Originally published in AMP Magazine at UT Dallas on 30 Sept. 2019.
It seems each generation throughout American history undergoes some defining paradigm shift that shapes its collective mindset: Boomers had the counterculture shift of the late 60s, Gen X got Reaganomics, and Gen Z is getting the Earth’s ultimately timely demise. But what about Millennials? The general consensus points to the realization that the world is a horrible place, with events like 9/11, the rise of terorrism, the Great Recession, and return of fascism. Like any era, those ideals are going to be translated into the culture of the day, and with more creative potential than ever, we’ve done a bang-up job of channelling our misery into nihilistic sarcasm. Overly-optimistic odes to world peace sung by hippies? Not for us — give us TikToks of the dream goth girlfriend sucking a spaghetti noodle through her pierced bottom lip.
The millenial nature to default to death and destruction manifests in some interesting ways, especially when the barrier to entry is no higher than a cheap smartphone or free software on a shared computer. As such, the possibility for the internet users of the 2000s to create became immense with the rise of personal computers, and as a result, we got what could collectively be referred to as the weird side of YouTube. In amongst the cursed SFM animatics, weird fetish videos, and lost home movies lays a genre worth a bit more exploration: Emergency Alert System disaster videos. While it probably won’t give way to the next great influencer, the EAS community on YouTube is probably the most millennial shift that the disaster genre could’ve taken, and its connections to the apocalypse and the new obsession with man-made armageddon can tell us a lot about the state of our generation.
What is the EAS?
The Emergency Alert System might be one of the most annoying lifesavers you have the luxury to ignore. The EAS, brought online in 1997, is the latest generation of governmental alert system; the first, the Control of Electromagnetic Radiation system, or CONELRAD, was designed under the Truman Administration and deployed in 1951 at the beginning of the Cold War. It’s worth exploring CONELRAD and its successor, the Emergency Broadcast System, to understand what shaped EAS and the narratives it creates now.
CONELRAD’s primary function was to alert the country to possible missile attacks through a Morse Code-like sequence of turning the signal on and off in specific intervals on certain frequencies, according to a 2004 FCC document. In addition, it had dual functionality as a means of hogging those frequencies to stop enemy missiles from using those frequencies as lines of communication. CONELRAD passably performed its job for 12 years, until the growing tensions of the geopolitical gunpowder keg spurred President Kennedy to beef up the system, which he did, rolling out the Emergency Broadcast System in 1963. The EBS had some major advantages over CONELRAD, the primary one being that EBS worked over both radio and TV signals. In addition, the means of alert changed, from broadcasting tones to actual messages, through the implementation of EBS-specific hardware that would take over with the go-ahead from the President. With the Cuban Missile Crisis occurring just months after its rollout, it seemed like the EBS was going to be an indispensable part of the government’s communications arsenal, but as time went on, it took on a more everyday role; weather alerts.
In the 70s, the office of the President began to authorize the EBS to send out local and regional alerts for severe weather such as tornadoes, blizzards, hurricanes as well as other natural disasters. This is how the EBS truly began to enter the American media psyche: it became a ubiquitous part of small-scale disaster preparation. Weather alerts and the ear-splitting tests that’d ruin sedate days at home, playing hooky from school for the oldest members of the Millennials. EBS operated until 1997, when the Emergency Alert System, (co-operated by the FCC, FEMA, the NWS, and NOAA) took over the job.
The EAS was meant to be future-proof, extending the range of the alerts from broadcast mediums to satellite TV and cellular phone networks. The scope of the alerts also expanded to include things like AMBER Alerts, which had been introduced the year prior. Most notably, the four-year-old system was famously not activated on 9/11. According to a late 2001 New York Times article, this decision was made because non-stop cable news coverage would have rendered its alerts redundant and panic-inducing. But still, the EAS pops up from time to time. Most recently, EAS gave the citizens of Hawai’i a statewide panic attack in early 2018, thanks to an EAS notification being sent out warning of a non-existent ballistic missile during a test. In the aftermath of a small mistake (an EAS operator clicked a button for a real alert rather than a test notification) that undoubtedly gave thousands of people a new kind of PTSD, it begs the question, what’s the value in an error-prone system that’s meant to save lives but ends up spooking people?
Turning Real Fake Disasters into Fake Real Scares
Surely, if the human race saw fit to accelerate its demise by adding some enriched plutonium to that pesky global warming problem, we wouldn’t need the Emergency Alert System to let us know about it. While it could be useful for giving instructions, it’s hard to imagine anything other than instant alerts on smartphones and social media giving us the news of our impending doom. But there’s something inherently terrifying in a signal that overrides everything else, like the EAS would, in the event of a world-ending cataclysm. This is one train of thought that has led us to the wonderfully bleak world of EAS disaster narratives.
