Small-Town America in Disaster Films

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, America was battered and embattled: we went to war, we experienced terrorist attacks and biological warfare, we endured hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes, and we lost everything in a recession and subsequent stock market crash. National paranoia rose as we clung to the things that seemed quintessentially American: mom-and-pop shops, true grit, and apple pie. And so a culture war between the liberal big cities and conservative small towns was born. This tension was reflected in our pop culture, especially science fiction, and as always, the genre perfectly captured the struggles of our ever-growing nation.

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Arachnophobia (1990, dir. Frank Marshall)

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The Mist (2007, dir. Frank Darabont)

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Outbreak (1995, dir. Wolfgang Petersen)

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Signs (2002, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

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Tremors (1990, dir. Ron Underwood)

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Twister (1996, dir. Jan de Bont)

The residents of these small towns all have to overcome some external force that threatens their independence or stokes their fears, and they do so by cultivating friendships, inventing devices or weapons to protect themselves, and relying upon their faith and love. Frequently, the military and the government are the antagonists, while scientists and doctors are the protagonists who need to prove themselves to — and occasionally fall in love with — the small-town heroes. These films ultimately portray Small Town, USA as the bedrock of American resourcefulness and family connectedness.

Rachel Wayne earned her master’s in anthropology and film studies from the University of Florida. She’s particularly fascinated by science fiction and its role in popular culture and literature.

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