When Jan de Bont released Twister in May of 1996, he probably thought he was being sneaky. He probably didn’t expect anyone to figure out that he’d made a horror film in which the monster represents the death of heteronormativity in the American nuclear family structure. He probably thought he got away with it. Well, I’ve got bad news for you, Jan…
(Oh, did you think Jan de Bont was safe from this essay series? Did you think I wouldn’t come after the director of Speed 2: Cruise Control? Did you think that just because he also directed Speed 1: It’s Actually Just Called Speed, I wouldn’t force a too-small hand-knit sweater of literary analysis over the narrow shoulders of one of his summer blockbusters? Welcome to Hell, where the essays are long and the tornadoes are feminists. The only way out is through. Let’s do this. Twister.)
Twister opens with a classic horror movie trope: the scary basement. The Thornton family (mom, dad, 5-year-old Jo, and Toby the Very Brave Dog) go down into a storm cellar to flee the great roaring beast that is the F5 tornado. Pa Thornton engages with heteronormative standards of patriarchal responsibility by trying to hold the cellar door shut against the monster—but his mortal arms shockingly fail to outclass a tornado that will later be described as “the finger of god,” and he disappears into the sky. Toby becomes the man of the house. Jo Thornton is traumatized so deeply by the loss of her father that she develops an obsession with monster-hunting.
32-year-old Jo (Helen “Laura Dern” Hunt) is the matriarch of a band of storm-chasers. She’s loud, dominant, smart, resourceful, and separated from her husband, Bill Harding (Bill “Bill Paxton” Paxton). Bill shows up just before Jo and her weather weirdos head into the field to lasso themselves a real live tornado. Bill is hoping to finalize his divorce from Jo so that he can pursue a life of upper-middle-class domesticity with his fiancee, Melissa (Jami Gertz). His efforts are temporarily derailed when Jo reveals that she has given birth to the large metal child she and Bill designed together: Dorothy, a tool designed to collect data on the formation and behavior of tornadoes. Bill and Jo coo over Dorothy, temporarily abandoning Melissa.
Melissa is distinctly not a weirdo; she’s nice. Her hair is nice, her clothes are nice, her smile is nice. As a reproductive therapist, Melissa is heavily invested in the nuclear family structure; her life is dedicated to helping married couples make babies. This, perhaps, explains why she displays such profound discomfort at the attempts of the storm-chasers to fold her into their found family.
Melissa’s struggle with the storm-chasers is central to her identity. Dusty Davis (Philip Seymour “holy shit that’s Philip Seymour Hoffman” Hoffman) literally holds her hand as he gives her food, water, and a concise explanation of the world she’s entering—and her unease grows more apparent with every moment. She’s not uncomfortable with the food (steak, eggs, coffee, mashed potatoes with gravy, none of which should be unfamiliar to her). She’s also not uncomfortable with the influx of information—as a doctor, she’s certainly intelligent enough to cope with the pared-down meteorology-for-dummies download Dusty offers her. It isn’t even Dusty’s description of the deadly vortex at the foot of a tornado; Melissa is a reproductive therapist and it surely takes more than the phrase “suck zone” to throw her off-balance. No, Melissa’s discomfort is with the relationships themselves: she is being offered familial care by strangers. She views this care with suspicion and, in some instances, very real fear. This is not the kind of family unit she understands.
This is the kind of family unit that can survive tornadoes.
This is the kind of family unit that is not threatened by the monster—the kind of family unit in which everyone takes up the slack where they see it, where no one person is in charge of holding the cellar door shut. In this family, everyone works together and cares for each other. Each person’s function is defined according to their strengths, rather than according to their roles within a contemporary social definition of what an American family should look like. Sometimes Jo drives, and sometimes Bill drives, and their baby is a grant-funded tool of climate science.
This is the future tornadoes want.
Melissa finally takes her exit from this mutually-supportive hellscape at a drive-in theatre, after the monster that is an F4 disrupts the movie-theatre-makeouts of countless concupiscent teens. The tornado talks through the last act of The Shining (you know, the part where Shelley Duvall endures the destruction of her nuclear family at the hands of an unstoppable force). Melissa watches as Jo triages a head wound in the middle of a goddamn tornado, and decides she’s had enough: She won’t build a life with Bill, after all. The tornadoes have won, and Melissa’s vision of domesticity and family is defeated.
But monster is not yet sated. It still has a bone to pick with heteronormative family values, and it heads directly for Aunt Meg.
