Jerry Young lives in Reno, Nev., sports a bright-white Santa beard yearround and has developed contingency plans to survive more than 150 disaster scenarios. The complete list is too long to print, but here are the “A”s: A New Messiah, A new Persian Empire, Addictive Entertainment, Advanced Technology disaster, Airplane crash, Anarchy, Antibiotic resistant bacteria, Armageddon, Automotive accident, Avalanche, Aztlan/Reconquista Uprising.
Young is a prepper, a type of survivalist stocked up for what he hopes is the apocalyptic disaster that will never come. If it does, he’s ready — and then some. But like many preppers throughout the nation in recent days, Young has been troubled by the news that last week’s massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. may have an indirect connection to the movement.
Not much is known about the gunman Adam Lanza or his mother — the first victim — Nancy Lanza, whose guns he used to carry out his attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School. But reports that Nancy Lanza was a prepper are turning attention towards a nascent movement that has been rapidly entering the popular culture.
Her sister, Marsha Lanza, was the first one to mention that Nancy Lanza had an interest in survivalist culture.
“Last time we visited with her in person we talked about prepping and you know, are you ready for what can happen down the line when the economy collapses,” Marsha Lanza told a local reporter. According to the Daily Mail, Marsha Lanza said the “survivalist philosophy” helped explain why there were so many guns in her sister’s house.
The prepper community has gained increasing attention in recent months on the strength of “Doomsday Preppers,” a National Geographic television show that documents survivalists around the country. But it’s a loose label, not a coherent group or philosophy.
Broadly speaking, “prepper” is a catch-all term used to describe people who are preparing for the worst in every way they can. Adherents advocate maintaining large caches of food, water, and emergency supplies, as well as a personal arsenal, all with the goal of surviving a cataclysmic event.
What cataclysmic event are they preparing for? It doesn’t really matter. The most popular slang in the prepper world is “SHTF,” shorthand for “when shit hits the fan.” And that can be anything: riots, climate change, peak oil, overpopulation. It’s this lack of specificity that distinguishes preppers from other survivalist groups that are motivated by a specific religious or political ideology, like the far-right Patriot movement. Every prepper has a go-to fear, but the most important thing is that you have one at all.
“It’s as much a lifestyle as it is a hobby or anything else,” Young told TPM in an interview this week. “People that want to take care of themselves, for the most part, without wanting to make other people do the same thing.”
For Young, the SHTF scenario of choice is nuclear attack. He first became interested in extreme survival when, as a child, he and his father packed a storm shelter with food and water to ride out the Cuban missile crisis. Since then he’s expanded his interests to include every danger from isolated accidents (shipwreck) to extinction-level events (global plague). To lighten things up, he also games out plans for fictional threats, like the always popular zombie outbreak or a vampire attack.
Young’s website is one of dozens of blogs, podcasts, and forums that offer advice and support to aspiring preppers looking to ride out what they call TEOTWAWKI (“the end of the world as we know it”). And with apocalyptic fiction, from the Walking Dead on TV to the Fallout series in videogames, doing gangbuster business, the cultural moment is ripe for them to gain traction. The American Preppers Network, a forum started by an Idaho survivalist, has an entire section devoted to fielding media and documentary requests, which members greet with equal parts interest and suspicion.
In the wake of the Newtown shooting, prepper forums online have gone through some of the same soul searching about guns and mental health as the country at large. While members lean conservative and pro-gun in general, several users in one thread expressed concerns that inexperienced gun owners in their neighborhoods were buying up powerful AR-15 rifles in anticipation of a renewed assault weapons ban. Several suggested mandatory safety training and licensing might be required to prevent accidental shootings or, as was the case in Connecticut, theft by a disturbed relative.
“We require people to have training and pass a test in order to drive a car legally,” one user wrote. “And you can’t even register a car without insurance.”
But members were also concerned that the Newtown shooting will cast a negative light on their movement, connecting preppers with gun hoarding or violence. The forums spend a lot of time debating which weapons will keep them solidly atop the post-apocalyptic food chain, but enthusiasts complained to TPM that it’s only one of many planks within the broader prepper platform.
“The media will take this and run it for all it is worth,” one Louisiana user wrote in one thread on Newtown, adding that Lanza’s gun collection didn’t sound particularly large overall. Nonetheless, he warned that preppers need to keep an eye out for “nut cases” who are “playing Rambo” within their ranks, a phenomenon he said he had observed personally.
One user flinched at the phrase “hoarding” in stories describing Nancy Lanza’s ample food supplies. For a group currently the subject of a reality TV show, any connection to “Hoarders” and its freak show formula is sensitive territory.
There’s an ongoing debate within the community, for example, over whether the show “Doomsday Preppers” derives its success from celebrating their culture or mocking it. The show focuses on one family each week, who explain the scenario they’re preparing for and then offer a fetishistic inventory of the tools, technology, and tactics they’ve put together to overcome it.
Sometimes the chosen subjects are harmless eccentrics, like the hippies who were living in an old missile silo. Sometimes they’re bumbling, like the cheerful father who blew his thumb off on-air while training his children to shoot moving targets. And sometimes things get darker. In one now-chilling episode, a mother struggled to humor her black-clad teenage son’s obsession with stockpiling guns, knives, and spiked baseball bats in preparation for a worldwide depression. The boy was crestfallen after the show’s “experts” rated his survival setup a 50 out of 100, and he promised to hunker down even further.
Preppers who talked to TPM insisted that they’re typically normal folks who often live with non-prepper family members and make their living doing ordinary jobs. Some complained “Doomsday Preppers” focuses on exceptional cases, often looking at families with enough resources to concoct far more elaborate defenses than the average prepper. The reality might look more like a regular home that put just a little more thought into disaster preparedness than usual.
“If you have a fire extinguisher in your home, an extra warm coat that you get out for the really cold days, snow boots, or a few extra bottles of water in the fridge, you’re prepared for something too!” one Memphis prepper wrote in a private forum message to TPM. “I’d even call you a prepper.”
Preppers also stress that they’re not isolated loners, as is often the survivalist stereotype, saying they consider their work a net plus to the community. After all, even if the end of the world never comes, who wouldn’t want a well-stocked neighbor with medical skills to help out after a fire or flood?
“If ‘Doomsday Preppers’ is your only frame of reference, you will get a skewed vision of prepping,” a forum regular who goes by the pseudonym Tybe and works as a nurse educator in Virginia told TPM through a forum message. “Most of us are on tight budgets, we think the Mayan calendar thing is hogwash, and we, like everyone else, can only guess at what the future holds. But for me, each extra can of beans, packet of seeds, or gallon of water, brings a sense of comfort, calm, and well-being.”
This sense of calm is a recurring motif. In one thread, users debated how best to explain their views to friends and relatives without sounding crazy. Some suggested bringing up natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, where people were trapped without power, food or water, sometimes for extended periods. Others advised winning over skeptics with incidents of sudden hyperinflation and depression in Europe and Africa.
But a user from Upson County, Georgia, confessed that when it really came down to it, there was no rational explanation for his prepping. He wasn’t preparing for a rough economy or a bad storm. He thought society was going to collapse, even though he admitted there was no historical precedent that could justify that belief.
“For me it is a gut feeling, a culmination of current events and a desire to make sure that I am living up to my responsibility to care for my family,” he wrote. “I do fear that a major shift in our culture is coming soon, and that is my main motivation for the amount of resources that I am putting into my preps.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.