Blowing in the Wind Eyeing the storms: Swirling across the land is the urge to chase, tape and watch tornadoes in all their rage and glory.

November 28, 1995|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

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."

Terror calls

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.

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