“The Dead Zone” – Mixed Memories, Premonitions, and Horror


As noted in my post Splitting Atomic Symbolism: Differing Words, Images, and Sounds of a Nuclear World, I am due to give a paper related to symbolism of nuclear weapons (primarily) at a conference in May 2022. This paper fits with my on-going research on symbolism and Visual Packaging Culture, and also builds on the work I have done about disaster narratives (e.g. Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?). To aid with the research I have recently been watching a number of movies and TV programmes that contain nuclear images.

One of these was the 1983 movie “The Dead Zone” (directed by David Cronenberg). If you are not familiar with the film, this is a summary on IMDb:

Johnny Smith wakes from a coma due to a car accident, only to find he has lost five years of his life, and yet gained psychic powers. Foreseeing the future appears to be a ‘gift’ at first, but ends up causing problems..


I first watched this film when it was on TV back in the 1980s. While that was a long time ago, and I may have only watched it a couple of times (I think I recorded it off TV so probably watched it more than once), I was surprised to find upon watching it again, that although one of the key storylines revolves around whether to stop someone who will go on to become President of the USA (played by Martin Sheen in a diametrically opposed President to the one he played in The West Wing) from launching nuclear missiles and there are images of the launch being authorised, there are no images of the missiles themselves being launched (although there is a nice little Easter Egg about it in a picture one hour into the film) and there are no images of mushroom clouds, for example. I was sure that there were images of nuclear explosions – perhaps due to watching other films such as The Day After and Threads around the same time – and it was on that basis that I watched it again (I could have just gone to the relevant scene, but I remember the film being so good that I decided to watch it again in full first). It’s funny how we end up mis-remembering things, but, for my research, it means that I have had to take it out of those to be studied and the list of the movies and programmes that I am including in my study, which is a shame as it’s a much better film than many which are ending up in that list (I had a similar issue with my original study of disaster movies).

The Dead Zone is based on a novel by Stephen King. As far as I remember I have never read a Stephen King novel. I think – as a teenager – I started reading It, but never completed it. I’m really not a big fan of horror – Jaws and The Dead Zone are probably my limit – and many probably wouldn’t even classify them as horror. In terms of films, I remember being terrified by Flatliners (directed by Joel Schumacher, 1990) and I think I’ve watched some/all of other ‘classic’ horror films . I quite enjoyed the first couple of Final Destination (directed by James Wong, 2000 and David E. Ellis, 2003) films), and have seen (and liked) a couple of Japanese horror films that I’ve watched (e.g. Ringu (directed by Hideo Nakata, 1998) and Death Note (directed by Shusuke Kaneko, 2006), but generally it’s a genre that I avoid. It’s ironic, at one level, that two of my favourite authors (Mark Edwards and Sarah Lotz) clearly love Stephen King so much, and perhaps have been influenced by his writing, but I’ve not read his work or ever enjoyed horror.

I’m still not sure whether The Dead Zone really classifies as horror – but as I’ve written about in relation to disaster narratives, categorising things into particular genre is often problematic. There is no doubt that the ‘gift’ of being able to see the/a future is horrific for the protagonist in The Dead Zone, but in many respects the film is more of a thriller. Watching the film again got me thinking again about the issue of premonitions – something I have mentioned before in my post Flying Experiences – as well as those who claim to have seen images of a previous life that they had. These are both issues that will be included in my next novel. I don’t plan that book, or the next in the series, to be classified as horror, but perhaps some will. For now, however, I will return to other films which, hopefully for my research, will contain the sort of imagery that I’m studying.

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