Conspiracy and Disaster in Hollywood

Two genres that have been significant in post-war Hollywood cinema are the conspiracy movie and the disaster film. With the end of World War II in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the nuclear arms race that followed, and the paranoia of the Cold War, it is conspiracy and disaster movies that have voiced America’s deepest fears about its relationship to the rest of the world on the one hand, and the struggle to define what is American and what is un-American at home.

From the point of view of someone interested in how cinema deals with these types of questions these genres are interesting because of the way they occur together and interact. Both genres deal with fundamentally the same problem: that our deepest fears may be realised – that the world is coming to an end and that the person we share our life is not who we think they are. Both these genres deal with anxiety, the prolonged, persistent, irrational belief that something (although we may not know what) is going to happen.

By conspiracy movie I mean a film in which there is some paranoid element that leads us to conclude that the world as we experience it is not the world as it is – films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1954), Seven Days in May (1964), The Parallax View (1974), or Shadow Conspiracy (1997) are good examples of how people are not what they seem, that the US government is ruled by the military, or that through mind control can be used to turn individuals into assassins. Timothy Melley refers to this pervasive strain in American popular culture ‘agency panic:’

An intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy or self-control – the conviction that one’s actions are being controlled by someone else, that one has been ‘constructed’ by powerful agents (2001: 62).

Agency panic provides a model of conspiracy in American culture based around a notion of diminished human agency in which the individual is subject to a broad array of social controls (the conspiracy). Conspiracy theory, in Melley’s view is a defence of the integrity of the self in the face of anxiety about the nature of individual action. As I have discussed elsewhere, the conspiracy movie is characterised by the emotional response of anxiety. Agency panic from The Hidden Persuaders, to the Unabomber’s manifesto, and to Invasion of the Body Snatchers is such an emotional response.

Disaster movies are harder to define as the cause of the disaster may vary considerably, but are characteristic by a certain scale of their events – disasters should be big, especially in Hollywood – or by their magnified impact on a small but largely self-contained social group (i.e. Jurassic Park (1993), Airport ’77 (1977)). Global Pandemics (Panic in the Streets (1950), Outbreak (1997)), geological disaster (Earthquake (1974), Volcano (1997)), or the complete and utter destruction of the Earth (Armageddon (1997)) are all recurrent topics. There is also a sub-genre of films in which mass transit systems are out to get Americans – having watched films such as Airport (1970), Speed (1994), or even Titanic (1997) is it any wonder that investment in US public transport is lacking and that that car is supreme?

Like conspiracy films, disaster movies put the viewer in the position of being unable to control a situation: earthquakes, swarms of killer bees, meteors cannot be reasoned with. Something terrible will happen and we will not be able to control it. The potentiality of the disaster is the terrible thing – it is this that produces in the viewer a sense of anxiety.

Disaster movies are an essentially earthbound form: they operate, almost by definition, within the realm of the possible. People must believe ‘it’ could – indeed, very well might – happen to them (Roddick 1980: 246).

There is an initial loss of agency in the disaster movie leading to panic – but, and this is where the genre diverges from the conspiracy film, that loss of agency can ultimately be recovered. The world may never be the same again but human beings survive. We will be able to land the plane safely, the meteor will be destroyed (at the cost of Bruce Willis), the aliens will be defeated by a computer virus (which in no way plagiarises The War of the Worlds)  – there will be a plan and that plan will lead to the continuation of the human race.

There are also some films that involve both conspiracies and disasters: Deep Impact (1997), for example, starts off with a journalist trying to uncover what she thinks is a conspiracy but in fact uncovers a disaster (a meteor heading for earth); while in The China Syndrome (1979) California is a risk because of cover-up at a nuclear power plant.

To chart the changing impact of the conspiracy film and the disaster movie I have searched books, databases and the internet to find Hollywood’s output since the end of World War II and have come up with two samples on which I am going to base my analysis of anxiety in Hollywood cinema. I have identified some 93 conspiracy films and 102 disaster movies produced in Hollywood from 1947 to 2006 inclusive (not including TV movies, straight-to-video), and plotting the number of these types of films released by 5 year periods we can see some clear trends (Figure 1). Obviously, cycles of films do not fit neatly into five year periods, and this data set will continue to grow as I carry on the research but it is a useful guide.


FIGURE 1 Hollywood conspiracy and disaster films released from 1947 to 2006

Figure 1 shows that:

  • There have been three major cycles of conspiracy movies: the ‘red scare movies’ of the early Cold War (1947-1959, 30 films); the New Hollywood films, in which the individual is threatened by state institutions (1965-1979, 25 films); and from 1990 to 2006, which includes the nostalgia/history films of the 1990s (e.g. JFK (1991)), bog-standard conspiracy genre-fare (e.g. Shadow Conspiracy), and new millennium films that deal primarily with the problematic nature of memory (Paycheck (2003)), identity and agency (The Bourne Identity (2002)), and reality (The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003).
  • Although the conspiracy film never disappears, it does drop off markedly in the early 1960s (8 films) and the 1980s (7 films).
  • The disaster movie is more of a constant feature of post-war Hollywood cinema, and does not have such large swings in popularity as the conspiracy film. Nonetheless, there are clusters of disaster movies – in the 1950s and 1960s there are 15 and 14 films, respectively; in the 1970s this increases to 28 films; there are 13 films in the 1980s (almost all of which are released in the first half of the decade); before another increase in the 1990s to 24 films (of which 18 come in the second half of the decade); and 8 in the 2000s, with 7 released from 2000-2004.
  • The peak years for disaster movies are 1979 (7 films) and 1997 (8 films).
  • Of 102 disaster movies, the disasters are: alien invasion (5 films), disease (10 films), man-made disasters (i.e. fire) (5 films), natural disasters (35 films), nuclear disasters (11 films), and disasters involving some form of transport (36 films).
  • Of the 35 natural disaster films 3 involve avalanches, 9 involve some type of fauna (including bees (The Swarm (1978) and dinosaurs (Jurassic Park (1993))), 13 are geological (i.e. volcanoes, earthquakes), 5 involve meteors, and 5 involve some form of extreme weather event from tornadoes to hurricanes to global warming.
  • Of the 36 transport disaster films 2 involve buses, 10 involve boats, and 24 feature aircraft disasters.

In summary, the genres of the conspiracy film and the disaster movie a born in the early years of the Cold War and their fortunes broadly coincide as their popularity waxes and wanes – particularly in the 1970s and 1990s. That they should occur together is, I think, due to the shared basis in exploring the our anxiety about the nature of the world and the potential for action in the face of events that exceed our control.


Timothy Melley, ‘Agency Panic and the Culture of Conspiracy,’ in Peter Knight (ed.) Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Post-war America. New York and London: New York University Press, 2001: 57-81.

Nick Roddick, ‘Only the Stars Survive: Disaster Movies in the Seventies,’ in D. Brady (ed.) Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film, and television 1800-1976. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980: 243-269.

About Nick Redfern

I am an independent academic with over 15 years experience teaching film in higher education in the UK. I have taught film analysis, film industries, film theories, film history, science fiction at Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Central Lancashire, and Leeds Trinity University, where I was programme leader for film from 2016 to 2020. My research interests include computational film analysis, horror cinema, sound design, science fiction, film trailers, British cinema, and regional film cultures.

Posted on October 22, 2009, in Anxiety, Cold War, Conspiracy Movies, Disaster Movies, Emotion, Film Studies, Hollywood, Paranoia and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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