Sharing a similar aesthetic, the line between horror films and disaster films has always been hard to pinpoint. From creepy sound effects to graphic violence to a cultivated atmosphere of menace, the characteristics of horror films and disaster films overlap in a very organic way. I’ve been interested in thinking about whether these two genres are distinctly different, or if it benefits us to think of them as similar.
I’m often surprised at how overlooked these movies are by horror film buffs. But with Hollywood attempting to resurrect the genre (World War Z, Olympus Has Fallen), I think it’s worth a look at whether some of the films that created the blueprint for the modern disaster film are also intimately connected to the horror genre. And while disaster films, much like horror, are designed to reflect the times in which they are made, the elements employed by both are startlingly similar.
The 1970s, often called the “The Golden Age” of disaster films, saw the release of several high profile gems in which a cast of B-list actors attempted to survive calamities, both environmental and man made. Often these films told multiple stories as a means of having the audience invest in the characters individually rather than as a whole group. As a result of this tactic, the inevitable deaths packed more of an emotional punch.
Like horror, disaster films are designed to generate a type of physiological arousal. Events occur that prompt an adrenaline rush in viewers, as well as a consideration of what you would do if placed in a similar predicament. Is there really much difference between Lorrie’s (The Towering Inferno, 1974) desperate bid to survive rapidly spreading flames and Amanda (Friday the 13th, 2009) frantically trying to escape being cooked alive over an open fire? In both cases, the audience is responding to the innate horror of being burned alive. Each film utilizes scenes that are constructed so as increasingly to elevate the viewer’s sense of discomfort. As each character becomes more and more frantic, the audience experiences a rising sense of panic that is similar in both scenarios.
Granted, how each character is placed in her predicament varies significantly. While Lorrie is the victim of a fire that occurs because of one man’s desire to cut corners and save money, Amanda finds herself the victim of a murderer whose intention is solely to kill her. This, of course, leads to a consideration of what role intent plays in distinguishing horror films from disaster films. Certainly the distinction between a series of events that occur due to the machinations of a human killer and events that occur as a result of a person’s irresponsibility is marked. But does the difference truly separate horror films from disaster films? I would argue that it does not. For characters placed in terrifying situations, intent is of little consequence because all their efforts are focused on survival. And because viewers derive their emotional cues from the experiences of the characters, intent becomes more of an intellectual issue than it does an emotional one and so doesn’t alter significantly the experience of spectatorship.
Proponents of keeping these two genres distinct from one another point to disaster films as having a rational explanation, while horror films stem from a supernatural explanation. Certainly the disaster films made in the 1970s support this contention. Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Earthquake (1974) are all clear examples of disaster films predicated on terrifying calamities situated in realistic and mundane activities. In Airport, passengers on a plane face threats from both the environmental world in the form of a snowstorm and the human world when it is revealed that there is a terrorist plot afoot. Similarly, The Poseidon Adventure follows a group of passengers who struggle to stay alive when calamitous ocean waves overturn the ship. In both of these films, the terror is derived from the natural world and has a very clear explanation.
And yet, horror of this same period often dealt with the dangers that lurked on the home front and were not at all situated in the supernatural. The Last House on the Left (1972), When a Stranger Calls (1979) and Long Weekend (1978) are clear examples of horror films that had at their core terror predicated upon either human perversion or environmental backlash. So if elements of the supernatural need not be present is there truly a clear line between horror and disaster films?
It is often suggested that horror contains elements designed to elicit repulsion in an audience, whereas disaster films do not. And while that may have been largely true in early disaster films, it wasn’t always the case. Consider the scene from the disaster film The Swarm (1978) in which a man suffers a violent and brutal death courtesy of a hive of bees. In both intent and framing, it is startlingly similar to the scene in horror’s Candyman (1992) in which the titular character is murdered. So perhaps it is not repulsion alone that distinguishes horror from disaster. Instead, it may come down to scenes of explicit gore. To my knowledge, I can think of no disaster films that show explicit bodily carnage or blood. While many suggest it, the visuals are lacking. Complicating the discussion, of course, is that not all horror films are explicitly gory. Films such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Ring (2002), and The Orphanage (2007) are all examples of films classified as horror, which are gore free.