December 21, 2006 6:59 PM   Subscribe

Threads (Google Video, 1hr 50min). Classic Reagan/Thatcher era nuclear war film that scared the bejeezus out of everyone in 1984 (including my 14-year-old self). [good background previously]
posted by schoolgirl report (91 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
First time I saw that on TV (only a few years back, I think it had been buried previously) I seriously needed a hug afterwards.
posted by Artw at 7:03 PM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Coincidentally enough, I have been watching The Day After on the SciFi Channel just now.

After watching "The Day After" when it originally ran, in 1983, I went through a very bleak spell of thinking everything in the world was a total waste of time. I can remember watching "The Price Is Right" with my roommate and breaking down into tears because people were so excited about winning a washing machine, but the world could end in a moment's notice.

I did not get to see "Threads" for a few years -- it did not appear on American television until several years later -- and, having gotten through that hopeless phase with the earlier film, did not find "Threads" nearly so frightening, even though content-wise it is a good deal more bleak about the long-term prospects of the post-nuclear world.
posted by briank at 7:09 PM on December 21, 2006

Threads scarred me forever. No, really, I mean it. We were all so frightened back in the early 80s, and the movie was all too plausible.
posted by jokeefe at 7:16 PM on December 21, 2006

I recall The Day After being scorned by critics as American pro-war propoganda compared to Threads, due to it's relative optimism about functioning government.
posted by CynicalKnight at 7:18 PM on December 21, 2006

I, as an elementary school kid had a similar sort of existential break down. Sad as that sounds, my parents encouraged me to write my feelings down and send them to the person I felt most responsible for my fate, Ronald Reagan.

After my letter was sent I received a response! How thrilled I was as I gazed at the envelope with the Whitehouse letterhead in the corner. Unfortunately the envelope contained not the answers to my fears and worries as expected. Instead it contained a note with a very form letter feel that had no real connection to my original letter (though it was actually signed by Ronnie). The form letter assured me however that the build up of nuclear arms was actually making me safer rather than bringing me closer to the brink of utter planitary extinction.

Even to my very young brain this complete horse shit did not add up. I was furious and afterwards spent my youthful, angsty days campaigning for Mondale. I have loathed Ronald Reagan and all his appologists since. Thank god I was away from Washington (and in a last bastion of socialist dictatorship) when he died so that I was spared most of the fellatio.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:21 PM on December 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

Holy Crap, thank you schoolgirl report.
I made an awful recording of this back in 1985 when it was on PBS. A favorite! I haven't seen it in twenty years, but the Sheffield bomb shelter scenes scared me the most. Now I just get me some popcorn and comfortable slippers.
posted by nj_subgenius at 7:24 PM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

in the early '60's this movie scared the bejeebers out of me.
posted by quonsar at 7:24 PM on December 21, 2006

'That high pitched sound you hear will be the telephone melting from the heat of the thermonuclear blast.' Yes, Fail-Safe, a cracker to be sure...
posted by nj_subgenius at 7:27 PM on December 21, 2006

No coincidence, briank, I was watching The Day After myself (it's a sloooow TV night) and it got me wondering if Threads was out there on the web.

On a similar note, the movie Anna, a documentary about the Soviet Union told from the filmmaker's point of view, includes a scene where the filmmaker's children begin to cry out of fear of nuclear war with the States. It was quite striking to see, years later, that Soviet kids were deathly afraid of the same thing I was so worried about at the time. Excellent film if you can find it.
posted by schoolgirl report at 7:31 PM on December 21, 2006

I was surprised to find upon reviewing The Day After on SciFi that it's like 50 times more bleak and damaging than I remember it.
posted by The Straightener at 7:31 PM on December 21, 2006

a short clip from fail-safe with walter matthau as prototypical neocon.
posted by quonsar at 7:31 PM on December 21, 2006

After my letter was sent I received a contained a note with a very form letter feel that had no real connection to my original letter...

Me too! Unfortunately I wrote not only because I was afraid, but because I had read an article (in National Geographic "World" or some other magazine for kids) about a 7-year old girl who had written a letter and got to go to Russia as some sort of "peace envoy".

Yes, I had ulterior motives. Embarassing. I deserved a form letter.
posted by nekton at 7:42 PM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is STILL, and I suspect will always be, one of the most horrific films I have ever seen.

