It stalks America's prairie land, a whirling menace hell-bent on destruction. Dad tracks the monster's approach with the camcorder while his wife and kids quake in the closet. It's worth it. If the family survives, they'll pitch their souvenir home horror video to the Weather Channel.
In five years, the proliferation of video cameras, bad weather and storm chasers has formed an increasingly popular low-pressure and low-budget phenomenon: the tornado movie.
Today, anyone in Kansas can make "The Wizard of Oz" if they're in the right place at the right time. Produced by a handful of video professionals and any amateur who regards the tornado careening through his azaleas as a photo op, these films are now as plentiful as summer thunderheads in the Texas panhandle.
What's more, the viewing public, whether in Tornado Alley -- as Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and southern South Dakota are known -- or in Baltimore, is clamoring for more and better footage of raging twisters, nature's most violent storms.
The Weather Channel has sold over 30,000 copies of three tornado videos. The channel will soon release "Tornadoes '95," a compilation of this year's most sensational storms, as well as a 1996 tornado wall calendar.
"Stormchasers," the new IMAX film at the Maryland Science Center featuring severe storm scientists and meteorology majors racing across the Midwest in quest of twisters, has drawn capacity crowds since it opened on Nov. 3.
And a National Geographic special, "Cyclone!" which chronicles the wonder of tornadoes and hurricanes, airs tomorrow at 8 p.m. on NBC (WBAL-Channel 11).
Here's how you know tornadoes are cool: Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg are in on the action. Forget velociraptors and aliens. The latest twist in monster movies is a twister.
Next summer's projected blockbuster, "Twister," written by Mr. Crichton and his wife Anne-Marie Martin, backed by Mr. Spielberg and directed by Jan De Bont, tracks two competing teams of Oklahoma tornado chasers, swept away by their subject and, of course, their stormy lives.
The movie will further romanticize a breed of folk heroes who crisscross state lines in hot pursuit of their horrible prey. Most notable among these latter-day cowboys is legendary storm chaser Howard Bluestein, the University of Oklahoma meteorologist said to be an inspiration for "Twister."
Like B-movie monsters, tornadoes haunt the imagination of those who chase them as well as those content to view nature's mayhem from an armchair.
Thrilling, unpredictable, dangerous, the tornado is not an abstract bugaboo, yanked from the subconscious and given form in a scary script. It is a real thing. The diabolical offspring of a supercellular thunderstorm, a twister can speed across the Midwest faster than 260 mph.
Each year, some 1,000 tornadoes occur in the United States. Moving in a northeasterly direction, a twister -- whether it lasts a few minutes or for an hour -- can inflict unworldly destruction.
"The horror is sort of fascinating," says Dr. Michael Bisco, a Baltimore psychiatrist. On a leisurely Saturday, he may watch one of two Tornado Project videos, which teem with marauding twisters. They're impressive, Dr. Bisco says.
"It humbles man and makes you know your place, not at the top of the universe like you might like to believe you are," he says. "It keeps you humble and honest."
Thomas B. Webb remembers emerging from a closet after
TC tornado struck his aunt's Florida neighborhood in the early 1960s. Amid the debris of one gutted home, a closet stood. The linen within remained perfectly folded.
The image burned into Mr. Webb's psyche. He still has recurring dreams of tornadoes killing loved ones and destroying his world. He records the dreams in his journal. "I try to think of the psychology of tornadoes, in terms of how they destroy order," says Mr. Webb, 35, who works at Donna's at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Despite the terror that tornadoes represent, Mr. Webb is irresistibly drawn to them, and often screens Tornado Classics, I and II, produced by the Tornado Project, a company devoted to producing tornado videos. When he drove cross country last summer, he hoped vainly to spot a twister.
A tornado is not just a tornado, Mr. Webb believes. It is spiritual. It is phallic. It is an apocalyptic sign. "There's something about them taking place here in our country," Mr. Webb says, "within the security we established for ourselves.
Next month, the Tornado Project releases a third video, "Tornado Classics III," which highlights the murderous careers of 100 tornadoes. "It far exceeds anything I've ever put together," says Tom Grazulis, a Vermont meteorologist and Tornado Project founder.
After years of compiling footage, Mr. Grazulis knows a shapely tornado when he sees one. They have "a lot of rotation. You can see the funnel clearly and extending to the sky," he says.
The sound bite is also key, Mr. Grazulis says. Hearing spontaneous exclamations of fear, wrath and faith in a Midwestern twang intensifies the tornado-watching experience, he says.
"That really carries the enthusiasm and amazement of the people there -- 'Holy God!,' 'Get those kids down in the basement' -- that kind of stuff," he says.
Mr. Marzulis avoids appealing to viewers' morbid curiosity about tornadoes' gruesome consequences. He has "endless footage of the aftermath with mangled animals" that he chooses not to use.
Martin Lisius, an Arlington, Texas tornado fanatic, takes a different approach in the videos and films he produces for his company, Prairie Pictures. "Chasing the Wind," and the soon-to-be released "Chasers of Tornado Alley," focus as much on the chase as the chased.
Viewers of "chase" tornado videos vicariously experience chasers' frustrations as their prey eludes them. They are also along for the ride when caravans of chasers flee from high winds and hail stones the size of baseballs.
When fanatics like Mr. Lisius do spot a tornado, viewers at home see it framed by a car window, much as the chasers do. The chasers' ad hoc comments -- "Look at the structure!" -- and less printable, more giddy expletives, are part of the tornado video package.
"What a lot of storm chasers see is a natural, awesome power. We cannot control tornadoes. We can only attempt to forecast them and warn people," Mr. Lisius says. "You see a house that weighs several tons that no human being could push over. Yet here comes this thing that in a fraction of a second can annihilate a house, wipe it clean from the face of the earth."
Since 1979, Edward Brotak, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, has reviewed hundreds of weather movies and videos for Weatherwise, a bimonthly magazine for weather buffs published in Washington.
He says recent tornado chase videos are less padded with chase sequences, and are studded more extravagantly with gorgeous, terrifying tornadoes cutting paths through pastures and trailer parks.
Some of the most dramatic tornado footage is made by amateurs, many with apparent reckless disregard for their lives. Mr. Lisius speaks of a video shot by a man who scarcely flinched as he was struck by lightning and his neighbor's home disintegrated.
Because 1995 has been a prolific year for hurricanes, they have stolen some of tornadoes' thunder, says Keith Wood, the Weather Channel's product manager. (The channel is hustling to complete a documentary about the past hurricane season.)
But the Weather Channel's tornado videos, including "Enemy Wind," and "The Chase," still sell at a fast clip, Mr. Wood says.
"By and large, if you look over history, tornadoes [are still] number one," he says. More than far-ranging, uncontainable hurricanes, typhoons and such, tornadoes, in all their ominous majesty, are easier to capture on tape, he says.
William Mitchell grew up in Kansas and never saw a tornado. He does remember the eerie wail of a siren signaling a tornado warning. And he remembers taking cover from the storms that miraculously never slammed his prairie community.
Now, the Hampden resident makes up for those lost opportunities to see a twister up close and personal by watching hundreds of tornadoes, some of which are set to New Age music, on video. Tornadoes are "sort of like sunsets," Mr. Mitchell says. "Every sunset is different. Some nights they are spectacular. Others are duds."