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Apocalyptic Dread

American Film at the Turn of the Millennium

Kirsten Moana Thompson

Publication Year: 2007

In Apocalyptic Dread, Kirsten Moana Thompson examines how fears and anxieties about the future are reflected in recent American cinema. Through close readings of such films as Cape Fear, Candyman, Dolores Claiborne, Se7en, Signs, and War of the Worlds, Thompson argues that a longstanding American apocalyptic tradition permeates our popular culture, spreading from science-fiction and disaster films into horror, crime, and melodrama. Drawing upon Kierkegaard’s notion of dread—that is, a fundamental anxiety and ambivalence about existential choice and the future—Thompson suggests that the apocalyptic dread revealed in these films, and its guiding tropes of violence, retribution, and renewal, also reveal deep-seated anxieties about historical fragmentation and change, anxieties that are in turn displaced onto each film’s particular “monster,” whether human, demonic, or eschatological.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series, Horizons of Cinema


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Apocalyptic Dread

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p. vii


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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1. Apocalyptic Dread, Kierkegaard,and the Cultural Landscape of the Millennium

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pp. 1-27

A HUGE METEOR IS ON A COLLISION course with earth. A giant radioactive creature threatens Manhattan as Godzilla goes on a rampage. Volcanoes spew lava and huge tidal waves threaten cities. Outbreaks of the Ebola virus spread through the United States. The devil has come to town and it is the end of days. In the last decade of the twentieth...

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2. Cape Fear and Trembling: Familial Dread

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pp. 29-58

PRIVATE EYE KERSEK’S OMINOUS description of fear in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991) invokes a dread rooted in the history of slavery, colonialism, and the faded Confederacy. Here fear is everywhere: in New Essex, the small town in the deep South where our narrative family, the Bowdens, live; in their lavish house with its elaborate facade...

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3. Strange Fruit: Candyman and Supernatural Dread

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pp. 59-81

CANDYMAN (BERNARD ROSE, 1992) is an exploration of the genesis, dissemination, and interpretation of myth, as it circulates across differing boundaries of class, race, and gender in Chicago. A cult horror film, the film is unusual in that it links a supernatural tale to the horrors of a racist past and the poverty and urban segregation of many...

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4. Dolores Claiborne: Memorial Dread

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pp. 83-104

WHEREAS CANDYMAN AND CAPE FEAR construct an atmosphere of dread from repressed secrets rooted in the national and historical public spheres, the narrative focus of Dolores Claiborne (Taylor Hackford, 1995) becomes more circumscribed. As a hybrid that blends elements of social realism, murder mystery, and courtroom drama...

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5. Se7en in the Morgue: Dystopian Dread

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pp. 105-126

THROUGH ITS BLEAK PORTRAIT OF a metropolis beset by random, arbitrary, and endless violence and apathy, Se7en (David Fincher, 1995) suggests the complete absence of a future. Instead, the film is set in a perpetual present tense, understood in terms of serial, repetitive trauma. Without markers of time or place, Fincher’s city is allegorically both nowhere and everywhere, prompting our own spectatorial anxiety. ...

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6. Signs of the End of the World: Apocalyptic Dread

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pp. 127-144

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN’S SIGNS (2002) is an extended exploration of the atmosphere of dread in its story of the ominous appearance of crop circles on an isolated family farm. As with his other films, Signs reveals Shyamalan’s mastery of the horror and mystery genres. Self-consciously appropriating the fin-de-siècle’s anxiety about the year 2000, it showcases not only an apocalyptic form of dread, but also a...

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7. War of the Worlds: Uncanny Dread

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pp. 145-153

ACCORDING TO EXHIBITOR RELATIONS, theatrical receipts were down 7.8% in the summer of 2005, and the only blockbusters that made any money were Batman Returns, War of the Worlds, and The Fantastic Four (Gross 14). Adapted from the 1898 H. G. Wells novel about invading Martians that strike at the heart of London, War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005) had seen many previous adaptations, with Paramount...


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pp. 155-174

Works Cited

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pp. 175-179


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pp. 181-195

E-ISBN-13: 9780791480335
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791470435
Print-ISBN-10: 0791470431

Page Count: 207
Illustrations: 13 b/w photographs, 1 table
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: SUNY series, Horizons of Cinema
Series Editor Byline: Murray Pomerance See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 140352762
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Apocalyptic Dread

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Science fiction films -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Disaster films -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Apocalypse in motion pictures.
  • Horror films -- United States -- History and criticism.
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