New York City is one of the most common settings in comic books and film. Which is completely understandable. New York is an iconic city, and it has always had the ability to catch the eye and capture the imagination. The New York skyline alone can evoke a sense of power that is, arguably, unmatched by any other city in the United States. So why is it repeatedly destroyed in comic books and film?
First let’s start off with some facts (use this word loosely). New York has been subject to at least nine monster attacks, one creature attack, two climate disasters, four geologic events, three epidemic events, three man-made disasters, two alien invasions, four asteroids and seven superhero battles. This is just the events portrayed in film. Comics, novels and other written works also have torn the city of New York apart until there was nothing but dust. This is an astounding amount of devastation. But again, what is the fascination?
One theory is that New York is a strong representation of the United States. New York, if anything, is a perfect example of America’s ascent to becoming a superpower. Tiered skyscrapers were popping up left and right, and by the end of the second World War, the skyline towered over the city much like it does today. So, seeing it come crumbling back down to earth would be like “hitting America where it hurts.” It is indeed a powerful image. Even those who don’t live in New York are familiar with these landmarks that are always destroyed, and this is enhanced even more in a post 9/11 world. Even before the attacks on the World Trade Center, New York was being torn apart just as quickly as it is today. So this is apparently an issue that extends beyond the power of imagery. That leads to something deeper. Something that says more about human nature than some are comfortable discussing.
Enter Sigmund Freud, the famous Austrian neurologist. In 1933, Freud exchanged a series of letters with physicist Albert Einstein about why we as humans wage war with each other. In classic Freud fashion, he had imagined a darker theory that describes one of the driving psychological forces that he would call the death drive. Freud wrote:
“This [the death drive] would serve as a biological justification for all the ugly and dangerous impulses against which we are struggling. It must be admitted that they stand nearer to Nature than does our resistance to them for which an explanation also needs to be found… there is no use in trying to get rid of men’s aggressive inclinations.”
Now this is an interesting idea, but it is not far-fetched. That we, as humans, are hardwired to be destructive. That we, naturally, have a tendency to harbor these feelings, either internally or externally, and consider it normal. If one were to look at some popular television shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, there is death and destruction in practically every episode. Why? Because it keeps people’s attention. It excites them to some level. This is evident even in non-fiction programs. Particularly the annual replaying of the events of September 11. Why do we watch the footage of thousands of lives being lost? Some say that it’s a reminder to be patriotic and to support the U.S. military. It seems as though there are other methods that yield the same results without first, triggering all those traumatised by the events of that day, and also broadcasting death and destruction furthering desensitization of the event. This may be representative of the internalisation of Freud’s death drive. It’s a sadistic tendency that we have, that is quite unfortunately, reinforced by American culture. A culture that has been projecting its fears onto the world via film and literature.
For example, King Kong was first released in 1933, but this wasn’t the first movie to play on destruction. A short, hand drawn silent film called Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend (1921) tells the tale of a bizarre creature that grows at an exponential rate, and begins to devour buildings whole. In 1959, the film The World, the Flesh and the Devil imagined New York intact, but devoid of human life. Planet of the Apes in 1968 had the famous scene of Charlton Heston discovering the Statue of Liberty almost completely buried in sand. In every decade since the early 1900’s there have been films, books and cartoons all depicting the city’s end. In each decade, the manner in which the city is destroyed is notably different.
For example, the previously mentioned film, The World, the Flesh and the Devil saw all but three people erased from the earth in a nuclear holocaust. This is quite obviously a play on the society’s fears during the Cold War. In 1983 2019, After the Fall of New York highlights a New York City after a nuclear holocaust. The male survivors suffer from a disease that prevents them from procreating, which seems to be an obvious allusion to the massive HIV/AIDS outbreak in the 1980’s. This film was also based on John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981). The 1990s were focused on the fear of climate change, and the 2000s followed in the same footsteps despite the events of 9/11. So along with the death drive, it seems as though people want to project their fears into the books and films they write.
So it would seem that these films are telling of not just the writer’s fears and a desire to, maybe subconsciously, destroy. If this is truly the case, then why do so many flock to theaters to see the chaos and the carnage unfold? Maybe it is a sort of trial that the writer must endure. A test to see not only how one would handle such events, but maybe a method of desensitization that would allow them to function in that sort of environment. It may also be a subconscious desire for the viewers/readers as well. This desire would be the very same as one that draws them into theaters to see horror movies. It is first and foremost entertainment, but it is also a test of the fight or flight response. It exposes them to an environment that is foreign and dangerous, and makes them confront these emotions head on. It elevates their heart rate, it dumps adrenaline into the bloodstream, yet there is no real physical danger. It taps into the inner xenophobe in everyone and allows them to see what could be. It can turn Times Square, from a bustling neon intersection, into a broken and desolate nightmare.