I saw it that first Sunday morning when it played (only once I believe) on TBS back in January 85, and even though I watched it peeking from under a blanket, it's scenes burnt themselves into my brain indelibly. I havent forgotten it at all in 21 years having only seen it that one time.

Interesting bit of trivia: Ted Turner wanted so badly to have this shown in the US, that he essentially ran this on his own dime, out of his own pocket. The other networks wouldnt touch it, as the much-less-harsh The Day After even found it hard to sell ad minutes.

While I wasnt allowed to see The Day After when it originally aired, in the last few years I have heard alot of stories about the infamous Nightline that ran immediately following it. It featured government flacks vs. Carl Sagan. It's where Sagan famously compared the nuclear arms race to he presented the vivid analogy that the arms race "two men standing waist deep in gasoline -- one with three matches, the other with five." I would love to see that turn up on Google video.

Thanks for posting this. I think even now in out post-Cold War days, this should be required viewing in schools.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 7:44 PM on December 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

I love Fail-Safe, quonsar. Did you know it's based on the same novel as Dr. Strangelove?
posted by dobbs at 7:46 PM on December 21, 2006

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! I've been looking for this forever. I saw it once while I was going through my Reagan-era, "The Day After", we're-all-gonna-die-in-a-flash-of-light phase (I was 15 after all). I can't wait to relive the horror.
posted by scblackman at 8:04 PM on December 21, 2006

Todays growabrain
posted by hortense at 8:07 PM on December 21, 2006

The first ten minutes or so sound like an episode of Two Pints. Eerily.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:13 PM on December 21, 2006

I downloaded it from here a while ago.

I remember watching it in 1984(ish) and is scared the bejeezus out of me. I watched it recently with my wife and it's still as effective as it was then.

A great effort made on a shoestring budget
posted by mattoxic at 8:14 PM on December 21, 2006

And can I recommend Defcon enough?

Great post.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:14 PM on December 21, 2006

Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove, On the Beach, The Day After and freaking THREADS. I had an obsession with end of the world movies and books (Alas, Babylon) as a teen. Threads was the one though, that gave me serious nightmares.
posted by Skygazer at 8:15 PM on December 21, 2006

Scblackman: I can't wait to relive the horror.

Well then, I would also recommend the first disc of season one of the new Battlestar Galactica. Mushroom clouds galore dude...
posted by Skygazer at 8:20 PM on December 21, 2006

THis is one of my top two most depressing movies ever, the other being Grave of the Fireflies. I think whoever wrote Threads had read the terrific post-apocalypse novel Riddley Walker.

Absolutely horrific and chilling. Left me weepy for days.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:20 PM on December 21, 2006

In 1983 and 1984, every time I heard a siren, there was at least a split second where I thought that was it, the birds are in the air, those bastards, they've finally went and done it (*shakes fists in impotent rage*.) Living near Three Mile Island didn't help either.

I've only been able to watch Threads once, but it's one of the few vhs tapes I've held onto. Someday I'll get up the guts to watch it again.

Here's Peter Watkins' The War Game on dailymotion and on youtube. I kind of get these two intertwined in my memory.

And I'd like to add to the Fail-Safe lovefest. I still haven't seen the live tv remake that Clooney et al did a few years back. I had to work that night and the vcr failed. Anyone have an opinion as to whether it's worth tracking down? (There's no region 1 dvd as far as I know.) And did you know that both Dr. Strangelove (the character) and Walter Matthau's character in Fail-Safe were both based on Herman Kahn?
posted by jessenoonan at 8:22 PM on December 21, 2006

No love for the bastard child of Fail-Safe, War Games?
posted by Pollomacho at 8:31 PM on December 21, 2006

Oh god. And now a woman's pissed herself, and the nuking's started. This will not wendell.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:31 PM on December 21, 2006

"In 1983 and 1984, every time I heard a siren, there was at least a split second where I thought that was it"

The more people of my generation (b. 74) that I talk to, the more common I realize this was.

Horrific nuclear war dreams werent an occasional thing when I was a kid. They happened ALOT.

In fact, heres a funny story. When I was 11 years old, I was so paranoid about imminent nuclear war I was even jolted by a Pepsi commercial.

In like early 1985, Pepsi ran an ad that started like any other, but halfway through, the screen went to white noise with a Civil Defense style voice saying something along the lines of "This is not a test" or whatever.
Every single time I saw that commercial. Every time.
Even though I knew it was coming, my heart STILL pounded through my ribcage and I immediately started flipping through the other channels to make sure everything was OK (a ritual I would repeat a million times in the 80s whenever something like that would happen)

Eghh. It's good to let this stuff out ya know?

