Fifties Hysteria Returns: Doomsday Prepping in a Culture of Fear, Death, and Automatic Weapons
By Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.
“Consider Your Man Card Reissued”
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I write this as I watch in sadness, surrounded by a bank of televisions at the gym, all conveying images of the “theatre” of war that is now America at Christmas in 2012. The slaying of school children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, a town where my husband spent his holidays at his aunt’s home, is the logical end result of a culture of death, a culture of prepping, and a culture of the military-industrial complex which ultimately renders all places in the United States, all spaces, especially crowded spaces, such as malls, churches, schools, and workplaces as potential killing “theatres” just as volatile as those killing theatres of mass slaughter whose images have almost become mundane and seem unmoving to many Americans – Pakistan, Afghanistan, My Lai, Chile, Vietnam, neighborhoods in Africa and Latin America, Muslim lands, Mexico; so many killing fields. We are accustomed as Americans to think of the “military-industrial complex” as something to fear outside of our borders, and an incoming threat. When we think of “theatres” of war, we pull up images of slaughter and killing outside of America.
But America is a theatre of war, Americans are armed, prepped and in an apocalyptic mindset that is heavily informed by a return of the kind of irrational hysteria and paranoia we associate with the Cold War and the nineteen-fifties. On leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a very famous and oft-quoted speech condemning the rise of the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower specified that Americans “must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.” Though he no doubt was referring to the escalation of government funding for armaments, the military, and weapons of mass destruction, he would be appalled by the manner in which individual Americans have begun selfishly destroying the environment as they individually prepare for war.
A culture of hoarding and prepping, one that is directly responsible for the recent events in Newtown, Connecticut, is, arguably, itself a direct outgrowth of the complex ideology that supported the rise of the military-industrial complex. Americans, once predominately fearing the Other outside its borders, are now seemingly preparing for a civil war on US soil, brought on by doomsday scenarios such as economic collapse, environmental apocalypse, or social breakdown. America is armed and dangerous and lacking in empathy. There are an estimated 270,000,000 guns owned by civilians in the US alone; in a comparison of privately owned guns in 178 countries, the United States comes in at first place. It is only a matter of time before there are more guns than people (GunPolicy.org 2012).
America is a military industrial complex and psychologically, Americans appear to have a mass disorder caused by this complex. You can see it not only in our outrageously large arsenal and war chest; you can see it on the eyes of the preppers, and preppers are no longer outsiders. They are becoming the norm. The obsession with guns in the United States is seen in film, pop culture, games, etc.; but also in-home arsenals increasing in size at an alarming intensity. Many American citizens obviously feel powerless in the face of the recession and they cling to guns in an effort to find a masculine patriarchal feeling of faux safety found in the fetishistic pleasure of the feel of an instrument of death. Americans are ill and would seem to need an intervention.
Eisenhower further warned that America “must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate,” yet clearly this is the America that has arisen from the Cold War, a war that never fully ended. It is a terrific shame that our government and our leaders paid so little attention to Eisenhower’s plea for disarmament; instead, we are a nation feared and mistrusted. Go to any country around the world and ask people what they think of Americans. They are afraid of us. We send secret drone missions to kill people without taking responsibility; we start and perpetuate wars without the support of the American people, with little legal grounds; we hold human beings without legal grounds, we make films that celebrate our supposed military superiority. We torture, even though torture does not solve terrorism against us or yield any information from those we torture; we even celebrate images of torture in our feature films, in our television programs, and in our video games. We export our culture of death, torture and guns, and yet we are much surprised that the chickens eventually return home to roost.
