On October 4, 1957, 10-year-old Stephen King, the future master of horror, was sitting in the movie theater in downtown Stratford, Connecticut.
He and his friends were watching that fabulous 1950s sci-fi flick, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.
A few years later I enjoyed the same movie at the Uptown Theater on the north side of Indianapolis.
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is not about intergalactic harmony, the Millennium Falcon, baby Yoda, or E.T. phoning home. The aliens piloting the flying saucers have come only to plunder the earth and create mayhem with their death rays.
Ray Harryhausen, the innovator of stop-action special effects, created the memorable flying saucer illusions for the movie.
In the film’s epic final showdown – every science fiction film of the time seemed to require a battle in which the fate of the earth hung in the balance – the saucers attack Washington, D.C. The heroes of the hour, America’s scientists, finally figure out a way to bring them down. But not, of course, before a few D.C. landmarks are reduced to rubble.
King remembers that just before the big battle, the screen in the Stratford Theater suddenly went black. The projector had been turned off.
The house lights came up and the manager walked to the middle of the stage. King remembers that he looked nervous. What sort of catastrophe could have prompted the interruption of the Saturday matinee?
The manager’s voice trembled. “The Russians have put a space satellite into orbit around the earth,” he announced. “They call it Sputnik.”
There was absolute, tomblike silence in the theater. All of a sudden reality had broken into fantasy. The Soviets had beaten us into space. Something was actually up there, watching us. In the movies, America’s scientists always win. Was it possible they would fail to prevail in the Real World?
The lights went down again in the Stratford, and the movie came back on. But for Stephen King something had changed. He later realized that that was the moment in which he first understood the meaning of horror.
Horror is the pervasive sense that things are coming apart. And it’s not a movie. And the world, which seemed safe a few minutes ago, turns out to be anything but.
As a kid I loved the illusion of flying saucers crashing into the world’s most famous buildings. Then came the Breaking News on 9/11. Evil transformed an ordinary Tuesday into a day in which all of us remember what we were doing when we heard the news.
One of my friends says, “It’s called Breaking News because it threatens to break us.” Normalcy-shattering news reports break our confidence that the world is a safe place.
What were the first words of Jesus’ public ministry, as reported in Mark 1:15?
“Repent” (that is, change the way you’re thinking and behaving) “and believe the Good News” (that is, the breaking news that God is breaking into this broken world to bring healing and peace).
No one can say what news flashes we’ll hear in the days ahead. All we know is that they will not break God’s purposes.
For the Real Story of the world is definitely not a horror story.