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Why L.A. Is Synonym for Disaster

Mike Davis is the author of "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles." This is an excerpt from his new book "Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster." A review of the work appears in today's Book Review

The City of Angeles is unique not simply in the frequency of its fictional destruction, but the pleasure that such apocalypses provide to readers and movie audiences.

No other city seems to excite such dark rapture. The tidal waves, killer bees, H-bombs and viruses that occasionally annihilate Seattle, Houston, Chicago or San Francisco produce a different kind of frisson, an enjoyment edged with horror and awe. The destruction of London--the metropolis most persecuted in fiction between 1885 and 1940--was imagined as horrifying, equivalent to the death of Western civilization. The obliteration of Los Angeles, by contrast, is often depicted as a victory for civilization.

Thus, in “Independence Day,” a film that GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole endorsed as a model of Hollywood patriotism, devastation wreaked by aliens is represented first as tragedy (New York) and then as farce (Los Angeles). The boiling tsunami of fire and brimstone that pours down Fifth Avenue is truly horrifying, consuming as it does genuine human beings. When the aliens turn to Los Angeles, however, who could identify with the caricatured mob of hippies, New Agers and gay men dancing in idiot ecstasy on a skyscraper roof to greet the extraterrestrials? There is a comic undertone of “good riddance” when kooks like these are vaporized.

The gleeful expendability of Los Angeles in the popular imagination is in no small part due to Hollywood, which, when not immolating itself, promotes its environs as the heart of darkness. No city, in fiction or film has been more likely to figure as the icon of a really bad future (or present, for that matter). Post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, overrun by terminators, androids and gangs, has become as much a cliche as detective Philip Marlowe’s mean streets or Gidget’s beach party. The decay of the city’s old glamour has been inverted by the entertainment industry into a new glamour of decay.

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Los Angeles’ reigning status as Doom City is a phenomenon that demands clarification. The city’s propensity for spectacular disaster, from fires to earthquakes, obviously provides a quasi-realist context for its literary destruction, but environment exceptionalism only takes us part of the way toward an explanation. There is a deeper, Strangelovian logic to such happy holocausts. Certain fundamental propositions can help provide a critical framework.

First, there is a dramatic trend toward the merging of all Los Angeles fiction with the disaster or survivalist narrative. Like some monstrous blob from a 1950s sci-fi movie, the form has absorbed every competitor. Despite the critical obsession with Los Angeles as the home of hard-boiled detective fiction, the disaster novel has long been an equally characteristic local export. It is also true in the broader sense that disaster, as allusion or metaphor, saturates almost everything now written about Southern California.

More important, the abiding hysteria of Los Angeles disaster fiction, and perhaps of all disaster fiction--the urge to wipe out an entire city and its inhabitants--is rooted in racial anxiety. In the United States, more than in Europe, the disaster novel remained fixated on the specter of subversive immigrants and nonwhites. From the earliest 19th-century examples of the literary destruction of New York, to the latest survivalist fantasies about Los Angeles, white fear of the dark races lies at the heart of such visions. It is this obsession, far more than anxieties about earthquakes or nuclear weapons, that leads us back to the real Los Angeles as well as to the deepest fears of our culture.

If race ultimately unlocks the secret meaning of Los Angeles disaster fiction, its apparitions have changed over time. In novels written before 1970, when Los Angeles was still the most WASPish of large U.S. cities, racial hysteria was typically expressed as fear of invading “hordes"--variously yellow, brown black, red or their extraterrestrial metonyms. After 1970, with the rise of a non-Anglo majority in Los Angeles County, the city turns from an endangered home into the Alien itself; and its destruction affords an illicit pleasure not always visible in previous annihilations.

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Hollywood has also been experimenting with the concept of shipwrecked aliens as Los Angeles’ next ethnic minority. In the shadowlands of white anxiety, the distinction between the images of space alien and illegal alien was subjected to repeated elision. Immigration and invasion, in a paranoid register, become synonyms.

Although “hordes” had been a fundamental element in the social imaginary of Southern California, extraterrestrials were relatively rare before the 1980s. The region may have been the Cold War heartland of UFO subculture, monstrous aliens usually took their vacations elsewhere, preferably in Tokyo or New York. Apart from the impressive Martian armada in the 1953 film version of “War of the Worlds,” most of Los Angeles’s space invaders were low-budget campers, like the aliens who raised Dracula and Vampira from the dead in Ed Wood’s gloriously awful “Plan Nine from Outer Space” (1956), or the invisible Martians who terrorized Hollywood starlets in “The Day Mars Invaded Earth” (1962).

