In 1996, Hollywood launched a new horror film franchise, Scream, based on the premise that there are certain rules that must be followed to survive a scary movie.   These rules were based on common events that result in the untimely and gruesome death of the characters.  In the film, there are three rules (from the Scream Wiki):

  1. You may not survive the movie if you have sex.
  2. You may not survive the movie if you drink or do drugs.
  3. You may not survive the movie if you say “I’ll be right back”, “Hello?”, or “Who’s there?”

In a survival movie or television series, these might find an appropriate application.  Although having sex might be a nice distraction from the dire situation you face, please use protection.  The last thing anyone needs to be concerned about in a survival situation is where to find a good obstetrician unless Dr. Huxtable is in your survival group.  Please see my article on “What fictional TV character would I want with me in a survival situation?“.  Sex also leads to complicated romantic situations which never end well for characters.  Likewise, alcohol and drugs might provide momentary escape but could distract you at a critical time.  Rule 3 could also apply if we know the circumstances behind the use of the phrases.

So for our Top 5 Survival Rules, let’s begin the countdown:

Rule # 5:  Situational Awareness

It is a common theme that Murphy’s Law will strike when you aren’t paying attention to the little details.  This includes but is not limited to knowing how much gas is remaining in the gas tank, conducting proper preventative maintenance on a vehicle, reloading your firearm magazine before you run out of bullets, and not talking when it distracts you from your situational awareness.  I cannot count the times that these events result in disaster for our protagonists.

Rule #4: Know a Special Skill

Everyone needs to know a special skill.  In movies, it may be something exotic like rock climbing, flying an airplane, or bypassing complex security systems.  These may apply in real life if you have a hobby or job that requires such skills.  If not, do not despair.  The ability to drive a stick, navigate in the woods, distill alcohol, swim, sew, or take care of children might apply to your situation as it develops.  You don’t need to be a master at a skill.  Sometimes the real strength is being a jack of all trades.

Rule #3: Security

Security is probably my biggest pet peeve in Hollywood.  I started watching the TV series Revolution on Netflix and couldn’t make it through the first episode.  I try hard to suspend my disbelief but sometimes it gets the better of me.  Within the first half hour, we see an isolated hamlet surrounded by 10 foot high fences and a gate.  The inhabitants leave the gate open, and are “surprised” when a warlord’s militia convoy of casually riding horseman ride right into the town square.  WTF?  Who was on guard?  You took the time to build a 10 foot high fence to keep out these kind of assholes and then leave the gate open and no one on watch?  Seriously, there are some people too dumb to survive.

Rule #2: Don’t Split Up

I don’t care if you on a starship trying to survive a murderous alien entity or in your new house trying to survive a malevolent spirit, why does Hollywood insist people split up?  Communication becomes an issue, friendly fire can be a problem, and if the party gets lost or fails to return, we see people make the same mistake and decide to split up again and try to find the missing folks.  I know sitting together in a room sounds boring but the alternative is gruesome death.  If you must split up to accomplish a task, never go alone unless you are Michonne or Daryl from the Walking Dead.  The buddy system works and three people are almost always better than two in case someone gets injured.  It also means more people to help with Rule #3: Security.  Let the nervous, talkative types stay in the room with the rest of the group since they will distract our heroes from their task and give away the group’s position.

Rule #1: Don’t Panic

Whether a comet is about to strike the planet, all the pilots on your airline ate the fish, or the power simply goes out, please don’t panic.  There are only two possible outcomes.  You live or you die.  You need to choose which outcome you are going to work toward and start setting some short range goals.  Don’t worry about what is outside your control or the big picture at those moments.  That’s why we call those things “outside your control”.  Focus on what is inside your control.  You cannot go fix the power plant but you can find a flashlight.  Once you have the flashlight, next, find more batteries or you will end up having the flashlight go out at a critical moment (see Rule #1: Situational Awareness).  Trust that the Ted Stryker’s of the world will fly the plane after the pilots are incapacitated and do your small part to help (see Rule #4: Know a Special Skill).  Not panicking helps everyone.  Human beings are excellent at adapting and overcoming adversity so adapt and overcome.  The elephant of survival is eaten in small bites.

Matt S
Matt is a former infantry officer in the US Army with a degree in systems engineering from West Point. He currently works as an engineering consultant integrating hardware and software into new applications. He is a graduate of Airborne School, Air Assault School, and SERE-High Risk (Level C) at JFKSWCS.

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