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Perceptions of Disaster

The Landscape of Disaster Film: 2000-2020

D Kollek, CAEP 2022 Disaster Track Lecture

What type of disaster movie was the most made?

What type of disaster movie was the most seen?

Do these films influence perception of risk?

Do these films influence people’s response to disasters?


Scholars have categorized “disaster films” into 20 year “cycles” reflective of the fears and fantasies of the time but…

* There is no definition of a disaster film

* No existing comprehensive list of disaster films exists

* Remember: films made and films watched are not the same

* Mass communication research indicates that media play significant role forming a cultural attitude about risks

* Pre 9/11 Gulf War 75-78 per cent per cent of the US population did not have personal, direct experience with a major disaster so public perception about disasters and behavior disaster behavior derives from popular culture


This study evaluated 173 disaster films listed on IMDB released between 1/2000 -12/2019, and: 

* tagged as a “disaster film” or “movie” on IMDB

* made for US-based audience to avoid culture bias

* shown in theatre or made for TV / streaming

* fictional or dramatized (no documentaries)

* the disaster (regardless of type) is the central problem of the film

* Films were coded for the primary hazard depicted

* The thirty-four hazards were further categorized under seven broad types.

* The number of IMDb votes was used as a metric to define popularity

* The 50 disaster films with the greatest number of unique voters were analyzed

* The top 50 were compared to the top 25 films


In broad categories natural hazard films were the most made but there was no scientifically accurate depiction of climate change as a primary focus in any of the films included in this sample. 

Also nobody watched them.



The hazards that have been viewed most frequently differ from the hazards the public are likely to encounter, possibly biasing their expectations of what to anticipate or respond to, but….. 

…the “all hazards” approach would say that we should focus less on the specific hazard films depict and more on the way in which the characters respond to the crisis.

So do movies influence public perception of how to respond to a disaster?

The messages the public receives from disaster films and other forms of disaster popular culture, are “... likely far more influential on the perceptions and beliefs of the public, and even of many policymakers and implementers, about disaster behavior than are the results of social scientific studies”.

What are the myths in disaster films?

* Disasters are defined by large scale localized rapid impacts 

* smaller disasters may create greater overall impact

* slow acting events like global climate change have broader impact

* Over estimation of death injury and damage

* Loss of life is used as a measure (often a sole measure)  for disaster impact. 

* Also of note Hollywood perpetuates the fact that it is someone else who is dying. The majority of deaths occur elsewhere and “Hollywood usually has a band of plucky Americans surviving the event”.  

* Physical characteristics of hazards are distorted to the point that behaviour based on them could lead to harm or death.

* People will flee in panic

* People will act illogically during evacuations

* Looting and price gouging will occur

* Martial law will be enacted

* Individuals who would not normally act in such a way get caught up in deviant behavior

* The myth that humans are powerless

* The “OH NO” moment. But also;

* Technology will save us in the last minute

* YOU (individual/small team) can defeat disasters through sheer heroism


* Most people have no direct disaster experience 

* Most common produced topic is natural hazards

* Most common disaster film viewed is monster

* Disaster films do not portray a true response but perpetuate myths – some dangerous

* Disaster films do influence our response patterns – be mindful of your possible bias

* Disasters are bad – avoid them – but….


1. Haney, J. J., Havice, C. and J. T. Mitchell (2019) ‘Science or fiction: The persistence of disaster myths in Hollywood films’ Int J of Mass Emergencies & Disasters. 37(3). pp. 286-305 

2. Quarantelli, E. L. (1985) ‘Realities and mythologies in disaster films’. Communications. 11. pp. 31-44 

3. Mitchell, J. T., Thomas, D. S., Hill, A. A. and S. L. Cutter (2000) ‘Catastrophe in reel life versus real life: Perpetuating disaster myth through Hollywood films’. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters. 18(3). pp. 383-402. 

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