My flatmate, in the ultimate display of friendship, has given me her Netflix log-in details. This has changed my life.
So for reasons that defy human understanding, I recently found myself watching Roland Emmerich's terrible natural disaster film, 2012. This was followed by an epic session of binge-watching Twister, Volcano, Dante's Peak and The Day After Tomorrow. Now I bloody love a good disaster film; you put an improbably attractive scientist, some naysaying politicians and the unstoppable onslaught of Mother Nature into a film and I will be there in a heartbeat. And I'm clearly not the only one: Twister was the second highest grossing film of 1996, grossing nearly $500 million worldwide, The Day After Tomorrow grossed over $544 million, and 2012 grossed over $770 million despite being mind-blowingly terrible.
So why do we love disaster films? What is it about massive human casualties and the destruction of beloved national monuments that makes us want to hand over our money? My theory is that disaster films are a lot like romance novels.
As a part of my undergrad degree I studied the sociology behind romance novels (because this is the kind of knowledge that is going to give me an edge in today's highly competitive job market) and there are a lot of similarities between romance novels and disaster films. Numerous sociologists, such as Ann Douglas and Janice Radway, have noted that romance novels can be pretty brutal. On the surface this seems somewhat counter-productive since the women these authors interviewed claimed that they read romance novels as an escape from their everyday lives. If romance novels are supposed to be an escape, why do women want to read about women experiencing graphic brutality?
According to the sociologist, Geertz, all art forms render everyday experiences comprehensible by presenting them in forms where the practical consequences have been removed. By reading about a violent event, we can experience something horrific, but without the horrific consequences. The horrific becomes comprehensible and therefore surmountable without any personal risk.
For the women Radway interviewed for her book, ‘Reading the Romance’, it was important for them to read about the stories’ heroines experiencing something terrible but surviving and coming out of the ordeal as stronger individuals, still capable of loving and being loved. This theory also makes sense when applied to disaster films. When you watch a disaster film you inevitably place yourself in the role of the protagonist and imagine how you would fare in the face of epic disaster. It is comforting, and maybe even thrilling, to see ordinary people face the monstrous power of Mother Nature and come out triumphant.
This is why the protagonists in both romance novels and disaster movies are so monumentally bland. If we go back to Radway’s book, for the women she interviewed it was important for the readers to feel like they were the character in the story. They didn’t want to just read about a romantic relationship but what it feels like to be the object of one. This is why Bella is such a popular character in the Twilight series despite lacking any kind of personality – she’s supposed to be dull so that whoever is reading the book can imagine themselves as the object of obsession for a sexy vampire. Disaster films feature similarly bland characters so that we can more easily insert ourselves into the story and personally experience man’s victory over nature.
Disaster films, like the more violent sections of Romance novels, allow the audience to experience something harrowing and survive, without having to face any actual peril.
Radway J (1984) Reading the Romance
Geertz C (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures