I remember one email exchange with Alan Decker years ago in which he confessed he spent the latter half of a viewing of Titanic with his then-wife mentally planning how he would have survived the disaster using objects onboard. His plan was unsurprisingly (unsurprising if you know Alan, I mean) very workable and detailed. Given the right circumstances - lack of running into crazed gun-wielding Billy Zane, ability to afford first class ticket - his plan totally could have worked. It was amusing because I am not a fan of Titanic (the movie; I generally make a point of not being a fan of actual disasters full stop) but also because I started wondering how many other people mentally plan their own survival while watching a disaster unfold onscreen. Do I? And I do! In fact, I’ve done it for a very long time without really realizing it.
When I first watched Annie I was terrified. It was the first time I can remember having crying nightmares from movie imagery. The scene where she’s hanging off the bridge and Rooster is trying to stomp on her fingers to make her fall just absolutely shook my little mind to the core. I would desperately re-imagine the scenario with myself in Annie’s place and despair because I wasn't sure I had the plucky courage that got her to the top of the bridge in the first place and couldn’t think of a single way out once I got there. I had no Punjab to swoop down and rescue me on a helicopter. I didn’t know anybody with a helicopter! It was a horrifying thing that my young mind saw as a real possible danger that I wouldn’t be able to survive.
As an older child I somehow was obsessed with figuring out how to survive being stranded in the cold. It quite possibly stemmed from a book I read in which a young girl gets stranded in a car wreck in the snow with her two brothers. I would sit in the backseat of the family sedan in winter and mentally assess what I was wearing or had brought that would help with warmth. I’d know that my socks could be pulled up, sweater could be buttoned, scarf could be put back on, sleeves could roll down over my hands, and that I had extra socks in my bag and also a granola bar. I can’t remember how many times I mentally did this assessment during winter drives. I was always ready, in my mind, to survive for an extra hour. Just long enough for help to arrive.
I also spent rather a lot of afternoons determining if the contents of my school backpack were enough to get me through a fairy world adventure before stepping into one of the two fairy circles that grew on my route home. I both wholeheartedly believed in the power of fairy circles (to the uninitiated, fairy circles are naturally-occurring rings of mushrooms or trees or such that serve as a portal to the fairy realm for those who step inside and believe) and just as wholeheartedly believed it would be reckless to go to the fairy world unprepared for surviving at least a day’s worth of adventuring.
More recently I have spent countless hours pondering ways to survive being buried alive after watching Kill Bill Vol. 2, The Vanishing, CSI’s ‘Grave Danger’, and Buried. There are three options based on those presented filmed scenarios: rescue, escape, or death. (Side note: Quentin Tarantino directed two of the four I listed. What is Tarantino’s deal with being buried alive?) Try as I might, I can’t come up with a surefire way of escaping a coffin buried underground. Not even with a cell phone (stupid Buried, you are the idiot child of the genre for sure). The only escape that could truly be relied on would be vampirism. As an immortal I’d be strong enough to physically force my way out, soil and all. But as a human I think honestly your best bet is Tarantino’s involvement. THERE WILL BE SPOILERS HERE. Tarantino absolutely does not believe that being buried alive is an end game scenario. Either you will have clever and devoted friends who will find you using forensic clues before you suffocate or off yourself or you will simply ninja chop your way out using your bare hands.
My roommate likes to plan for the impending zombie apocalypse. This is a ‘when’ situation in her mind, not an ‘if’ one. I’m not a zombie-phile and anyway I’m already undead (he-yo, vampire) so I’m largely unaffected by the concern of zombification. Therefore we have a tacit agreement in place: when the zombie apocalypse happens we barricade the doors and windows and I turn her into a vampire. Admittedly the plan does require a certain specific suspension of disbelief to work. But once you’re in that place mentally it actually is foolproof. Other than that all I can suggest is living on an upper floor (we’re on the fourth) and becoming a crazed hoarder of canned goods. Eventually, though, you’d have to leave and your survival would depend entirely upon your ability to separate zombie head from zombie body. Are you prepared for that?
I don’t have a grand escape plan for the Titanic. This is probably because I would have happily married Billy Zane at the start and since he clearly wasn’t too bothered with the whole chivalrous “women and children first” rule of lifeboat loading, I would have survived at his side. So, alright, I suppose my Titanic escape plan would be to marry Billy Zane. Are you judging me? Did you not even listen to Hansel? Billy Zane is a cool dude.
It does make me believe, though, that everyone does this to one degree or another. This is why disaster movies work, in essence. Because they force us all to enter the scenario, however preposterous, and struggle along with the characters to survive. It really is as simple as engaging our own primal survival instincts. Cheap trick, Hollywood. And one that continues to work. After all, horror movies are based on the same concept. To a large degree that’s what Scream was about. The knowing dissection of horror movie tropes while subverting them so the knowing is no longer enough and pure survival is once again the impetus. We respond in kind: we reactively plan along with the characters.
So I ask you: what would you do to survive? What are your fiction-based escape plans?
- Corinne Simpson