Almost every TV commentator who endlessly poked at the remains of the horrific spectacle of the elementary school killings in Newtown had the audacity to call the mass murder a “senseless” and heinous crime. Heinous, yes. Senseless, no. This crime makes sense to me. Allegedly (and it should be stated that the facts in the case are still unreliable; coverage has been much more hysterical than factual) a mother, herself a prepper, a gun enthusiast, apparently regularly took her son, a mentally challenged, if intellectually bright, young man to target practice. This young man, it has also been reported widely, perhaps suffered from Asperger syndrome, which, most authorities agree, may include a symptomatic lack of empathy for others. This young man was doing exactly what he was taught to do, it seems to me; shoot a gun to relieve his stress. This was not a “senseless” crime, in my opinion. The shooter simply did as he was taught.
As to the question of his lack of empathy for others, I will leave that up to those trained in psychology to hash out. I do, however, wish to note that in the wake of the murders, the emphasis turned to a decidedly morbid display of the photographs of the deceased children, running it seems 24/7 on TV, the web and everywhere with no regard for their privacy or the privacy of the citizens of Newtown, especially the parents and family of the victims. While the Belfast Telegraph ran an informative and investigative article aptly titled “Mother of Sandy Hook Gunman Adam Lanza ‘Was a Gun Obsessive Living in Fear of Society’s Collapse’,” almost entirely missing in most coverage in the United States was the fact that the mother was a gun enthusiast and doomsday prepper. With a few exceptions, the media in the United States is as careful to tiptoe around the mental illness of the shooter as it is wary of critiquing the culture of guns. Even in the wake of the shootings, in the endless discussion of gun control, there is a noticeable lack of specific discussion of preppers and prepper culture. Only The New York Post, of all newspapers, got it right, when they wrote in an article on the tragedy that “she created a monster,” a reference to the shooter’s mother, adding that she methodically “taught her son how to become a killing machine” (Rosario, Oliveira Jr. and MacLeod 2012).
Perhaps this disparity in coverage can be partially explained by a general fear of offending the gun lobby, a small, but well-armed and moneyed group, lack of recognition of the rise of prepper culture, and fear of offending groups that defend the rights of the mentally ill. Either way, our myriad televisual platforms rapidly gave way to the ghoulish and outrageous omnipresence of Wayne La Pierre, the head of the NRA, who seemed to be on every network for weeks advocating the arming of teachers and schools. Yes, the child victims were not yet even buried as the head of the gun lobby appeared on so many programs defending the right to own assault weapons and pushing to sell yet more weapons. This is what I’d call “senseless,” and completely lacking in empathy. And as senseless and vile this spectacle is gun stores now cannot keep up with the demand for assault weapons and gun magazines. In the wake of the tragedy, the fear of gun control legislation has led many to purchase even more guns, specifically the type used by mass shooters: essentially machine guns. We have officially become the “community of dreadful fear and hate” of which Eisenhower warned.
But fear, hate, paranoia, bunker-building, and prepping were all part of the atomic meta-narrative of the Cold War era, apparently a dress rehearsal for the events that horrify us on the news today; mass shootings abound, and empathy for others is distinctly lacking. Beneath the fear of the Other in the Cold War was the fear of ourselves. Subversives in popular film and popular culture were Others; godless Commies, Jews, intellectuals, union members, homosexuals, juvenile delinquents, even the monsters in horror and sci-fi represented our fear of that projected Other whom ultimately turned out to be our armed-up selves – as the end result of a culture hell-bent on gunning up, both at home and as a giant lucrative military-industrial complex.
This phenomenon arose out of a so-called crisis of masculinity experienced by the collective unconscious. America felt threatened and emasculated and looked for ways to prove that it was still the strong and mighty nation that had just come through WWII. America feels threatened again today as we lose ground in the economic arena, we are psychologically and fiscally emasculated by China, among other things. Beneath the bravado in our macho action films, it appears that we fear that American bullying, aggression and masculinity is not up to the challenge of global warming or any of the myriad possible causes of the supposed coming doomsday or apocalypse.