But yea, the more people I meet that grew up in the 80s, the more I hear how we were all being turned into shellshocked little spazzs.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 8:32 PM on December 21, 2006

nekton: Me too! Unfortunately I wrote not only because I was afraid, but because I had read an article (in National Geographic "World" or some other magazine for kids) about a 7-year old girl who had written a letter and got to go to Russia as some sort of "peace envoy".

Thanks for reminding me about Samantha Smith.
posted by hangashore at 8:35 PM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

dobbs : Dr Strangelove is based on an obscure 1958 novel called Red Alert (I read it some years ago - much of the B52 part of the movie came from it), while Fail Safe is based on the more well known 1962 novel also called Fail Safe. Both books have the same basic plot.
posted by rfs at 8:40 PM on December 21, 2006

and I immediately started flipping through the other channels to make sure everything was OK.

I would do that everytime I heard a test of the emergency broadcast system on the radio or TV. Actually to this day when there is sudden dead air for more then a few seconds on the radio, I bug out a little.
posted by Skygazer at 8:48 PM on December 21, 2006

Senor Cardgage: Yeah, I had the dreams, too. Still remember a couple of them vividly.

Oh yeah! Man, your flipping channels thing sounds really familiar too... I don't think it was a ritual for me, but I remember thinking that if none of the channels had any Emergency Broadcast System or special reports or anything, that it must be okay. Wow.

The truly sick thing is, when they started using EBS for Amber Alerts, the first time I saw one I was 1)scared when I saw that it wasn't a test 2)weirdly disappointed that it was "just" an Amber Alert. (Then relieved! Then relieved! And, and concerned for the missing kid! And all the appropriate stuff! Cause I'm not a total ghoul!)
posted by jessenoonan at 8:53 PM on December 21, 2006

Awesome. I'm halfway through On The Beach and I'd forgotten how relentless Threads is. It's amazing how eerie they make it feel.
posted by RokkitNite at 8:54 PM on December 21, 2006

That new EBS sound is fantastically scary.
You can never get used to it.
It's primal in how it affects ya.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 8:55 PM on December 21, 2006

There's a much smaller scale US TV movie called "Special Bulletin" that sort of fits in here. It isn't about nuclear apocolypse, but nuclear terrorism, with nominal anti-nuke protesters commandeering and arming a nuclear weapon of the coast of Charleston, S.C. Its done "War of the Worlds"-like as an on the spot news broadcast.

It chilled me and I loved it when I saw it in '83 or '84, whenever it was on, and was surprised a few years later to find out that it had been made by Ed Zwick who went on to do "Thirty-something", "Glory", and thc current "Blood Diamond"
posted by hwestiii at 8:58 PM on December 21, 2006

99 luft balloons.
posted by matty at 9:17 PM on December 21, 2006

Instead it contained a note with a very form letter feel that had no real connection to my original letter (though it was actually signed by Ronnie).

I actually feel bad about shattering that last illusion.

The Day After hit me pretty hard. Then I saw Threads. The first told me just how bad it was going to be. The last said, no, seriously, you have NO FUCKING IDEA how bad this is going to be.
posted by eriko at 9:39 PM on December 21, 2006

jessenoonan, the Clooney remake of Fail Safe was awesome. I saw it in a hotel room at the beach and I had to scrap some of my plans that day b/c I couldn't stop watching.

What I really loved was how clean and smart it came off as. It looked like a low budget, high concept piece of art. No f/x or music, just people reacting to things spinning out of control.
posted by codswallop at 9:43 PM on December 21, 2006

Thanks, rfs. My mistake.
posted by dobbs at 9:51 PM on December 21, 2006

This is so perfectly timed. I've been a little obsessed with recalling my childhood nuclear war fears lately. The Protect and Survive" BBC public service ads are particularly haunting, with instructions on how to dispose of bodies and how to avoid nuclear fallout. The ads are shown in pieces in Threads.

I was born in 1975. In the early 80s I remember seeing a show on TV about nuclear war. In the show they said, "If there is a nuclear war, be prepared to die." I will never ever forget that, or how afraid it made me feel.
posted by loiseau at 9:53 PM on December 21, 2006

Merry Christmas
posted by cmacleod at 9:57 PM on December 21, 2006

This has made my day. I remember this scaring the shit out of me when my religious studies teacher answered the request for a video with "okay, you can watch Threads". And this was me as a 13 year old in sleepy post Cold War Kent in 1993. He was later arrested for child abuse (no joke, although obviously the charge was related to activities other than this). Will have to watch this all over again and relive the nostalgia.
posted by greycap at 10:03 PM on December 21, 2006

Great post. Carthartic comments. This movie terrified me as a Reagan-era child. Damn him and his neocon ilk to hell for giving me and my loved ones nightmares of nuclear annihilation.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:19 PM on December 21, 2006

I was born in the early 80s, and even though I have no conscious memory of what was going on politically at the time, I do remember vivid, recurrent night terrors that were about nuclear war. Strangely, they weren't about the aftermath, but the intense sense of dread and foreboding that the prospect of nuclear war brought -- every time, I was harvesting something in fields when the missiles were launched, and I was so terrified that I woke up screaming my head off.

Those scared the shit out of me back then, and they still haunt me intermittently today.
posted by kdar at 10:22 PM on December 21, 2006

Just watched Threads for the first time. Hmm...not very nice to watch before bedtime is it? Though it did make me somewhat nostalgic for the Reagan era, in a strange sort of way. But this was excellent, horrifying and excellent. Way better than I remember The Day After being.
posted by schmedeman at 10:23 PM on December 21, 2006

Thanks, codswallop. That sounds like just what I was hoping it would be. I'll have to do some poking around on this here internet... and thanks schoolgirl report for a great movie and everyone for a fun thread of nostalgia for...well, for the terrible psychological damage that we all seem to have suffered.
posted by jessenoonan at 10:25 PM on December 21, 2006

I saw this two years ago after reading about it and wanting desperately to track down a copy so I could sate my thirst for gritty, pitch-black apocalyptic fiction. In an intellectual sense I think I'm glad I did, but that movie terrified me and haunted my waking hours for a week. To this day, even seeing stills from the movie triggers unpleasant memories.

I think one of the key moments in Threads that hints at the sheer devastation was the initial attack on Sheffield, which starts like so many nuclear attack scenes appear to—a giant nuclear explosion in the background, a caption about the warheads dropped on the nearby RAF base, and then scenes of chaos, broken glass and fallen bodies on one of the main streets of Sheffield, like all hell has broken loose.

And then another flash to white, and suddenly another caption on black: a huge number of warheads drop on Sheffield itself. Then the screen shows nothing but fire and devastation, bodies melting into skeletons, children turning into dust, and it's as if the producers are saying to you, "no, THAT'S how bad it will be." You won't have time to run to your loved ones, you won't have time to run out of the cities, you will just turn to ashes and that'll be it—if you're lucky. And amazingly, Threads only gets worse from that ghoulish bait and switch.

An astounding piece of cinema, and indeed the most horrifying thing I have ever seen.
posted by chrominance at 10:26 PM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Same here, everyone. I remember reading this book entitled "Dome" when I was in high school. In the book, the world gets annihilated by nuclear weapons and war plagues. I had to keep stopping.

Threads is the same way. Just too realistic. I couldn't stomach it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go watch the intro to Fallout and pray I don't get sucked in again.
posted by Kikkoman at 10:32 PM on December 21, 2006

Is it just me, or were most of your nightmares less about the explosion, or the aftermath, and more about the 30 minutes (supposedly) that you had to get your things in order and get to shelter?
posted by Senor Cardgage at 10:41 PM on December 21, 2006

Wow. I'm glad I'm not alone in growing up with nuclear fears. After watching The Day After, I remember feeling resentment that I lived in a rural area that was likely to survive an initial strike, but be devestated by fallout. Figured it would be better to live in a city and just be vaporized. Luckily, my parents explained to me the idea behind MAD, and that whoever launches a nuke is essentially willing the same devestation upon themselves. It made me feel a little better, but for a long time, every time I heard the roar of engine in the sky, it seemed out of place in the small town I grew up in, and I had to double check it wasn't a missile.

Not to derail, but memories of growing up with such pervasive fear makes the current terrorist fearmongering laughable and transparent by comparison.
posted by Nquire at 11:12 PM on December 21, 2006

*devastate (should've previewed, or not post while drinking)
posted by Nquire at 11:14 PM on December 21, 2006

If you need more fictional nuclear war in your life, Empty World has a pretty comprehensive list.
posted by cmonkey at 11:22 PM on December 21, 2006

Slightly off-topic, anyone ever see Miracle Mile?
posted by Senor Cardgage at 11:36 PM on December 21, 2006

I was 12 when this came out. I couldn't finish it and I still can't bring myself to watch it again. It was that horrifying.

I live in one of the proverbial "first 15 minutes" cities that would be among the first to catch a nuke. There were 18 silos around the city, a Strategic Air Command base which housed a large contingent of A-10 ground attack aircraft as well as a nuclear-armed GLCM unit, and an Air National Guard base. Every time the F-16s would go screaming away at 2 AM, I feared the bombs were incoming. Every time I heard the EBS signal I was scared, and like some have mentioned, I checked other channels for the signal. (One day I actually ran across the same signal on a second channel. Scary as hell.) Air raid siren tests freaked me out too. And it's good to read that I wasn't the only one, not by a long shot.
posted by azpenguin at 11:42 PM on December 21, 2006


Well, no, I can say more. My God, that was harrowing. Everything I'd ever heard it was.

At the same time I can see it with distance. The dramatic license that had a sub sunk, a battlefield nuke exchange, and still allowed for a couple of days' escalation may have worked for the story, but I don't think it really reflects doctrine of either superpower.

The last third was almost impossibly bleak. One of the things that generally annoys me about post-nuclear-war stories is that they focus on their own audience's population and treat it as isolated. I can't believe that any US-USSR war would have necessarily completely devastated even all the NATO powers, let alone all the industrialized countries out of the fight. The UN would have pulled together a relief effort that should have been visible -- well, within months anyway. (Yes, it would have been pitifully inadequate at first.) The longer-term effects would have been to expand the economies of the moderate industrial powers -- South America, India, China (who knows, even Australia). Less demand for high-tech goods, more demand for hammers and basic tractors and, well, guns. There would have been housing for people and a return to some semblance of normality -- a new, reduced normality -- after a year or two. I don't see civil society in a wholesale collapse.

Obviously that doesn't help a story like this get its point across, though. And even saying it sounds ghoulish, a bit "no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops".

Another point, regarding this and almost every other story, is the requirement of either a stupid superpower brinksmanship episode, or some sort of crazy cabal within one government (as small as one missile commander), or just a general sense of "Well, they finally did it." The more I studied policy during that period the more I felt that it was carefully designed -- on any "side" -- to build in de-escalation opportunities, so that wouldn't really happen. My greater fear became accidental war because of a wonky satellite or completely botched command-and-control. Sicker in a way -- the end of the world nobody actually ordered, like the theory that World War I happened because once everyone started to mobilize they all had to follow through with going to war.

As for fear nostalgia -- if we may call it that -- it was once said that the problem with the movement to "raise awareness" of the threat of nuclear war was doomed because it was so omnipresent everyone had already built in their own personal defense mechanism to avoid thinking about it.

Per azpenguin, I remember a guy at camp who was a bit wonky like me. We ended up having a pissing match over whose city was more likely to be blown to bits in a first strike. It strikes me now as a rather bizarre way to express civic pride. We're so important, the Russians can't let us survive!

And of course, it's blindingly obvious now that Sting's "I hope the Russians love their children too" was redundant. Of course they did. It was a way to get you to humanize the enemy, though, and of course that's what made some people angry at the time.

Was that Cate Blanchett, as the newscaster, at about 34:30?

Lesley Judd, going by IMDB.

Cate Blanchett was 14 or so.
posted by dhartung at 12:54 AM on December 22, 2006

I just finished watching this, and I feel numb. I had read a summary of the plot before I saw this film, so I knew what was coming, and I knew to avert my eyes from the screen at the very final scene. But even prepared, the movie was a shock.

And I think: how is it that threat of nuclear war seems to have dropped off many people's radar screens? It seems to have been drowned out in all the discussion, debate, and fear over other issues: environmental disasters, terrorism, global warming, economic crises, avian influenza, peak oil, etc. etc. Yet even a "limited" nuclear war would make all these issues moot.

