If you were in a part of the country that didn’t lose power after Hurricane Sandy, you were witness to the images of its devastation. Everywhere you’d turn, there was footage of flooded subways, dangling cranes, and a New York bifurcated between light and darkness—images so otherworldly they evoked, for better or worse, scenes out of disaster movies and beyond. A New York City in blackout recalled everything from John Carpenter’s Escape from New York to the cut off Gotham City of The Dark Knight Rises.
The instinct isn’t at all surprising. When devastation exceeds common experience, the only way to communicate the magnitude is to reach into fiction where similar things have already happened. This is our lexicon, and as such it becomes shorthand for describing the world. The trouble is not to confuse the reality with the fiction. The events surrounding Hurricane Sandy are no different.
Hurricane Sandy’s initial claim to fame was its nickname: the Frankenstorm. Pulling from literature (and film), the media created a clever, concise (if imperfect) portmanteau that told you everything you needed to know: the storm was big; the storm was a mixture of disparate weather patterns; the storm was going to perturb some villagers. And perhaps most apt—the storm would be misunderstood, or more precisely: it would be used to mislead.
The internet became a tool for communicating about the storm. It allowed neighbors to share updates. It offered the public a firsthand account of the events before even the media could get to it. It helped coordinate first responders. We were all jacked in, but coming right behind the benefits was misinformation.
One smug tweeter said the NYSE was “flooded under more than 3 feet of water” and “Con Edison has been shutting down ALL power in Manhattan.” There were other tweets, all of which were patently false, but which were retweeted anyway because they were extraordinary, and people were either gullible enough to believe them or, on some level, wanted them to be true.
This occurred on a less despicable scale when the internet began posting stills from Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 (among other disaster films) to make light of the storm. These jokes seemed to come at the expense of the media’s concern over the size and threat of the hurricane. Perhaps it had to do with the hype surrounding Hurricane Irene last year, how everyone was warned that it would be the catastrophic storm, the one that would shut down New York City. But it blew through and while there was definitely damage, it certainly wasn’t as bad as predicted. It certainly wasn’t Sandy bad.
There may have been a feeling, despite evidence to the contrary, that the media was crying wolf again (though there was probably some hubris, too, as there always is). To compensate for the panicky news stories, the internet marched into the frenzy by pushing the anxiety to its logical conclusion: farce. What began as stills from disaster movies became photoshopping Godzilla and the Stay Puft Marshmallow man into shots of the hurricane. Humor helps alleviate anxiety and dispel that nagging fear of our own mortality in the face of possible doom. But it does more than that. The hoaxes, the jokes, even the actual media coverage, all offer insight into our cultural id. And that id is one which lusts for Roland Emmerich-style destruction. The id wants to exist in a world where the extraordinary is common place.
Consider the viral image of the Statue of Liberty in front of the menacing storm cloud. The image was fake. The depicted storm cloud was real—a testament to how sublime weather can be—but it wasn’t Sandy. It was a supercell thunderstorm in Nebraska. But photoshopped into an image of Ellis Island, it immediately recalls Independence Day’s alien warships.
Despite the fact that it was fake, the photo spread all over the internet. Like the aforementioned misleading tweets, the image was extraordinary enough to make the internet want to believe (until it was debunked, of course). The internet wanted to believe that something called a Frankenstorm would look this otherworldly. It had to live up to the hype. Anything less was disappointing. If it surprises us, if it reaches Emmerich-level spectacle, we’re tuning in. When the line between fiction and reality begins to blur, that’s when our attention piques.
As long as we understand it’s entirely fictional, we’ll watch New York get destroyed by aliens or swallowed by ocean time and time again. Take the final battle in The Avengers. The echoes of 9/11 are too many to count, and yet there is a fascination, a glee in having good and evil battle over Manhattan. The difference between the movie and the 9/11 footage rebroadcast every September, I’d venture to guess, is not simply between fiction and reality. No, it’s the film’s immediate payoff. In The Avengers, the good guys win the same day the aliens begin invading, whereas we had to wait ten years before we got Osama. (December will premier Zero Dark Thirty, a film about the search for bin Laden, which takes that decade and truncates it into three acts. How’s that for instant gratification?)
This fascination extends beyond the disaster film all the way to the apocalyptic narrative, which is really a disaster movie on a global scale. They’re both stories concerned with survival, whether it’s a shipwreck or a zombie outbreak. And make no mistake about it, reactions to Hurricane Sandy (like the other major storms before it) veered into the apocalyptic.
Nuts on the internet called the storm God’s punishment. Its apparent raison d’être: Wipe the liberals off the map for their homosexual healthcare agenda. Or, if you’re another kind of nut, you thought Sandy was devious misdirection created by the Obama campaign to distract/delay the election. Either way, the storm was framed in a radical end of the world narrative—either apocalyptic or dystopian.
These are familiar stories. They’re human stories. We’ve been telling them for millennia. Look to television and you’ll be inundated with scenes of the world either in shambles or completely corrupt or both. The Walking Dead provides us with another iteration of that fashionable zombie apocalypse. Revolution gave us a televised blackout weeks before Sandy. But without a smart, organized government response, the show’s cataclysm resulted in a pre-modern world of warlords, swords, and crossbows. On the dystopian side, Fringe this season takes us into a future where man is ruled by superhuman overlords.
Don’t think it’s only J.J. Abrams who has a fascination with the end times. Our literature and films, too, reach for an uncertain future. See: World War Z. See: The Hunger Games. See: Looper. While the latter two narratives ostensibly oppose one another (no government vs. total government), at the center of each is essentially the same premise: A scrappy team of survivors must face and overcome impossible odds. There are people who truly believe we live in a world on the verge of collapse. Look at Doomsday Preppers. Look at the people hoarding guns out of fear of the government (again).
But what to make of this pessimism? Are we doomed to a future where we’re either under the boot of an oppressive government or forced to survive, ragtag style? These are extreme scenarios, sure, but they’re digging at a deeply American narrative—hell, they’re variations on the American narrative. What was the American Revolution if not an assortment of plucky warriors struggling against tyranny? And what of that other cultural touchstone, the Wild West? A seemingly lawless land where men must survive by wits and six shooters alone. If you’ve been watching Revolution, you couldn’t have missed all the revolvers, the duels, the brothels, the train heist.
What’s interesting is that in many of these narratives, the characters are not only fighting to survive, they’re fighting to return to our status quo—the freedom fighters on Revolution have taken the American flag as a symbol of rebellion; their ultimate goal is to reinstate the United States of America and turn the power back on. These stories arrive with an implicit nostalgia for the world they’ve lost—ultimately the world we’re living in right now, which actually means that while we enjoy watching the world fall apart, we’re really in the business of preserving it. If that is the case, then we have to be proactive. We can’t treat events like Sandy as if they’re another disaster film we can forget once the news finds something more salacious.
If Sandy has done anything, it has opened up the discussion surrounding climate change and shown the benefits of a competent federal government. So Sandy was not the end times. It wasn’t a divine reckoning, nor was it a nefarious plot by the Obama Administration. To view these events through these lenses threatens to stop any worthwhile discussions. Yes, reality is often duller than our fiction, but no, that’s not a detriment. It means our problems are of this world. They can be solved. Only if we’re ready to face them.