Playing out like shrill, poorly produced podcasts, EAS disaster narratives are a collection of “videos” on YouTube that are reproductions of hypothetical disasters befalling some seriously unlucky timelines. Super tornadoes hitting downtown Dallas, 500 Russian and North Korean nukes launching simultaneously, a mysterious fog settling over a formerly-bucolic valley, and even an Independence Day-like alien invasion, are all fates waiting for the citizens of the unfortunate worlds inside these stories, each one differing in approach, execution, and scope. In general, the whole narrative is told through various alerts playing out over a normal network, complete with the horrible screech of the EAS’s alert tone and a grainy, robotic, text-to-speech voice reading out the details of whatever force is bringing the world to its knees.
Armed with the tools necessary to make a simple video, there’s always going to be a few people who go the extra mile. EAS videos are no exception, as some have turned into large-scale efforts, with CGI news crews, legitimate voice acting, light sound design, and even extensions into different mediums, like self-published Amazon books. It’s nothing that’s gonna have Chris Nolan scrambling for his blanket, but there’s something that the EAS taps into: a societal sense of paranoia that the world as we know it could be shattered when a shrieking alarm pierces airwaves across the country. And it’s precisely that it lives on the untamed wild west of the web that makes the EAS disaster genre so gripping, at least for me. Anyone can take a fictional world and destroy it in a matter of minutes. The EAS tones are royalty-free and easy to find, and it doesn’t take much to create a facsimile of the eerie information screen. From there, you’ve got a solid EAS video — although “video” feels like a strange term for a story based almost entirely in sound. Sound familiar?
Podcasts are an undeniable force in storytelling these days. Writing in Library Technology Reports in 2016, MIT librarian Nicole Hennig points out that one of the most powerful assets that podcasts have are the fact that they “aren’t restricted by traditional broadcast regulations, [and] there is a huge variety of programming.” And surely, a medium that makes room for the likes of the McElroy brothers, Joe Rogan, and Serial, must tap into some sense of homemade wonder. Normal people telling their normal stories, at least at first, were the backbone of podcasting. And in some way, the same kind of nuts-and-bolts approach to storytelling has inspired EAS producers. Clearly, these videos aren’t burning up the trending pages on YouTube, but they’re experiencing a boom in popularity, and the popularity of podcasts as low-cost, easily-accessible productions could be something that’s aided that boom.
A Reheated Cold War
In EAS disaster videos, we have the perfect storm of Cloverfield meeting Blair Witch meeting Dr. Strangelove, combined with the charm of a home movie made on a 2007 Dell laptop. That’s great and all, but what’s got the viewers (like me!) going? A quick YouTube search shows the first three scenarios that pop up all involve warfare of some kind: one North Korean nuclear attack, one general nuclear attack, and a final “invasion” of the United States. Considering the EAS itself as a relic of Cold War preparedness, it’s not really a surprise that so many of its most successful narratives play into those themes of nuclear annihilation and World War III. In fact, the last video mentioned could easily just be an adaptation of the 1984 film Red Dawn, which details a Soviet invasion of the United States. With a history steeped in the threat of our national enemies, it makes sense that the two most common kinds of EAS disasters are the ones that it was really used for: meteorological and geopolitical. But, looking at different kinds of disaster media across the past 20 years, an interesting trend emerges.
Up through the end of the Cold War, a great deal of disaster movies focused on man-made tragedies. This grew naturally from the real geopolitical tensions of the time period, but also from humanity’s newfound power to destroy itself. Think of movies like Inferno, where an overzealous new building goes up in flames and a harrowing rescue is staged in the face of American exceptionalism. The real disaster was what we were willing to do to ourselves, what a whole generation’s imbued idea of the apocalypse would be. The disaster was nuclear extinction, but after the end of the Cold War and through the 90s, the biggest threat we face morphed into something else. The focus shifted over to movies like Twister, Volcano, and the one-two punch of Deep Impact and Armageddon, all with a common theme: natural destruction. As our culture moved on from the idea that we would destroy each other, our media reflected that and refocused on the things we couldn’t control. Enter the short-lived natural disaster flick, which centered on how we, as humankind, had to come together just like the world was doing in that moment in history. Then 9/11 came along and a new generation got a new defining moment of horror to launch its destructive fears.
