Joanna Bourke, a professor of history at Birkbeck College, London, is the author of Fear: A Cultural History. Although she explores several other important aspects of this most basic emotion, Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear concludes its partial review and summary of Bourke’s book with a consideration of her chapter on “Nuclear Threats.”
As Bourke indicates, these threats resulted in a generation of children’ being “raised to fear.” There were the thermonuclear fireball and its resulting widespread, catastrophic physical destruction and the hideous deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of citizens, but there were also the long-term threat of radioactive fallout and lingering death from radiation sickness. Radiation could cause genetic mutations, too, so, if the explosion or radiation sickness didn’t kill one, he or she might undergo grotesque, painful, and eventually lethal mutations, becoming a monster before becoming a corpse.
Also disturbing was the fact that the wholesale slaughter of humanity--or a sizeable portion of the species--was in the hands of a few nations and, within those nations, a few individuals--and not the types of individuals in whom most people had confidence:
With the means of world devastation available to the elite of a few nations, fear became widespread. No longer were humanity’s primary enemies hidden in theIn fact, “fears about generals, scientists, super-computers, and terrorists,” Bourke states, “were a staple of this genre [science fiction], as was the argument that nuclear war was simply an inevitable consequence of paranoid Cold War animosities.” Another popular subject for such fiction were flying saucers: “It was no coincidence that sightings of UFOs began immediately after the Second World War, a tangible reflection of nuclear and Cold War fears.”
crevices of individual unconsciousness, capable of being lured out by a reassuring confidant. Instead, the fate of humankind seemed to rest with people no one trusted: soldiers, scientists and statesmen.
Worse yet, the oceans that lay between America’s east and west coasts were no longer reassuring to its citizens; “long-range aeroplanes and nuclear warheads destroyed this sense of security.”
Bourke points out that the post-war years gave rise to some important themes in the science fiction and horror genres. The most famous such example, she suggests, was Godzilla, “a prehistoric monster resurrected as a result of H-bomb experiments,” who appeared in 1956, starring in “at least sixteen feature films thereafter.” A line of dialogue in Them!, a movie about gigantic, mutated ants, suggests the metaphor that underlies the film: “Has the Cold War gotten hot?” As Bourke points out, the post-war era and the world’s newfound fear of nuclear threats inspired several novels as well, including Margot Bennett’s The Long Way Back (1954), Tyrone C. Barr’s The Last Fourteen (1959), Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog (1969), as well as Jim Harman’s short story “The Place Where Chicago Was” (1962), and Philip Wylie’s Tomorrow “did not flinch from describing a woman sitting on some stairs after a nuclear attack, vainly trying to shove her unborn baby back inside her split belly.”
Overwhelmed by the many horrors and terrors associated with nuclear threats, psychologists warned government officials to expect people to “denial and avoidance,” which would require the use of special techniques of communication, command, and control.
The Civil Defense program that the United States sponsored during the years of the Cold War was never intended, despite its name, to defend civilians from nuclear attack or its consequences, Bourke says--not directly, anyway. Instead, its purpose was to convince the public that, even in the event of a nuclear war, many people could survive by following the procedures they’d learned as participants in the program. Convinced of their potential survival, the general populace, government officials believed--or hoped--would agree with attempts on the part of their leaders to maintain a mutual deterrence policy with the then-Soviet Union, despite the cost of such a policy. Meanwhile, government leaders also endeavored to get citizens to accept the need “to militarize society in the event of a nuclear attack,” to conform to policies and procedures (those who did not might be arrested and “neutralized”), and to accept restrictions upon personal privileges and legal rights. Even the Constitutional right to free speech might be curtailed. The media would likely be controlled by the government to suppress rumors. Leaders hoped that the people would follow the procedures they had been taught as participants in the nation’s longstanding Civil Defense program: “Familiarity with air-raid drills would ensure that people would passively fall into a familiar drill procedure, thus keeping their minds busy and reducing the likelihood of panic.” Meanwhile, radios and vehicles, including airplanes and helicopters, equipped with loudspeakers would transmit or broadcast reassuring messages:
Confusion foreshadowed panic. Irrespective of the veracity of the message, a ‘calm, authoritative voice’ broadcast on an ‘intact public address system’ was crucial. As the Bulletin for the Atomic Scientists put it in 1953: ‘The human being whose normal picture of the world around him is suddenly torn to pieces struggles to replace it with another picture so that he can steer his activity.’ Loudspeakers and radios in public shelters would reorient people, preparing them for a transformed world. Since many people would not have access to radios in the event of a nuclear attack, and since rubble and fires would prevent ground vehicles from getting information to them, disaster agencies would prevent ground vehicles from getting information to them, disaster agencies recommended the use of light planes, preferably helicopters, which would broadcast information and ‘counteract panics.’ All information had to be givenBourke points out that experts admitted that they didn’t really know how people would react in the wake of such a terrible and extensive catastrophe, for nothing of such a scale had ever happened, especially to a civilian population. However, they did think that, possibly at the expense of strangers, family members would stay together and look out for the welfare of one another, and it was believed that men, having more survival skills than women, would be likely to do comparatively well, and women comparatively poorly, in the exercise of adaptive behavior (that is, behavior adapted to the crises at hand). Officials might discover that their greater problem might not be “preventing hysterical flight,” but “getting them to move at all.” Nevertheless, “to provide guidance, disaster experts identified four situations that predisposed people to panic when faced with danger”:
in a factual, calm and easily understood manner so that ‘depressed, fearful and
resentful victims of the disaster’ would be able to understand it.’
First, partial entrapment was liable to make people panic. . . . Secondly, when the threat was seen as imminent. . . people were likely to ‘freeze’. . . . Emotional extremes would be exacerbated if, thirdly, a blocked or jammed escape faced them. Fourth, confusion and uncertainty about the nature and intensity of threat was particularly distressing.
Never had the world, despite all the many wars its nations had waged, faced such a situation as was posed by nuclear threats. The situation would be characterized by confusion, mistrust, distrust, and fear, and human beings, for the first time in history, would be seen as having “more conclusive” powers than “God, in being bale to annihilate irredeemably and without possibility of redemption.”
In such a world as the disaster experts painted, the horrors of prehistoric monsters, gigantic ants, leveled cities, and even hostile visitors from beyond the stars were mild, even comical, threats, indeed. The horrors of the human technology had outpaced the horrors of the artistic imagination.
Bourke, Joanna, Fear: A Cultural History. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005.