As the movie clearly demonstrates, we'd all be back in the Mediaeval Ages again, if not the Stone Age.
posted by Quiplash at 1:43 AM on December 22, 2006

Watching that incredibly grim movie which I should have never peeked at let alone watch entirely in my current mental state reminded me of something I read a couple years ago, a projection of a full-bore nuclear war in 1988. This guy's a little sunnier: he figures about 1/3 to 1/4 of people in the US and Europe survive the aftermath, 1/2 to 3/5 or so in the Soviet Union. Something more in line with what dhartung said.

posted by furiousthought at 1:57 AM on December 22, 2006

So strange to see this post since I just stumbled on this same video a few days ago and watched it (for the second time). chrominance's comment about the bait and switch is right on. I knew it was coming this time and it still made me gasp and burst into tears. It doesn't help that the little boy Michael looks a lot like my husband did at that age.

A lot of people have said that Threads makes The Day After look like a tea party, and it is so true. I remember seeing The Day After's first broadcast and being freaked out. But Threads is so much more intense.

One thing to note is that there are some glitches in the Google Video version that actually seem to cut out some substantial chunks of footage. Not enough to really change anything, but there are some small things you might miss. (The degradation of language in the next generation, for one... a bunch of their speech is lost in the glitch near the end). Speaking of language, is there anyone here who has the DVD? Does it have subtitles? I had trouble with the Sheffield accents sometimes and it would be nice to see it subtitled, but OTOH that would mean watching it again...

I strongly recommend looking at Cute Overload for a while to cheer up after watching Threads.
posted by litlnemo at 2:16 AM on December 22, 2006

Similar existential dread after the shock and awe of seeing Jane Alexander's emotionally shattering performance in Testament. And Strieber and Kunetka's fascinating novel Warday too.
posted by pax digita at 4:30 AM on December 22, 2006


Sorry, couldn't resist.
posted by bwg at 5:23 AM on December 22, 2006

Senor cardgage, yes, to your question; my nightmares were about driving around, lost, looking for shelter, as the bombs were beginning to fall and knowing it was all futile anyway.

I don't think nuclear war has dropped off of the radar, I just think it's so overwhelmingly depressing and horrifying that people don't think about it--because really, what can we do except hope we go quickly if it happens? And maybe it's cowardly, but I don't want me or my loved ones to survive it--nothing to look forward to but suffering and a painful slower death while the world dies around you.

The only comfort I take is that somewhere in a cave or next to a seafloor vent, some form of bacterial life will probably survive even when the rest of the planet's toast. Not much comfort, but I take what I can get.
posted by emjaybee at 6:09 AM on December 22, 2006

Cardgage: I have Miracle Mile out from Netflix right now. I think I'm going to wait til after Christmas to go on a nuke-movie bender (I've also got This is Not a Test, Le Dernier Combat, and The Atomic Cafe on the watch pile. And probably others I'm forgetting. I read this book a while ago and filled up my queue, but just haven't been in the mood to watch many of them.)

The only nightmares that I remember clearly were of seeing the mushroom clouds in the distance, and having to figure out what to do. So yeah pretty similar, although mine weren't so much frantic as just bleak. I remember the visuals better than the actual events of the dreams though, so I may have made up the "stories" afterwards.
posted by jessenoonan at 6:32 AM on December 22, 2006

Best followed with a When The Wind Blows chaser.
posted by stx23 at 6:49 AM on December 22, 2006

The dramatic license that had a sub sunk, a battlefield nuke exchange, and still allowed for a couple of days' escalation may have worked for the story, but I don't think it really reflects doctrine of either superpower.

No, in 1984, there would have been no escalation. The moment someone used a battlefield nuke, the USSR would have launched a full counterforce strike against the US. Hell, I doubt they would have waited that long.

For most of the early 1980s, the USSR was using a policy of "launch on first threat", not "launch on first warning."

We didn't know this at the time. We were rather lucky to have lived through the period.
posted by eriko at 7:46 AM on December 22, 2006

Err, " there would have been no slow escalation". Sorry.
posted by eriko at 7:48 AM on December 22, 2006

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas!

(sound caution)
posted by CynicalKnight at 8:06 AM on December 22, 2006

I was terrified of nuclear war now and then throughout my childhood (hence my letter). We lived in a small town close to an army base and would often hear planes that didn't sound like civilian jets. I tried to learn all about the different planes at the base so I could reassure myself (i.e. "Oh, that's just a transport plane, I guess I don't need to hide under the covers...")

I also used to run into the other room when the EBS came on.

Of course, now I happen to live within the evacuation zone for a nuclear power plant. Every year the town sends us a calendar with a map of the evacuation route and cheery sidebars that say things like "Have you prepared your evacuation kit? Don't forget water!"

