It's practically a truism to claim that the giant monster movie craze of the 1950s was inspired by the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the hundreds of atomic tests done afterwards. And some have argued that the Cloverfield monster's attack on New York was a not-so-subtle reference to the terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center in 2001. But is there a real historical basis to these claims? We've charted some of the biggest disasters of the last century, and lined them up next to a timeline of giant monster movies, to see what the temporal correlation is between giant disasters and giant monsters. The results revealed an interesting giant monster cycle in pop culture.
Let's go through some of the insights this chart offers.
ATOMICS/DEADLY ATTACKS: As you can see, there is a very clear historical connection between atomic bombs and atomic testing and giant monster movies, so that truism turns out to be correct. After a long period of no giant monsters in pop culture at all, we get a sudden burst of giant monsters in the 50s, many of which are explicitly created by "atomic tests" (see: the ants in Them, the dinosaur in Behemoth, Godzilla, and more). What's interesting is that there appears to be about a 10-year lag between the disaster and the first movies dealing with it. A similar lag happens between disasters of the 1990s and early 2000s and the giant monster explosion of the 00s. Interestingly, the biggest explosion in giant monster movies since the 1950s is going on in the 00s, perhaps as a response to global terrorism and human-caused disasters (see below).
PLAGUES: "Call of Cthulhu," which is about a giant monster who haunts people's dreams and drives them mad, could probably be linked to the "sleepy sickness" plague that was sweeping the United States at the time Lovecraft first thought up his tentacly menace. The disease made people appear to sleep all the time, and did drive them insane. But generally, as we can see later in the timeline, plague doesn't appear to spawn giant monsters. In fact, the HIV/AIDS plague has probably resulted in more human-sized monster tales: witness the explosion in vampire and zombie stories during the 1990s and 00s. So, generally, plague disasters don't cause giant monster movies.
NATURAL DISASTERS: One of the biggest natural disasters of the 20th century, the Yellow River floods in China in the 1930s, gave us no giant monsters. King Kong, the most popular giant monster of the 1930s, was probably inspired by Westerners "discovering" gorillas in Africa in the early 20th century. But the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami seems to have had an effect: two of the biggest giant monster movies of the last year have both involved beasts from the ocean.
HUMAN-CAUSED DISASTERS: Yes, human toxic spills and pollution seem to trigger giant monster movies. Most of the giant monsters in the 1970s and 80s are related somehow to pollution, and come soon after several widely-publicized oil spill disasters. Note that the 70s and 80s were also a time of human-sized toxic creatures, like the Toxic Avenger, the bears in Prophesy, the whatevers in CHUD, and so on. So these disasters inspire both giant and regular-sized monsters. I think the explosion in 00s monster movies may also be a result of the same lag we saw between atomics in the 1940s, and giant monsters in the 1950s. A lot of toxic disasters happened in the 80s and 90s, and suddenly a bunch of giant monsters pop up in the 00s.
Chart by Stephanie Fox.
Chemical Disaster in Bhopal [Greenpeace]
Oil tanker leaks [BBC]
AIDS number one cause of death for men in US in 1992 [Kaiser Foundation].
AIDS in Africa numbers [WorldStats]