A resurgence of man-made terror and desecration has been reflected in interesting ways in media. Elements of natural destruction are still present, such as the rising seas of Day After Tomorrow, but there’s an important caveat: this is our fault. We did ourselves in. It’s not as common of a thread, mostly because disaster narratives fell out of vogue after the real world was reshaped in the face of a major disaster, but it’s observable. Man-made disaster has made a resurgence (Sharknado aside) and I’ll say that EAS disaster videos are one of the purest revitalizations of that genre.
That being said, media artifacts and themes are’t the only things being brought back. The beliefs of the Cold War — fear mongering, threats of death, and a deep-seated terror of the other — have all seen a similar resurgence, culminating in the election of a bad Chester Cheetah cosplayer into the White House. It’s interesting, then, to think of how EAS videos are experiencing a similarly-timed resurgence, especially as a substantial branch of the President’s support comes from the equally fascinating and terrifying QAnon.
Nostalgic for Nickelodeon and Nukes
Those are all parts of the story that serve to explain why EAS videos have become more than a blip on the cultural radar, but there’s also something else at play. Without further legitimizing QAnon or podcasts, there’s a powerful dose of nostalgia in the EAS. For so many millennials, we grew up being periodically spooked by the tests that would cut into whatever brightly-colored bit of fluff was filling our developing brains. The dissonance of those experiences seemed incredibly off-putting at the time, but then the world experienced that exact dissonance on 9/11. As non-EAS YouTuber Pad Chennington explains in his chef d’œuvre, “Vaporwave & 9/11: A Nostalgic Connection,” 9/11 functions as a harsh breaking point in the collective memory of twentysomethings, where the nostalgia stops and reality sets in, as war, debt, and death took over the news cycles.
It’s evident that Millennial-driven pop culture has been defined by nostalgia and sinking back into the past. But 9/11 has had a strange effect on nostalgia, not just with respect to vaporwave (if you’re not familiar, it’s a genre of music relying on 80s pop samples that sounds like what the recently shuttered Collin Creek Mall in 1985 did), but to every bit of pop culture. So while we go around buying shirts with the Rugrats on them, there’s something that’s triggered in our memories when we hear the same tone that cut them off on some lazy summer day years ago. The robbery of nostalgia, the feeling that forms the core of the Millennial identity in 2019, feels like a threat to who we are. The fact that the EAS did that in real time decades ago means that its being repurposed into a prop of amateur disaster stories is an incredibly effective piece of horror. Not only does it signal us to the end of a fun show, it signals what could be the end of our lives.
End of Transmission
It’s impossible to deny, 2019 is a pretty bleak year. The future doesn’t look much better, either, so why should we think about one of the few things that’s able to get a rise out of people in the horror department? Well, for one, it’s a reminder of our own primal urge to survive. Even if they take our childhood icons, there’s a sense in EAS disaster videos that someone, somewhere is going to make it. Someone has to be there in the aftermath of the catastrophe to switch off the signal, and start fixing things, even if it’s our assailants. Fear is one of the few emotions that we haven’t culturally dulled down to a nub, even if the deluge of blockbusters like It, Hereditary, A Quiet Place, and Midsommar give us plenty of options to scare the shit out of ourselves. EAS disasters make it feel less fantastical and more real. Just like Hawai’ians discovered back in 2018, it could happen tomorrow.
On top of this, there’s something charming about the resurgence of a Cold War warning device as a storytelling medium. There’s a certain art to it: determining exactly how much detail to give, who’s giving it, what the outcome will be. It’s more complex than it may seem, and it’s a great thing to put on in the background if you’re looking to be entertained while also making peace with your mortality while doing something else. We’ll be true multitasking millennial scum to the bitter end.
Finally, maybe there’s a perverse relief to the nihilism of the age in EAS disasters. Imagining a future where everything just stops, where we don’t have to watch the planet choke and incinerate us, or capitalism run wild into unrest and class strife, almost feels like an out to imagining those real threats to our current existence. There’s not the same level of surrealist terror as 50s disaster narratives but the means of destruction are, in a way, so much more comforting. So with the final thought that nuclear death is preferable to being mowed down by an Amazon Prime Death Squad in autonomous armored Teslas, maybe the best way to escape is to imagine all the other ways the world could end. In short, pop some corn and hit play on an EAS scenario. Get a feel for a different kind of disaster. And then, for god’s sake, take a walk. Breathe in some semi-clean air. Take off your shoes and run through the grass. You might not be able to tomorrow.