A brief history of Atom Age hysteria films of the Cold War makes evident the through-line to prepping as a form of overcompensation around the fear of emasculation of the nation, from films such as Alfred E. Green’s Invasion, U.S.A. (1952) to more recent television programs such as Doomsday Preppers. Invasion U.S.A. is a prime example of a fascinating, almost forgotten genre of post-war red scare films that traded on American fear and hysteria in the Cold War era. It typifies the post-war captivity narratives in which Americans are subject to wholesale Communist takeovers in what amounts to a repetitive psychologically driven compulsive mass hysteria.
While trading upon the crisis of masculinity, the film poster for Invasion U.S.A. promised the exploitational kicks Americans love to devour in their filmed nightmares: “See vast U.S. cities vanish before your very eyes.” Indeed, in a morally objectionable use of stock footage, audiences of the film were barraged with actual documentary war images from World War II; actual air raids, on camera deaths of American soldiers and images of endless destruction and mayhem were disturbingly exploited as stand-ins to portray a massive Communist military invasion of the United States. Invasion U.S.A. is an outright plea for massive spending and expansion of the American military. Repeatedly, the United States is dishonestly depicted as militarily emasculated, ill equipped, and poorly prepared.
Like Red Nightmare (George Waggner, 1962), Invasion U.S.A. is revealed to be a hypnotic dream, or a nightmare that is incurred by the brandy-swirling Dan O’Herlihy, who hypnotizes a bar full of patrons into believing that America has been taken over by an unnamed Communist nation. Red Nightmare and Invasion, U.S.A. were designed to both exploit hysteria and add even more irrational fear to an already frightened nation experiencing a crisis of masculinity. “It will scare the pants off you,” wrote Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper for the poster of Invasion, U.S.A. Jack Webb, an ultra rightwing bully, and star of the radio and television series Dragnet, really scares the pants off the audience as the narrator of Red Nightmare. This “educational” film features Jack Webb presenting a vision of an alternative America, a dream scenario proudly sponsored by the United States Department of Defense, in which average American Jerry Donavan (Jack Kelly), who is not much interested in civil defense, much less Army Reserve Conferences, gets his just comeuppance in the form of a nightmare sent by macho Jack Webb.
“Let’s give him a real red nightmare,” threatens Webb, and indeed Jerry’s character awakens to a frightening captivity narrative – once again, the United States has been taken over by Communist forces. Jerry’s daughter Linda (Patricia Woodell), formerly sweet, feminine, and docile, announces she is going off to work on a collective. The nuclear family falls apart completely; Jerry’s wife and friends turn against him when Jerry is arrested for treason and he has no one to turn to. He is the emasculated American male brought to his knees by Communist enemies from within.
Paranoid enough for you? Yet ironically, Jerry’s trial, in which he is falsely accused of treason and undone by his own family’s testimony, looks very much like a microcosmic version of the HUAC hearings that were equally unfair and horrifyingly real. American popular culture has an odd way of psychologically projecting reality on the Other: the parallels between the HUAC hearings and the perils of Jerry Donavan under Communist fascism in Red Nightmare exemplify a return of the repressed. Over and over in Cold War hysteria films, we see such exemplifications of historical truth projected through a twisted prism lens of paranoia where topsy-turvy logic and unreason predominate over rationality, all with the intent to exploit, entertain, and ultimately make Americans hardwired for prepping, hardwired for mass hysteria and conformity, and xenophobic to the point at which they wonder if they themselves are the perp, the shooter, the saboteur, the threatening Other.
Americans are obsessed with terrorism, and we have systematically terrorized ourselves with Cold War propaganda techniques that portray Americans as possible terrorists, or, worse than that, dupes. For example, hardworking union dockworker Robert Ryan is duped by sexy Commie agent Janis Carter in Robert Stevenson’s infamous domestic terrorist drama, I Married a Communist (1949). Produced by Howard Hughes, who backed many Red hysteria films, I Married a Communist (later retitled The Woman on Pier 13) demonstrates that you can be a subversive and not even really know it. Ryan plays Brad Collins, a man who has changed his name because of a youthful interest in Communism. He has all but erased and forgotten his past, and married a sweet submissive woman named Nan (Laraine Day), only to be dragged back into the “Pinko” world when (blonde = bad girl) former gal pal Commie cell member Christine Norman (Janis Carter) uses her overripe sexuality and feminine wiles to seduce him back into the Commie fold.