This is probably an appropriate place for PBS's
"Race for the Superbomb" Map-A-Blast. You should also check out the panic quiz due to its ability to make you feel paranoid and uneasy (as if pretending to bomb the closest urban center to see if you'll be vaporized iisn't fun enough.)
posted by nekton at 8:10 AM on December 22, 2006

Man, I thought I was the only kid neurotic enough in the 70s to be worried about nuclear war. Glad to know I wasn't alone.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 8:26 AM on December 22, 2006

my nightmares were about driving around

I'd forgotten about those, but I still have them occasionally. Desperately trying to get out of town around solid traffic jams, driving down culverts and through back yards until the car is damaged to the point further travel is impossible. Then everything goes white.
posted by CynicalKnight at 8:44 AM on December 22, 2006

That's funny, nekton, I just received my combination historic photographs/how-to-survive-a-nuke-plant-disaster calendar myself. Does yours come with an order form for free iodine pills?
posted by schoolgirl report at 10:20 AM on December 22, 2006

As seriously lame as it sounds to say out loud, I think in a funny way been kind of therapeutic for me.

Not that I was particularly paralyzed by any of this stuff, but it did feel really good to find out how common alot of that anxiety was.

So thanks guys!
posted by Senor Cardgage at 10:24 AM on December 22, 2006

Douglas Coupland writes about the nuclear fears in one of his books (and I'm blanking on which one, dammit): about anticipating the flash, which would come first. And looking out from the windows of his high school classroom, which had a view over the whole city (and I can attest to that, as we went to the same high school) and wondering how it would look. It was a universal fear, as far as I knew, back then. I also remember that there was some controversy over The Day After, that some of the powers that be didn't want it to run because it would be aiding the terrorists too upsetting.

My dream involved trying to get away, on foot, after the flash, and waiting for the blast. And running like hell.
posted by jokeefe at 10:30 AM on December 22, 2006

Hear, hear. My parents should have prevented me (as an 11 year old) from watching that.

I remember wondering what the definition of "depressing" was after we watched it because that's all anyone could say when the credits rolled.
posted by aether1 at 10:58 AM on December 22, 2006

Wow, so either I was terribly sheltered, or 1977 was too late. I remember the one time we practiced a bomb drill in grade school, but past that I don't remember any overt fears of nuclear annihilation.
posted by khaibit at 11:17 AM on December 22, 2006

What Cardgage said. Thanks everybody.

jokeefe: was that in Generation X? It's been a long time since I read that, but that rings a bell.
posted by jessenoonan at 12:02 PM on December 22, 2006

Of course we weren't alone. How quickly such a fact becomes obscured.

Well, big mistake: I watched it, and am pretty fucked up now. My childhood fears were quite dark -- reading There Will Come Soft Rains did more to me than any TV show or movie of the period to crystallize them -- but watching this with an adult's eye, it's the little domestic moments that pack the most horror, not the flash. The weeping husband trying to console his hideously burned wife, saying he'd trade places with her. The way Ruth weeps for her daughter. That charred book of birds.

Like the 11-year-old in the linked study (more imaginative than me at that age I guess), I'd be afraid of not being able to kill myself quickly enough, but I'd be most afraid of watching who I love best die in slow agony, with no method or courage to put him out of his misery. That's what I never understood about building a concrete bunker or buying an old missile silo and stockpiling it -- so you live out your days eating the last food ever mass produced and reading the last books ever written and thinking about what the birdless sky must look like, and what's crawling all over the earth feeding on the dead. There's only one item required in that situation, and it's a gun.

At any rate: amazing post and discussion. Thanks, schoolgirl report.
posted by melissa may at 1:29 PM on December 22, 2006 [3 favorites]

my religious studies teacher answered the request for a video with "okay, you can watch Threads".

Our chaplain did exactly the same thing to us in 1990! (He went on to be a headmaster though)

What an awful, awful film. Thank you for finding this schoolgirl report.
posted by dmt at 1:54 PM on December 22, 2006

Thanks for posting this.
posted by interrobang at 2:09 PM on December 22, 2006

jokeefe - I believe it was Coupland's book "Life After God." There are a few sub-chapters in which he writes "I was at the office/mall/home when it happened..." and describes the nightmare that everyone who was conscious in the 80's had. I went to school in Burnaby, and had the same feeling of watching the skies.