In the 1980s, however, “the secret alien invasion,” in the classic mold of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) suddenly became the theme of more than a score of Los Angeles-based novels, films and TV thrillers. Thus, extraterrestrials hijacked bodies (“The Hidden,” 1987), conducted trophy hunts among the homeless (“Predator 2,” 1990) and infiltrated the local power structure (“They Live!” 1988, and “V: Prisoners and Pawns,” 1985). They were aided in their depredations, moreover, by zombies (“Dead Heat,” 1988), clones (“Nemesis,” 1992), androids (“Blade Runner,” 1982) and even the Devil (“Prince of Darkness,” 1987).

With their insistence that “aliens are already among us,” these tales echoed highly publicized claims that “real” extraterrestrials were on a sexual crime spree in the Los Angeles suburbs. “The Tujunga Canyon Contacts” (1980), a lurid tale of alien seductions and kidnappings, established the San Fernando Valley as the unchallenged capital of otherworldly lust. Likewise the 1983 film “The Entity"--"based on a true incident"--recounted how a Los Angeles widow had supposedly been raped and terrorized by an invisible demon. Other “survivors” mesmerized local television audiences with claims that bug-eyed molesters in flying saucers had already commenced the “genetic colonization” of Los Angeles. By 1990, a thriving regional network of support groups provided counseling to hundreds of self-proclaimed victims of alien or supernatural sexual predation.

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Such classic sexual hysteria--with aliens playing the role that in Freud’s time was usually attributed to fathers and doctors--is typically the iceberg tip of more widespread social anxieties. In this case, the post-1980 boom in imagined aliens coincides with the increasing visibility of immigrants from Mexico, Central American and East Asia in the daily life of the Los Angeles region. Like the Aryan survivalist novel, the fantasy of alien impregnation plays off white fear and disorientation in the face of irreversible demographic change.

It is also tempting to assert a relationship between the fictional destruction of Los Angeles and the nervous breakdown of American exceptionalism itself.

The dazzling growth of suburban Southern California was, after all, the powerful symbol of national prosperity in the decades between Lend Lease and Watergate. A well-paid job in the aerospace industry and a ranch house in a sunny subdivision, only minutes from the beaches and Disneyland, was the lifestyle against which other Americans measured the modernity of their towns and regions. Millions of Americans, especially the young, envied those lucky enough to live in the Land of Endless Summer.

Now the tables have turned and metropolitan Los Angeles, with its estimated 500 gated subdivisions, 2,000 street gangs, 20,000 sweatshops and 100,000 homeless residents, is a dystopian symbol of Dickensian inequalities and intractable racial contradictions. The deepest anxieties of a post-liberal era--above all, the collapse of America’s belief in a utopian national destiny--are translated into a demonic image of a region where the future has turned rancid. “California Here I Come” has been replaced by bumper stickers vowing “Not Yet L.A.”

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If Los Angeles’ fictional disasters in some sense track national discontents, they also mobilize deep-rooted cultural predispositions. Literary historians have long asserted the constitutive role of the “apocalyptic temper” in the American imagination. Perhaps this temper is now focused on the city whose environmental and social crises form a giant lightning rod for disaster.

Similarly, in its postwar migration from countryside to suburb, millenarian Christianity has persevered its allegiance to the image of Satan’s metropolis engulfed in righteous flames. Though New York City was originally the seat of the Antichrist, his capital has moved to Los Angeles, where contemporary fundamentalists expect the world will begin to unravel during the approaching countdown to the millennium. The Hollywood film industry happily agrees.

But if some of the deep structures of our culture are ganging up on Los Angeles, making it the scapegoat for the collapse of the American century, race remains the crucial category. From Pierton Dooner’s white populists in his 1880 “The Last Days of the Republic” to Buck Rogers, from Homer Lea, who obsessed about Japanese might in the early 1900s, to Pat Robertson, Armageddon has been imagined as a war of extermination between the white and colored worlds. Gangster rap is routinely condemned on every major editorial page in the nation, but novels like “Lucifer’s Hammer,” with its smug genocide of Latinos and blacks, pass unremarked in the literary mainstream. Indeed, what statistic is more depressing than the 28 million copies sold since 1970 of Hal Lindsay’s raving fundamentalist apocalypse, “The Late, Great Planet Earth,” with its casual incineration of Los Angeles and an entire chapter devoted to the extermination of the Yellow Peril?

Disaster fiction encompasses diverse sub-genres with strikingly different literary and political itineraries. But there should be no doubt that the ritual sacrifice of Los Angeles, as rehearsed incessantly in pulp fiction and film, is part of a malign syndrome, whose celebrants include the darkest forces in U.S. history.*

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