Naturally, the disaster film began by accident. When Georges Méliès (1861–1938) jammed his camera and a bus inexplicably turned into a hearse, the accidental merging of two documentary images created the spectacle of disaster. That begat films such as Collision and Shipwreck at Sea (1898). Ever since, audiences have relished the vicarious terror and awesome spectacle of films where comfort turns into catastrophe.
The disaster film is defined less by conventions and imagery than by its plot situation: a community confronts natural or supernatural annihilation. As a result, the disaster tends to overlap several more formal genres. Nonetheless, it is possible to define ten basic types—four by the nature of the threat, five by the situation, and the last by tone.