically clearing adults out of the room. In essence, these movies acted in concert with the subcultures of punk rock and heavy metal, providing a space for youth culture to examine society from an outsider position of deep skepticism, while supplying enough Grand Guignol blood and guts to keep officialdom from threatening to join the fun.
As far as our elders were concerned, it was all dangerous trash. What the official representatives of the Reagan era didn’t seem to recognize was the basic difference between fiction and reality, make-believe time and the exigencies of realpolitik. This didn’t come as a terrible surprise for observers who watched the president of the United States mistake his movie roles for actual history. And this basic confusion seemed to be reflected in contemporary political happenings such as the naming of the Star Wars missile program after a science fiction story about a rebellion against an evil empire in a galaxy far, far away.
Even liberal parents didn’t understand the full extent of what would happen to the psyches of kids exposed to these killing jokes year after year. They wanted us to grow up optimistic and become productive members of society at a time when space had been weaponized and television sets screened nightmares like The Day After (1983), which realistically depicted what would happen in the event of a nuclear exchange and reportedly reached an audience of over 100 million viewers. The end of days felt very tangible and near at hand growing up in the 1980s, and our public officials, while busily dismantling the welfare state and amping up the MX missile program, frightened the public with bedtime stories about what might happen if kids ran records backward through turntables or pretended to be spell-casting elves.
Parents of the 1950s and 1960s regarded these films no more favorably, and who could blame them? With titles like Fiend Without a Face and The Atomic Submarine, these movies were certainly trash, though the label should hardly imply a lack of value. One of the first people to go rummaging through the scrap heap of Hollywood for cultural insights was Susan Sontag. For me, Sontag was a pioneer from the golden age of criticism. I have an extreme case of nostalgia for an era when, as happened when Dell published their 95-cent paperback of her Against Interpretation in 1966, the publisher featured the critic’s picture on the front cover of a book whose opening sentences theorized about the meaning of Neolithic cave paintings and ancient Greek theories of art. Give the people what they want: densely packed essays on Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sai Vie and Alain Renais’ Muriel.
But Sontag, like the New Wave filmmakers she wrote about, also feasted her eyes on junk, and included two critical essays on bad art in her pathbreaking book. In her now-classic “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964) she proposed that “the essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” a love she considered critical to the appeal of the era’s science fiction-disaster films: “In their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy—and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.” Far from being a mode of ridicule or an attempt to claim that bad art was good, camp was a love for “certain passionate failures” and the artists who produced them, a “tender feeling” for the unintentional delights of an overheated imagination.
In “The Imagination of Disaster” Sontag further narrowed in on science fiction movies, arguing that many of these doom-laden productions reflect and refract popular culture’s terrors about nuclear holocaust and society’s intensifying mechanization. “Ours is indeed an age of extremity,” she wrote. “For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.” Fantasy, however, and especially science fiction films, offered a way to “lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated,” as well as to “normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.”
These science fiction movies, Sontag found, were shot through with camp. “The interest of the films,” she wrote, “aside from their considerable amount of cinematic charm, consists in this intersection between a naively and largely debased commercial art product and the most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation.” In other words, when passed through the buzzsaw of puny budgets, crummy special effects, hack writing, and all the other limitations of a commercial product designed for mass appeal, mankind’s “most profound dilemmas” become comically affecting. “The dialogue of most science fiction films,” she points out,
which is generally of a monumental but often touching banality, makes them wonderfully, unintentionally funny. Lines like: “Come quickly, there’s a monster in my bathtub”; “We must do something about this”; “Wait, Professor. There’s someone on the telephone”; “But that’s incredible”; and the old American stand-by (accompanied by brow-wiping), “I hope it works!”—are hilarious in the context of picturesque and deafening holocaust.
These movies, with their ham-fisted packaging of the apocalypse, captured the whole purpose of camp, which was “to dethrone the serious… More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious.’ One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.” By way of this “sensibility of failed seriousness” the most fundamental nightmare of the Cold War—all life on Earth annihilated in a trice—could be repeatedly screened in safety for laughs.
