How many times have you seen New York City destroyed onscreen? Los Angeles? Kansas? For nearly as long as there have been movies, there have been disaster movies. The map above shows 189+ such cinematic attacks—using a very broad definition of the "disaster" genre—that have afflicted various parts of the United States. Below, you'll find each category listed as its own map, with an accompanying movie list.
- This is not an exhaustive list.
- We tried to limit our selections to movies where the disaster happened during the course of the movie (no purely post-apocalyptic flicks), and the disaster in question threatened more than just a few stragglers (Jaws counts, Deep Blue Sea doesn't). That second requirement produced a lot of borderline cases.
- A lot of disaster movies are set in fictional or undefined locations; for those, we tried to find an approximate real-world place (based on geographic cues, or location of filming).
- We didn't have space to fit Alaska and Hawaii on the map, but the six disaster movies we found for them are included in the tables.
Trickiest of all was dividing these movies into neat categories, based largely off plot synopses. We took our best shot, though many films could fit in more than one category—let us know what we missed in the comments.
While King Kong originally invaded New York in 1933, the monster-attack genre really hit its stride in the '50s, when an incredible string of B-movies unleashed everything from giant ants (Them!) to locusts (Beginning of the End) to octopuses (It Came From Beneath the Sea). In an unsettling sign of the times, many of these monsters had been enlarged/enraged by nuclear radiation. While Godzilla has spent decades destroying various parts of Japan, he's only visited the U.S. twice (Destroy all Monsters and 1998's Godzilla).
Please note that we're making a somewhat fine distinction between which large animals count as monsters, and which count as creatures. If the animal seems to be on the margins of biological possibility, it's a creature (Lake Placid). If it's bigger than that, it's a monster (King Kong).
Do creature attacks really count as disasters? If they menace an entire town, sure, why the hell not? While we're using a shark symbol, attacking creatures in disaster movies have included birds (The Birds), bees (The Swarm), and worms (Squirm). Thanks to the success of Jaws, most of these movies involve animals attacking from out of the water, because that's scary as hell.
Climatic events include hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, avalanches, and other weather-related phenomena. Compared with other disaster categories, you'll see that the Gulf Coast and Tornado Alley are well represented. The sudden rise of the global-warming-as-action-movie genre has brought some serious climatic destruction to major U.S. metro areas lately.
In keeping with the general scientific literature, geologic events—including volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis—are mostly concentrated on the Pacific Rim. Los Angeles has been destroyed by geologic events at least seven times, but New York, which is not on the Pacific Rim, has still managed to be destroyed by a tsunami (Deluge and Quantum Apocalypse), an earthquake (Aftershock), and a volcano (Disaster Zone).
Zombies, diseases, and parasites. Along with superhero movies, this genre has exploded in the last decade. Compared with other disaster types, infections seem to be more likely to strike in the Midwest and Appalachia.
Man Is The Real Disaster
Sometimes—in the case of invasions, terrorism, fires, and especially nukes—it turns out that MAN is the real disaster. This list doesn't include the many post-apocalyptic movies that make the same general point, but start after the disaster has taken place.
For obvious tactical reasons, alien attacks generally hit major metropolitan areas, particularly D.C. Independence Day set the standard, destroying New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and Houston in one go.
Self-explanatory! Rocks from space tend to destroy New York a lot, including twice in 1998 (Deep Impact and Armageddon).
Superheroes have caused enough collateral damage in California and New York over the past decade that the clean-up crew might get its own movie. We know that the Transformers are aliens (or alien robots), but we're going by genre here—it's clearly a superhero battle.
A sharknado is a tornado composed of sharks. There has only been one sharknado. So far.
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