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.

Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) leaves the big city for private practice in a rural California town, Canaima. Unfortunately for him and his crippling arachnophobia, the town is also where the body of an ill-fated photographer was sent home, and his killer, a deadly spider, hitched a ride in the coffin. Arachnophobia isn’t just a creature feature, though — it’s a portrait of small-town paranoia and distrust of outsiders, perfectly symbolized by the South American spiders who conveniently strike in a pattern that mirrors local politics.

Nothing like an interdimensional tear to ruin your weekend. The Mist follows the trials of a group of people trapped in a supermarket by a blinding mist full of killer creatures. In classic chamber-film style, hidden secrets, veiled bigotry, and paranoia all come to the surface as the townspeople struggle to deal with the monsters outside — and among them. Like other films on this list, the military is portrayed as the villain threatening idyllic small-town America with those dastardly experiments, and yet the religious conservatism of small-town America is also satirized as a cult leader (Marcia Gay Harden) emerges from among the chaos.

No outbreak film better captures the tension between small-town America and the military-industrial complex than Outbreak, which places the fictional town of Cedar Creek, California in the crosshairs of a battle between scientists trying to stop an outbreak and the military officials in search of a biological weapon. Although the residents of the town are relegated to small roles, the town itself is considered disposable, and it’s up to the hero-scientist archetype, portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, to defeat the villain-military archetype and spare the town.

In a welcome departure from epic-level invasion films a la Independence Day, Signs confines itself to the perspective of a single family as aliens arrive and begin terrorizing America. In addition to being a highly symbolic, affecting chamber drama, Signs uses the shape of small-town America to drive its narrative, which focuses on the fallout of a fatal drunk-driving accident in a rural Pennsylvanian community where everyone knows each other. The aliens are merely a backdrop to this portrait of grief and faith.

The smaller the town, the bigger the guns — and that’s a good thing when giant groundworms begin snacking on the residents of Perfection, Nevada. Tremors is distinct from the other films on this list in that its heroes aren’t solely benevolent scientists, doctors, or men of the cloth. Although geologist Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter) helps save the day, it’s local handymen, appropriately named Val and Earl (Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward), who become the small-town heroes symbolizing American values of resourcefulness and grit. In later films in the franchise, government agents and scientists are the foolish antagonists trying to save the creatures, while the residents of Perfection are the quick-witted purveyors of common sense — and most importantly, big guns.

Twister takes its storm-chaser protagonists throughout the Tornado Alley in Oklahoma, but centers a lot of its character dynamics in Wakita, which, unlike the other towns on this list, actually exists. The film was partly filmed in Wakita, which gives it an authentic feel, and supporting characters Dusty and Rabbit (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Alan Ruck) add small-town comedic relief to an otherwise serious natural-disaster film. Twister makes reference to The Wizard of Oz throughout the film, from the DOROTHY device used to analyze the tornado to the use of the term “twister” to its fond portrayal of rural America as a charming place plagued by extreme weather.

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.

If you enjoyed this essay, check out some of my other film writings:

Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP

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