After all, a manly man can’t trust himself around a woman with a secret photo lab hidden in her kitchen, the very womb of femininity in the architecture of the private sphere of the 50s. As if women were more naturally fit to be subversive, the poster boldly announces: “Trained in an art as old as time! She served a mob of terror whose one mission is to destroy!” Family members are suspect, even you yourself: audience member, you, too, are suspect! In Leo McCarey’s My Son John (1952), poor Lucille and Dan Jefferson (Helen Hayes and Dean Jagger) learn that their own son John (Robert Walker) is a Commie subversive. He is not masculine and overtly heterosexual like his brothers. He’s an intellectual who has lost belief in God, he’s heavily coded as queer, and presents a stark contrast to his two very heterosexual, anti-intellectual brothers, who early in the film don military uniforms and go off to fight in the Korean War. Your son is a threat in the fifties; he’s a potential terrorist now. The terms have changed but the enemy comes from within. We all feel that way every time we go through airport security.
This message is consistent and recurring in films and behavior spawned from Cold War hysteria. John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) features Commie mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury); so evil is she that she has incestuous feelings for her own son, Raymond (Laurence Harvey), a Korean War vet who has been programmed to kill without any empathy. The threat of brainwashing was so prevalent during the Korean War that many vets were thanked for their duty on returning to the States by being accused of being brainwashed by the Communists. But The Manchurian Candidate exposed and projected our own xenophobic-inspired fears. The hysteria of the fifties eventually gave way somewhat with the social upheavals of the sixties. Young Americans began to question authority, question gender roles, question cultural brainwashing and even confront it. Masculinity and the threat of the Other is not so simple in James Bond films, starting with Terence Young’s Dr. No (1962), and the later spy spoof films Our Man Flint (Delbert Mann, 1966) and In Like Flint (Gordon Douglas, 1967). Films that outright challenged cold war hysteria such as The Front found success when Americans more widely continued to question Cold War events and began to embrace outsider culture, beat culture, and antiestablishment ideas, culminating in the antiwar movement against US involvement in Vietnam, and the slow but eventual changes in gender roles in America.
But in the Cold War 1950s, young viewers were perhaps fatigued by fear-mongering exploitational vehicles such as William Cameron Menzies’ The Whip Hand (1951), in which bumbling newspaperman Matt Corbin (Elliot Reid) stumbles upon a Commie lab run by Dr. Wilhelm Bucholtz (Otto Waldis), which is involved in germ warfare experimentation on humans. Produced once again by Howard Hughes, The Whip Hand was originally intended to exploit the Nazi as the bad Other, but Hughes and Menzies quickly rewrote the Nazis as Commies when that theme became more topical. Again, projection of a deep fear of the development of chemical warfare in American wartime history becomes clear in looking at The Whip Hand in retrospect. A revealing New Yorker essay, “Operation Delirium” by Raffi Khatchadourian (2012), uncovers the ghastly true story that American doctors were experimenting on members of the armed forces during this time period, from the forties until the seventies. We “tested” (read “inflicted”) nerve gas, LSD, BZ, and a host of other chemical warfare agents on our own soldiers in a nonfictional story that is far more disturbing than the events shown in The Whip Hand.
Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990) is a little known film that attempts to portray this truly frightening experimentation. Though it has developed a cult following over the years, thanks in part to Tim Robbins’ performance in the leading role, it remains on the fringes of mainstream cinema history. But it is fascinating that a Cold War hysteria film such as The Whip Hand skirts ever so closely with events that went on in real life. Americans revealed themselves to be deadly to other Americans, but in the movie-mad psychological projection of the returned-repressed, it is Germanic Soviets such as Steve Loomis (Raymond Burr) and Dr. Bucholtz who are the feared Other. Teenagers must have been quite tired of being told to be afraid. Everywhere they looked in pop culture they saw aliens on the attack. Giant ants, body snatchers, pod-people, killer Martians as in Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds (1953) were joined by juveniles as the Other in films such as Gene Fowler Jr.’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Herbert L. Strock’s I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (both 1957), to say nothing of Tom Graeff’s Teenagers From Outer Space (1959), which promised audiences “thrill-crazed space kids blasting the flesh off humans!”
Teenagers joined the ranks as outsiders to be destroyed in many films of the Cold War era including Harry Keller’s less well-known The Unguarded Moment (1956) in which John Saxon plays a teen rapist. His schoolteacher Esther Williams tries to treat him with kindness and empathy, but she is demonstrably depicted as a left-leaning educator, who stupidly relies on words rather than guns. Apparently empathy is a bad thing in American culture. In the end only masculine patriarchal intervention saves her. Women exist in films of the fifties to be saved by men, to be available to men for sex, and to be protected as property; they are props to counterbalance the mass hysteria of the crisis in masculinity of the period.
Not only were young Americans (particularly male teens) portrayed as sinister and dangerous to the American way of life, but at school they were bombarded, literally assaulted, with images and texts that spelled out the “incontrovertible eventuality of atomic war – and with it the end of civilization” (Scheibach 2003: 105). For anyone unfamiliar with the scare tactics that were used in classrooms in America during the Cold War, the fascinating Atomic Narratives and American Youth: Coming of Age with the Atom, 1945-1955, by Michael Scheibach is a must-read. In between after-school films such as Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), high school students in the postwar era were subjects to almost terroristic daily indoctrination in American classrooms. The message was clear, atomic war was inevitable, the United States was overrun with Communist infiltrators, and it is the responsibility of youth to fix the Cold War realities somehow by obeying authority, or joining groups such as the Good Citizens.
Every day at school, students were not only told to be vigilant and look out for any informants or subversives, but they were continually reminded that the H bomb put them in mortal danger. Girls Scouts were trained in civil defense and taught to detect radioactivity. Students routinely watched “instructional” films such as Atomic Alert and Making Atomic Energy a Blessing, in a way making them prime candidates for prepping. At school, “Loyalty Day” was a popular school project and assembly used to discuss the importance of loyalty and vigilance. It was only a few steps shy from mind-controlling indoctrination.
One particular story that Scheibach includes demonstrates just how casually Americans inculcate fear and mass hysteria, especially in American children. In 1953, at North Hampton High School in Pennsylvania, during a presentation of the student council a fake Communist takeover was performed on the unsuspecting students. As Scheibach notes, “the doors suddenly burst open. A man clad in an army sergeant’s uniform, and safeguarded by a police officer, rushed the stage. ‘At one o’clock today the United States government as such no longer exists’” (78). The classroom was told that the Nationalists Party had taken over, and that resistance was futile. Real guns were used and displayed. Armed officers threatened the students and “arrested” a teacher who “objected,” “leaving students startled and even more confused. They sat white-faced with fear, some holding back tears” (79).
Eventually, students were told the truth, but this classroom “activity” was obviously orchestrated as an act of terrorism – American adults terrorizing American children. America as a whole was hysterical, terrorized and building bunkers, just as we are today. In early 2012, Doomsday Preppers, a wildly popular “reality” television program, began appearing on the National Geographic channel. Television may not just inform and exploit, it also tends to “mainstream” certain behaviors, such as prepping (which was once considered rather fringy and non-mainstream). Doomsday Preppers cultivates and affirms the values of doomsday preppers, their belief system, their values, their selfish hoarding, and perhaps most importantly, their gun worship. The show has a decided return to Cold War values. Gender roles have reverted to those of the past. Most often the man of the family is the head of the prepping operation. In most cases the wives and children seem to gamely go along with his mad plans for surviving the end of days. Guns rule. The nuclear family has notably returned to the past, with women relegated to gathering and canning food, and men arming the home and preparing for the eventual arrival of the war-like conditions. Men are in charge in prepper families. Indeed, often children and wives giggle and tell the camera in asides that they are only going along with all this prepping to keep the man of the house happy.