Jo may act as a matriarchal leader to her flock of weirdos, but Aunt Meg (Lois Smith) is the closest thing the storm-chasers have to a mother. Late in the first act of the film, Meg welcomes this strange band of lost children into her home with all the readiness of the soccer mom in a commercial for Pizza Bagels. (Note: I’ve been advised that ‘Pizza Bagels’ could be lower-case, but I respect the institution of Pizza Bagels enough to capitalize their name and I’ll stand by that.) She makes food and encourages camaraderie and cares for wounds and attends to needs.
Aunt Meg is a maternal nurturer par excellence. For this reason, the monster that is the F4 tornado cannot abide her. It descends upon Meg without warning, destroying her home and nearly killing her. The storm-chasers manage to save her, getting her to safety just before her house—the very symbol of her role as a domestic sanctuary—folds in on itself.
Aunt Meg thus becomes a displaced homemaker. The nomadic family that is Jo’s crew cares for Meg in her moment of trauma, and the viewer is not left with any doubt of the further care they’ll offer her—because in this kind of a family, one’s value is not based on one’s ability to perform a prescribed role. Aunt Meg will no longer be able to open her home to host this brood of wayward researchers, but because she is not defined by her ability to serve and nurture them, she is not failing in her responsibility to the group. They value her intrinsically, and will ensure her ongoing welfare. Thus, a final vestige of heteronormative, patriarchal family structure has been destroyed—Meg will live on in a new, mutually-supportive dynamic.
If at this point the viewer retains even a shadow of a doubt that the tornadoes are here to undermine the concept of the modern-traditional American family household, Jan de Bont has a lampshade handy. He hangs it on a scene in which Jo and Bill drive their tornado-chasing truck through a house, vividly destroying yet another haven of doily-clad nuclear-family-values with their rugged science buggy on their way to Do Science as an egalitarian team.
They wind up on a farm, fleeing an F5—truly, the megashark of tornadoes. It’s big and it’s pissed off and it’s got a lust for the destruction of heteronormativity. Bill and Jo’s relationship has been spending the entire movie angling toward a romantic dynamic: the tornado smells blood in the water. It pursues them relentlessly.
Bill and Jo flee, passing through the barn from Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Barnyard Pals before finding a safe shed. They tie themselves to a utility pipe, because, you know, any pipe in a storm. They somehow manage not to have their eardrums exploded by the howling demon that passes over them; the tornado lifts them bodily from the ground, but they cling to the earth and each other, and they survive. They kiss, promising the viewer that they’ve lived through this attack on heteronormativity and survived to tell the tale. Maybe it’ll all be okay, the viewer is allowed to think. Maybe they’ll settle down, start a research lab, renew their vows, have a non-metal baby, and show the tornadoes who has really won the day.
But then, like a hand shooting up from the loose earth of a fresh-turned grave, Jo looks into Bill’s eyes and announces that she’ll be running the lab. The horror isn’t over — the monster has won. The only home left standing is full of knives; the only family that has survived this day unscathed is the one Jo has built. Heteronormative family structures are over, destroyed by antipatriarchal tornadoes.
Vincent Price laughs as the credits roll.
A final note: Twister is Jurassic Park AU fanfic. I’ll die on this hill, see if I don’t. They’re both Michael Crichton projects brought to life at the benevolent mercy of Industrial Light & Magic. Sam Neill and Bill Paxton are the same fucking guy, and if you can tell me the difference between Laura Dern and Helen Hunt without looking one of them up, I’ll eat a mail crate’s worth of ball-peen hammers. Dusty Davis is what you get if you hit Tim Murphy with a growth ray and give him a quarter of a quaalude twenty minutes before you let him out of the house. Cary Elwes doesn’t bring the well-oiled screen presence of Jeff Goldblum, but he does his best and that’s all any of us can ask from anyone. “What if Ellie Sattler and Alan Grant were storm chasers?” Michael Crichton asked the wide-ruled pages of his padlocked Lisa Frank diary, and Twister was the result. The only thing left to say to that is ‘thank you.’
Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell award finalist Sarah Gailey is an internationally-published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their work has recently appeared in Mashable, the Boston Globe, and Fireside Fiction. They are a regular contributor for Tor.com and Barnes & Noble. You can find links to their work here. They tweet @gaileyfrey. Their debut novella, River of Teeth, and its sequel Taste of Marrow, are available from Tor.com.