Radiation in Pop Culture

For better or worse, pop culture changes how we perceive the world around us. After World War II, radiation and nuclear power entered the mainstream in various ways. Movies imagined giant creatures terrifying the world, while comics created conflicted superheroes coming to terms with their new found powers. While seeing radiologists on the big screen or in a comic book might not be the most educational thing, it’s at least a fun diversion to see the field get some widespread recognition.


There is no shortage of horror movies inspired by radiation, power plants, mutations, or radiological experimentation. This list is only the tip of the iceberg, as it has become common for movies to use terrorists and nuclear power plants as a main plot device (looking at you, Mr. Bond). Here are a few of the early adapters of imagining how radiation affects the world around us.

  • GodzillaGodzilla (1954). This monster that can be found in numerous incantations, originally began as a pre-historic monster resurrected by repeated nuclear tests. For obvious reasons, Japan was a country skeptical of nuclear power, and the country’s cinema represents these fears in many ways. The New York Times goes more into the history of radiation in Japan’s pop culture.
  • Them! (1954). Considered the first successful movie to feature big bugs as a cause of radiation. Giant ants take over New Mexico as a result of atom bomb testing in the area.
  • It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955). A giant octopus is the result of hydrogen bomb testing in the Pacific Ocean. It’s up to scientists to save San Francisco before it’s too late.
  • Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). Residing on a remote Pacific island, two giant crabs are the result of nuclear testing in the Ocean, eating up scientific explorers left and right.
  • 429px-Night_of_the_Living_Dead_afficheBeginning of the End (1957). After eating vegetables that have been grown with radiation, giant grasshoppers are bent on destroying Chicago.
  • The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). A man comes in contact with an unexplainable mist, that turns out to have been radioactive. As a result, he begins to slowly shrink, confounding doctors and family members around him.
  • Night of the Living Dead (1968). Zombies have certainly come back in vogue recently, but the origin of zombies in movies can be explained by radioactive contamination.
  • The China Syndrome (1979). While radiation continued to play a role in cheesy horror movies, studios began making films exploring more realistic portrayals should something drastic happen to a nuclear power plant. The China Syndrome brings to light importance of safety regulations at these facilities.

Comics and Cartoons

Superheroes and comic books have seen a resurgence in popularity with new films being made every year inspired by DC and Marvel. Many of these characters have radiological origins.

  • Captain America (first appeared in 1941). While technically Captain America received a serum to give him his super human strength, the story is still sometimes confused with radiation and the mutation of genes.
  • The Atomic Mouse and the Atomic Rabbit (first appeared in 1953). These comics are a bit cutesy and more on the pulpy side compared to the more in depth storylines of the other superheroes on this list, but they show the range of how widespread radiation was affecting pop culture.
  • Fantastic Four (first appeared in 1961). Mister Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, the Torch, and the Thing have exposure to cosmic radiation while on a scientific mission in outer space to thank for their superpowers.
  • The Hulk (first appeared in 1962). When a gamma bomb is detonated in a lab experiment, Bruce Banner is exposed to massive amounts of gamma radiation, causing him to turn green and lose control of his anger.
  • Spiderman (first appeared in 1962). Certainly the most well known case of a superhero created out of radiation poisoning. Wonderboy Peter Parker senses start to tingle and acquires web-slinging abilities after being bitten by a radioactive spider.
  • The Simpsons (first appeared in 1987). Homer Simpson, the buffoon safety technician at Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, isn’t quite the poster-child for a responsible radiologist. But the show is filled with clever radiology-related jokes and sight gags, and you’ll be laughing too much to care about the technical inaccuracies.

Need more? Time Toast has an interactive timeline detailing the myriad ways radiology and radiation have been depicted in pop culture. For a more in depth and academic review of radiation in pop culture, check out this essay on Japan Focus.

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