The upside to the end of the world

Disaster films and science-fiction stories can go one step beyond entertaining us: they can also help shape our values. By Susanne Leuenberger

(From "Horizons" no. 108 March 2016)​​​

The Antarctic wasteland stretches out endlessly before us on the movie screen. For several minutes, the aerial photography explores the sublime beauty and the terrors of this icy world. Only then do human figures appear in the picture. We see a team of scientists, drilling into the ice core. The palaeontologist Jack Hall is one of them. When an ice floe breaks off suddenly and a gap opens up between the ice core and the scientists, Hall jumps over the chasm to save the samples before leaping quickly back again. He risks his life for research – and for the survival of humanity.

The scientist Jack Hall is the hero of Roland Emmerich's disaster film 'The Day after Tomorrow' from 2004. The movie cost 125 million US dollars to produce, and for long stretches it shows computer-animated scenes of a world frozen in ice. It's one of very few Hollywood blockbusters to have taken the dangers of climate change as its main topic. The dramatic climate scenario of this commercially successful film had an impact that was felt way beyond the cinemas. The hype surrounding 'The Day after Tomorrow' prompted real scientists to take to the media, assuring everyone that the new ice age it conjured up was merely an improbable, purely fictional scenario.

Whether fictional or real: these images of a world ravaged by storms and floods and a flash-frozen world had a major impact, as has been proven by existing reception studies such as the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. After seeing the film, audiences were measurably more aware of climate change than they had been before.

Fiction sensitises us to reality

The cultural studies expert Alexa Weik von Mossner has seen this action movie innumerable times already. "Not because I find the plot particularly successful. It uses a lot of clichés". She works at the Department of English and American Studies at the University of Klagenfurt and is investigating how narratives of catastrophe and post-apocalyptic tales are used to talk about climate change: in films, in literature, and also in non-fictional formats such as climate documentary films. Her conclusion is this: "Fictions such as Emmerich's 'The Day after Tomorrow' can help to sensitise a broader public to the risks of climate change".

Von Mossner's next monograph will be published soon. In it, one of the works she subjects to narrative analysis is the novel 'The Road' by Cormac McCarthy, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. The novel tells of a father and son who struggle to reach the coast in a post-apocalyptic America. After a catastrophic event, not described in detail, the sky is overcast with a dark fog, the Earth is barely populated any more and it has cooled down almost to freezing. Von Mossner looks at the literary text and its later film adaptation by John Hillcoat to see how these two media deal with their respective possibilities for telling a narrative set in a devastated world, and how they make it perceptible to the senses. Von Mossner works with the concept of 'embodied cognition'. This takes as its starting point the idea that cognition is bound to emotions and physical sensations.

Narratives and neurology

Von Mossner complements her narrative analysis with findings from neurological research into the emotions. Different experiments suggest that the action and scenarios experienced while watching films in fact stimulate the same areas of the brain as the real thing would. "The brain seems not to differentiate between fiction and reality". Fiction can therefore heighten our consciousness of risk, and sensitise us to possible future scenarios.

This interdisciplinary approach to fiction is rather new, but it could set a precedent. Literary scholarship and film studies used to be moulded by psychoanalysis and social criticism, but for some years now they have been drawing closer to neuroscience and have started to investigate the cognitive and emotional dimensions of fiction.

However, the incorporation of neurological findings into film-studies literature isn't always simple, because it means bringing together different research traditions. Von Mossner is aware of this. She sees a need for 'translation services' between cultural studies and cognitive research: "The analysis of a whole film sequence has to be broken down into measurable factors". Nevertheless, taking neurological findings into account allows you to prove the impact of fiction on 'real life' – which is an important complement to pure content analysis of film and literature.

Emotional mechanisms

Robert Blanchet is also of this opinion. He is based at the Department of Film Studies of the University of Zurich, where he is researching into the emotional impact of films. In his project 'The Medium of Love', he investigates what it means to feel empathy with the characters in a film: "Empathy, in my opinion, is a necessary prerequisite for developing sympathy or antipathy for either a real or a fictional character". Blanchet is looking into what emotional mechanisms are involved when fans of TV series devote themselves to their programmes' heroes for longer periods of time. He's looking at US series such as 'The Sopranos', 'The Wire' or 'Mad Men'. His research is based on neuro-scientific and socio-psychological findings, while his theoretical assumptions are based on the philosophy of the mind. "It's obvious that not every research problem in the humanities can be backed up empirically, nor does it have to be". And yet it often makes sense for someone in the humanities to check whether there are empirical studies that might support or contradict one's own findings. Just like von Mossner, Blanchet believes that, emotionally, people process fictional content and real-life experiences in a similar manner.

Whether it is fictional or real: many other current research projects also support the idea that engaging with disaster scenarios is more than just a pastime. One of these is being run by the media psychologist Matthias Hofer of the Institute of Mass Communication and Media Research in Zurich.

Hofer is currently at Michigan State University, where he is investigating how medially transmitted values and norms can influence social behaviour such as welfare. His results already suggest that people who read newspaper articles about the victims of natural disasters and starving children are more likely to offer help afterwards than those who read holiday reports.

Susanne Leuenberger is a journalist in Bern.