Few movies are so thoroughly frivolous about the serious as The Blob. Released as drive-in fare (on a double bill with I Married a Monster from Outer Space), The Blob is a remarkably cynical example of a movie almost deliberately designed not to be watched. The plot could be followed out of the corner of one eye, regardless of whatever else might be unfolding in the backseat of a darkened Studebaker. Turn away for a few minutes and you won’t miss a thing. Basically, the blob starts out small, then gets bigger. Kids try to warn the town’s authorities. Nobody listens until it’s almost too late, but luckily the world is saved in the nick of time. You know the premise from countless chillers in which a parent tells their kid something like, “I believe that you believe it, son.” The idea behind the movie is inherently comical, in a “what fools these mortals be” sense. Civilization—or at least a little bit of Pennsylvania—nearly wiped out in a blip passing through a corner of infinite space. Oh well, better luck with the next habitable planet.
It’s the humor of laughing into the abyss that makes The Blob endure long past whatever shelf life might have been envisioned by its creators. They cannot have imagined they were producing art for the ages, and yet they gave it strangely enduring qualities. Director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., given a microscopic budget, had no business filming the picture as lovingly as he did. McQueen, in his mid-to-late twenties at the time, suited up gamely for his role as an admittedly wizened-looking teenager. The special effects by Bart Sloane, done with silicone, were ingeniously gross, which even hostile reviewers noted at the time of release. Above all, however, it’s the movie’s Deluxe Color cinematography by Thomas Spalding that makes The Blob so rewatchable. The colors are so beautifully rendered that the mauve wallpaper of a family home takes on a crisp, muted delicacy, like a postcard imitation of a painting by Vermeer.
But the reason why The Blob is such a model of camp perfection is that the attention the filmmakers lavished on all these details in no way extended to the actual storyline or dialogue. In describing the blob to the police, McQueen splutters, “It’s kind of like a mass that keeps getting bigger and bigger!” Later on, during a scene in which the blob attacks a movie theater, some of the fleeing extras seem to have inappropriate smiles on their faces. Even the “creature” at the center of the picture feels hilariously half-baked, as though nobody thought to give it much attention. The most one can say in describing the eponymous blob is that it’s amorphous and without personality. The thing simply comes to Earth in a meteor and has no agenda except to grow. It possesses no will or intelligence and cannot be said to be malevolent, strictly speaking. Its intersection with human life is a cosmic accident, a mistake due to random chance.
Yet for all its camp absurdity, The Blob masks a premise that might in fact prove utterly realistic and terrifying. Isn’t an event like this the current leading theory of how life on Earth began (via a visiting comet), as well as a leading theory of how life on Earth could end (via a hit from a large asteroid)? If the movie is meaningless, doesn’t that make it a lot like life? And if, after all, this is the way the world ends, isn’t the prospect even more frightening than if it were the result of human button-pushing?
It’s worth pausing for a moment the next time you’re enjoying the latest disaster picture to consider whether we’re all really doomed. Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek suggests in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously that we often fall prey to “today’s excessive catastrophism (the mantra that ‘the end of the world is near’).” He calls this apocalyptic outlook “a way of obfuscating the real dangers, of not taking them seriously.” There’s truth to this claim, since overwhelming hysteria over an endless series of catastrophic shocks isn’t the best mindset with which to prepare real alternatives for the future—assuming there will be one.
Perhaps it’s time we started thinking of disaster movies as serving a healthy function in the body politic, fever-reducers in a climate of hysteria. “The traditional means,” Sontag wrote, “for going beyond straight seriousness—irony, satire—seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled.” The campy humor found in things like disaster movies, she suggested, may be the only adequate response we have left. These films do more than simply let us express our fears while continuing on our path of destroying the real world; rather they miniaturize and distance those fears in a way that permits calm reflection, what Freud referred to as the triumph of the ego and the pleasure principle over “adverse real circumstances.” For some people this might even lead to the “cool head” that Žižek recommends as a political alternative to catastrophism, allowing us to see through the cracks in the ideology of fear-mongering that surrounds us. When fear of invasion by everything “alien” and bombardment from the sky are rendered into harmless and absurd spectacles, for that moment, at least, the forces of political reaction are no longer in command. After all, like the perturbed parents of our childhoods, the self-serious fanatics—the political con men promising to save us from national decline, or the dead-eyed doomsayers predicting the end of the world—will never allow themselves to be in on the joke.
J.M. TYREE is Nonfiction Editor of New England Review and the author of Vanishing Streets: Journeys in London (Stanford University Press).