Keith O’Brien, writing in The New York Times Magazine, articulates how doomsday prepping has gone from being seen as an outsider “gun nut” culture to a more mainstream and consumable culture in his essay “How to Survive Societal Collapse in Suburbia” (2012). O’Brien demonstrates that the mercantile aspects of the survivalist industry resulted in the mainstreaming of prepping so that much more prepping merchandise can be sold. Prepping has become basic and mainstream, even preppy. There is a tremendous amount of money to be made from prepping. Being prepared for the end of the world is pretty expensive. Hysteria and alarmist ideas are utterly mainstreamed to the point where the expression “the end of the world as we know it” has an acronym “Teotwawki” (38).
It hardly matters to the merchandisers what Americans are afraid of; Mayan apocalypse, economic meltdown, asteroids, nuclear annihilation, comets, environmental disasters, a worldwide power shortage. Teotwawki sells stuff and the merchandisers care little about politics and reason; they just want you to buy guns and ammo, food prep, and underground living shelters. Indeed, as Keith O’Brien demonstrates, the companies in the business of prepping wish to make “preparedness” so mainstream that it is no longer associated with survivalists or right wing extremist groups. Still, it was the extremists who founded most of the preparedness groups and one can’t ignore that after our first African American was elected president, gun sales went up exponentially. And on Doomsday Preppers, there may be a few hippie types, and a few mainstream middle Americans, but many appear to be dedicated Tea Party enthusiasts.
Watching Doomsday Preppers, one is inclined to notice certain formulaic tropes, including the section when the prepper family patriarch unveils the weapon arsenal. Who are they arming themselves against? Zombies, aliens, the government? No, they are arming themselves against Other Americans. They are armed to the teeth against any intruder, and odds are that any intruder would be another American. In this way, we can see how indeed the military-industrial complex has come home to roost right here in the USA. Preppers are armed against reason, armed against other American civilians. Prepping is demonstrably related to a lack of empathy for others. It is by nature selfish, macho, reclusive and paranoid; the inverse of the hippie commune lifestyle.
Every episode of Doomsday Preppers includes a section in which the preppers brag about the prospect of killing anyone who might come to them for aid or food. Prepping is not about inviting others into the manger. Prepping is selfish, not selfless. Though many of the preppers are self-professed Christians, when it comes to sharing with others or mercy for the poor, starving, or hurt, well, you guessed it… Clearly outsiders are going to be shot first – no questions asked. In some strange way the rise of the prepper makes sense given our roots of paranoia and lack of empathy, indoctrinated so fully during the Cold War and the rise of the military-industrial complex. America is a series of “theatres” of potential wars. It’s also linked to a perceived loss of “masculinity” engendered by the rise of the left, and fear of the Obama administration. We seem to need guns to perform masculinity. This may seem like hyperbole or hysteria, but in the context of our history and our images, it makes a kind of morbid “sense.” In the words of Pogo, the cartoon character created by the late Walt Kelly, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster writes extensively on film and popular culture.
Belfast Telegraph (2012), “Mother of Sandy Hook Gunman Adam Lanza ‘Was a Gun Obsessive Living in Fear of Society’s Collapse’”, December 17.
GunPolicy.org (2012), “United States – Gun Facts, Figures and the Law”. Last updated on 20 December 2012.
Khatchadourian, Raffi (2012), “Operation Delirium”, The New Yorker, December 17.
O’Brien, Keith (2012), “How to Survive Societal Collapse in Suburbia”, The New York Times Magazine, November 16.
Scheibach, Michael (2003), Atomic Narratives and American Youth: Coming of Age with the Atom 1945-1955, Jefferson, NC: McFarland.