Also, Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov [wiki] should be, must be remembered as the man who saved us all from what those films promised.
posted by Zack_Replica at 2:45 PM on December 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

Let's go dig up Reagan and beat the (dusty) piss out of him for what he did to us!
posted by Senor Cardgage at 2:45 PM on December 22, 2006

jokeefe: "Douglas Coupland writes about the nuclear fears in one of his books (and I'm blanking on which one, dammit): about anticipating the flash, which would come first."

Life After God. But the allusions are a bit of a fixture in his writing. I gather this part of history is significant for him as well.

I was going to mention that a work that really stood out for me was James Clavell's The Children's Story. When I read it I was too young to truly understand it, but still was haunted by it. I'd like to find a copy and read it again.

I have really appreciated this discussion. Most of my friends are just a bit younger than me and just don't have the imprint of nuclear war fear. I'm glad to hear that others share my experience.
posted by loiseau at 3:11 PM on December 22, 2006

To make a happy thread even happier, here's an article from The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about firestorms, and why they've been underestimated. (I'd just watched the bit in "Threads" of the fires raging, and realised that the producers had possibly put the megatonnage [a word like megadeath that had to be invented for the nuclear age] on the low side (3000 total worldwide), and after a full-scale war, it's quite possble that half of the Earth would be on fire.

On an up note, even though North Korea has tested a nuke, the Doomsday Clock still stands at seven minutes to midnight.
posted by Zack_Replica at 3:16 PM on December 22, 2006

"half of the Earth..." probably not. On second thought, that's pointless exaggeration, sorry. I still think 3000 megatons might be low, as I'm sure other countries would want to throw their hats in the ring. *bleah*
posted by Zack_Replica at 3:28 PM on December 22, 2006

Bad Tym it wuz then. Peapl din no if they wud be alyv 1 day tu the nex. Din even no if theyd be alyv 1 min tu the nex. Sum stuk tu gether sum din. Sum tyms thay dru lots. Sum got et so uthers cud liv. Cudn be shur uv nuthing din no wut wuz sayf tu eat or drink & tryin tu keap wyd uv uther forajers & dogs it wuz nuthing onle Luck if enne 1 stayd alyv.
-- Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker
posted by Ritchie at 6:08 PM on December 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

In 1983 and 1984, every time I heard a siren, there was at least a split second where I thought that was it, the birds are in the air, those bastards, they've finally went and done it (*shakes fists in impotent rage*.) Living near Three Mile Island didn't help either.
I lived in very nearly the same part of Pennsylvania, jessenoonan: Mechanicsburg, less than a half mile from the gates of the Naval Ships Parts Control Center. I lived there from 1984 on, and was in Catholic school at the time, and I remember being very concerned that I would not in fact have time to say an Act of Contrition before dying because rumor had it the NSPCC was a first-strike target.

What's astonishing to me in hindsight is how normal this thinking was to everyone. Everyone in that area thought this way, more or less, with no particular comment.

Dark days.
posted by scrump at 6:40 PM on December 22, 2006

I went ahead and posted the Samantha Smith story. Thanks for a magnificent thread all.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:43 AM on December 23, 2006

Oh yeah Threads is even worse than The Day After.

I still remember TDA from childhood. Scary at it was it both terrorized, but also made many realize a nuclear war couldn't have produced any winner, ever.

Makes me thing : what about a TDA on war on drugs, war on terror, "war" on welfare.
posted by elpapacito at 5:18 PM on December 23, 2006

I guess I'm the only other person who remembers Special Bulletin. I can't say that I was terrified by it, but the water cooler discussions the following day were fascinating. Oddly enough, the nuclear terrorist scenario has ended up being almost topical.
posted by mkhall at 8:56 AM on December 24, 2006

I still have the occasional apocolyptic nightmare. The horrible flash of light, knowing I'm seconds from being incinerated.... it's an odd comfort knowing I'm not the only one.

posted by Space Kitty at 4:14 PM on December 24, 2006

as someone who grew up near Sheffield this was all too real and had quite an effect.

The internet is a good thing. Great post
posted by doogyrev at 3:41 AM on December 26, 2006

posted by Skygazer at 6:56 PM on January 9, 2007

An interesting sidenote: Barry Hines the writer of Threads, is also responsible for writing one of the best films of all time: Kes by Ken Loach.
posted by Skygazer at 1:59 PM on January 11, 2007

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