Stim Icon
Basement Tapes Logo

by Paul Lukas

You pop in the video, hit "Play,"
and find yourself witnessing a scene of total chaos: A view
from a shaky hand-held camera surveys a parking lot. A siren
is blaring, but its drone is overwhelmed by the sound of
a huge wind. Trash and leaves are blowing all over the place.
In the background, maybe 250 feet away, is the source
of the commotion: a tornado—a real tornado
—its monstrous funnel sweeping up dust and
debris as it moves across the frame. It slices
through a few power lines and then moves
steadily through the parking lot, passing
within about 75 feet of the camera.
Panic-stricken voices are yelling
things like "Holy shit!" and
"Look at that house,
it's gonna go!"

Next scene:

Another hand-held view, this time of a majestic tornado looming off in the distance on a Midwestern plain. "C'mon, y'all, get in the basement," implores a voice. "Get in here!

Farm Moving
Quicktime Icon(.MOV): 723K

C'mon, get in here!"

The response is calm.
"It's okay,
it's a mile away.
When it gets right here,
100 feet from the house,
we'll come in."

Welcome to the world of weather porn, where none of the cast members have breast implants but every scene has major snuff potential. weather porn videos are compilations of camcorder footage of tornadoes and other severe weather phenomena, some of it shot by scientists, some by amateur storm-chasers, and some by inquisitive folks who happen to be in the right place at the right time. The genre has become increasingly popular lately, breaking out from the small cadre of meteorology nerds who were once its only patrons. And with Hollywood jumping on the bandwagon this month via Twister, a Steven Spielberg-produced tornado movie, a full-fledged weather porn explosion seems likely.
Twister Image
Quicktime Icon(.MOV): 625K
The term weather porn, of course, is something of a neologism. Most serious tornado devotees dislike the label, and some of you may protest that weather porn is not pornography at all. And if you're the sort who defines porn as a pair of tan, coke-addled bodies methodically fucking to the strains of some lame-o lite-rock instrumental, well, you'd be right. But if we take a slightly more expansive definition of pornography—intense visual stimulation accompanied by the voyeuristic thrill of observing what would normally be someone else's private visceral experience, say—then weather porn fits the bill as naturally as On Golden Blonde.In fact, weather porn bears some remarkable similarities to more traditional sex-based pornography. Consider the following points, each of which applies equally well to the skin flick Video Virgins #7 and the weather porn tape Tornado Video Classics:
  • Dialogue and plot are largely irrelevant; just give me better focus on that close-up shot, please.
  • If there's a boring bit, you fast-forward past it; if there's a particularly good bit, you rewind to watch it again.
  • The predominant use of amateur footage, with its unstaged, verite feel, reinforces the voyeuristic effect.
  • The most intense sequences tend to leave you staring slack-jawed at the screen, mumbling, "OhmyGod, ohmyGod, ohmyGod" and "Holy shit, holy fucking shit."
  • Let's not even get started on the phallic parallels.
  • Of course, weather porn also ups the ante by offering a kick most sex tapes can't approach: the snuff factor. Tornadoes are killers, and anyone close enough to photograph one is probably risking his life by doing so. Most of us, whether we admit it or not, get a serious charge from observing that sort of near-death experience, especially when it's someone else's near-death experience. Some of us—myself included—may also find it amusing to see some poor fool nearly get ripped to shreds when he should have been down in the storm cellar along with everyone else, all so we'd be able to watch the devastation from the comfort of our living rooms.
    The most accessible source for weather porn is the cable TV station The Weather Channel. Unfortunately, their tapes' most impressive tornado clips are usually interrupted by boring educational interludes—disaster-preparedness drills, interviews with meteorologists, that sort of thing. The tapes sold by storm-chaser Tim Marshall, who edits the small magazine Stormtrack, generally avoid this problem but often devote too much footage to chasing and staking out a tornado (what Marshall calls "the drama of the hunt") and not enough to the tornadoes themselves. The juiciest weather porn is available from a small Vermont outfit called the Tornado Project, which, like the Weather Channel, began hawking tapes in 1992. Tom Grazulis, the climatologist who co-owns the operation, claims to have the world's largest collection of tornado video—over 500 hours' worth. Each of his two-hour tapes comes with a viewer's guide, allowing fans to check the date, location, damage tally, and death toll of every tornado shown. If you get your jollies observing other people's catastrophes, Grazulis is your man. Tornado Image
    Grazulis, who is openly contemptuous of the Weather Channel's use of interviews, works a few educational voice-overs into his tapes but generally sticks with what he knows best: hardcore tornado footage, including some incredible sequences of buildings being completely destroyed (think of this as the money shot). Like most twister fanatics, he rejects the weather porn label, maintains that his interest is purely scientific, and says the genre's voyeuristic appeal is "minimal." But the gleeful ad copy on his video boxes ("Spectacular tree-snapping, roof-flying footage....A man is hit by lightning while filming a tornado but doesn't stop until hit by debris from his own house.") gives him away, as do several of his offhand comments. Tornado video, he says matter-of-factly, is "world-class entertainment." And when you ask him to elaborate on this, watch out.
    "I can tell you right off what compels me,"
    he says, getting rather excited now.
    "This thing is out of control. It's sneaky, it doesn't belong on the planet. It's prowling, it comes and goes at will. It's too big, it's too devious, and this damn thing ought to be whipped into shape!"
    At this point the tornado isn't the only thing out of control. "Here's this thing that's a mile high," Grazulis continues, his blood pressure clearly escalating, "and it's roaming around with the energy of a nuclear power plant. It seems to be alive, but nothing a mile high should move so gracefully." Here Grazulis has inadvertently struck at the heart of weather porn's prurient appeal: the twister's sublime combination of destructive power and magnificent beauty casts Mother Nature as the ultimate femme fatale—deadly, but irresistible.
    Twister Image
    Quicktime Icon(.MOV): 883K
    While the weather porn trend is clearly on the upswing (Grazulis, for example, has received some distribution inquiries from Blockbuster Video), sales figures are still modest for now—the Weather Channel's tapes move in the tens of thousands, while Grazulis is in the 4,000 - 8,000 range and Marshall significantly below that. All of them could see their sales skyrocket this summer, however, depending on the success of the feature film Twister. Produced by Spielberg and directed by Jan De Bont (who helmed Speed), the project is described by Grazulis as "the ultimate tornado movie."

    "It's going to be a bonanza for me," he says, "because people are going to want to see more real tornadoes, and I'm going to be available."

    If memory serves, the guy who held the rights to Traci Lords's last legal porno tape said something similar when Lords made the jump to Hollywood.    </end>

    PAUL LUKAS is the editor of Beer Frame: The Journal of Inconspicuous Consumption and a columnist for New York Magazine. Lukas is a frequent contributor to New York Press, The Baffler, I.D., The AIGA Journal and the New York Times Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn.

    Try This at Home!
    Up Talk!