They called them “disaster movies,” and in the 1970s they were as pervasive as polyester leisure suits and helmet haircuts. They were “B” picture plots and melodramas wrapped up in “A” picture budgets. They can be a Netflix guilty pleasure experience now, as many of them are unintentionally funny by today’s standards.

Charlton Heston made a second career out of them when he got too old for the big leads in the big pictures in the late ’70s, but still had the star power and gravitas to be the “guy in charge” behind an airplane on the fritz or a building that was shaking uncontrollably.

His “masterwork” disaster movie was probably the ever shaking “Earthquake.” It had the added marketing gimmick to be released in the new Sensurround (well, it didn’t last much longer than your average Whittier Narrows Fault aftershock).

Having grown up in the San Fernando Valley and having lived through the Sylmar Earthquake and the Northridge Earthquake, the thought of spending money to sit in a movie theater where my seat would shake in a sad earthquake simulation was not my idea of a good time. If only they could have shaken performances out of the actors with the same alacrity.

Why we like to be entertained with simulated disaster is probably worth a Ph.D. dissertation or two. 

Why, for that matter, are horror and thriller movies so popular? The consensus seems to be that, like roller coaster rides, it is a safe way to stimulate and release certain chemicals in our brain, and as long as our conscious mind is aware it’s only a roller coaster, or only a movie, the pleasure sectors in the gray matter have a grand ol’ time.

The data is clear. We like to be entertained this way. I will predict people will enjoy watching Halloween 47 in 2028, but I’m not sure those same people would get equal pleasure being chased by a homicidal maniac with a knife through the streets of suburbia for real.

Disaster movies are nothing like the real thing, as the recent wildfires in Ventura and LA Counties prove in the most demonstrative way. And the real disasters have a lot more to teach us about ourselves and our spiritual relationship than any post-apocalyptic Heston movie ever could.

The first thing we learn is that disaster is an equal opportunity visitor. An ember the size of a flea is just as happy to land on the roof of a $10 million Malibu mansion as it is on a track house in Ventura, with the same results. 

Some Hollywood celebrities have lost their homes in this latest disaster, and we have proof again that wealth, power, and prestige, and even resources to defend and protect personal property, cannot always be a guarantor against catastrophe.

Television news plays its own version of the disaster movie every time there is a major event like our wildfire episode. Not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t some union regulation for TV reporters that mandates they tell their camera operator to pan slowly to a pile of smoldering rubble that used to be someone’s home.

On a more personal level, disasters such as out of control wildfires cause the kind of pain that is hard to recover from and cannot be completely conveyed even by steady camera angles of burned-out debris. 

It’s the kind of pain mended only through the grace and love of God. A good friend of mine learned this last year during the Thomas Fire in Ventura. Her house was a total loss due to the fire. Even her appliances had melted into nothingness.

The physical loss of her home was tragic and painful enough. What really hurt though was the loss of all the photographs and memorabilia of her life with her husband who had passed away several years prior.

They never showed that kind of pain with any authenticity in “Airport 1975,” “The Towering Inferno,” or even Heston’s magnus opus “Earthquake” … and how could they? These are just make-believe stories meant to titillate and amuse. 

Fortunately, Scripture comes to more of a rescue than any Hollywood screenwriter. We are warned to always be on guard. Of course, the “be on guard” part is not about making sure our stuff is secure and that our house is not susceptible to fault lines or hurricane pathways. It’s about the stuff that wind, fire, and quakes can never destroy.

Robert Brennan is a weekly columnist for Angelus online and in print. He has written for many Catholic publications, including National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He spent 25 years as a television writer, and is currently the Director of Communications for the Salvation Army California South Division.

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