“I’m not one of the paranoid kinds of people,” Michael, the 51-year-old owner of a construction company, told me this spring.
But who doesn’t look at the state of the world these days and get a little paranoid? It’s not just the virus and the economic collapse. It’s the protests, the fires, the cyberspying, the border shutdowns, the freezer trucks full of bodies, the disinformation on television—the sense that we are living with the economy of 1928, the civil society of 1968, the politics of 1868. “I don’t see a good outcome, whether he wins it or someone else wins it,” he said, talking about President Donald Trump. “It scares me. I’ve got two daughters. I think about all the sex rings they’ve been cracking down on,” he added. “Our country has almost got the qualities of a third-world country.”
When we spoke, that fear had driven him to pack up the family home in New Carlisle, Indiana, and get ready to caravan to South Dakota with his wife and school-age daughters, where they would live in a remote bunker that once stored sarin gas. It would be windowless and airless, but to him, it brought a sense of breathing room. Of peace.
Other folks have had the same idea this year: The American bunker business is booming, according to the handful of companies that compose it. Vivos, from which Michael bought his bunker, reports that inquiries have gone up 2,000 percent. “It’s exponential. It’s a surge. People are getting off the fence. And they’re saying, I need it, and I need it now,” Robert Vicino, the company’s founder, told me. At the Rising S Company, a maker of bunkers and other heavy-industry survival gear, sales have more than doubled. One client purchased 1,000 high-quality air filters. “It’s by far, by 20 times, the largest order we’ve ever taken of that product,” Gary Lynch, the company’s general manager, told me.
For the average family, the industry insists, a bunker is not an excess, a luxury. It is a necessity. A utility. A fire extinguisher. A smoke alarm. An insurance policy. A safety valve. Sad maybe, but this world requires it. “If you don’t believe today, that’s fine,” Vicino told me in April. “But you’ll all believe. And when you do, it will be too late to find accommodation. How are we doing on those face masks?”
Beyond the pandemic, economic collapse, and civil unrest, Vivos proffers a sprawling list of situations in which a bunker might be useful: solar flares, super volcanoes, “killer asteroids,” civil wars. Some scenarios are yet more esoteric. A bunker might be useful in case a “Planet X” shows up—an eventuality also known as the Nibiru Cataclysm, a conspiracy theory that goes back to the 1990s, promoted by a medium who received messages from aliens from the Zeta Reticuli star system.
But who needs to worry about the lost planet of Nibiru when what is going on right now is going on right now? “I’m not saying this is what happened,” Vicino told me, spooling out a hypothetical that he started thinking about this winter. “Start a pandemic. Hide the antidote. Allow it to get out of control. Quarantine countries. Stop international trade. Create a global economic collapse. Usher in a worldwide depression. Allow food riots and starvation. Watch the population kill itself off. Allow governments to collapse. The final thing is: Restore what’s needed once the population is reduced by 95 percent.” He paused for effect. “Now, that’s scary. That’s a conspiracy!”
Maybe the coronavirus is indeed a Thanos-like attempt at population control. Maybe a human did start the pandemic, not a wild bat or a caged pangolin. Maybe the aliens are already here. Whatever miserable or out-there eventuality you believe in or fear or want to avoid, whatever conspiracy or cataclysm haunts you, the American bunker business is here for you, ready to withstand nuclear fallout and electromagnetic pulses and grenade blasts and crop-killing pests and people who cough into their hand instead of their elbow.
It is a product that lets you believe what you want to believe, and comfort yourself against the horrors of that belief, alone and underground. The world is falling apart and nobody is there for you, 2020 has shown it over and over again. But American capitalism is.
On a wet morning, as the country’s coronavirus travel restrictions were falling into place, I went to tour a bunker with Lynch, a bearded, soft-spoken engineer, at Rising S’s production facility in semirural eastern Texas—wanting to see for myself how going to ground felt, and how a bunker might make sense given the state of the world. When I arrived at the factory, he was trying to buy industrial-strength alcohol. “Might want to make some hand sanitizer,” he chortled.
The firm fabricates American-steel bunkers as small as 96 square feet or as big as 6,000, and submerges them on private properties, accessible via a flat-to-the-earth door. These can be designed to look like utility access panels and are easily hidden, Lynch told me. Rising S also obscures delivery and installation, making it seem like the company is doing sewage or landscaping work.
Heading in, neighbors none the wiser, a family fleeing pestilence, plague, or storm descends a steel staircase into what feels like a nice recreational vehicle. Pretty much everything within is handmade by the company’s craftsmen, Lynch said, as he ran his fingers over the finishes: the bunk beds, the kitchen sinks, the closets, the baths. He pointed out little touches that Rising S felt might make a difference for a family trapped—or saved, depending on how you look at it—underground, such as kick space beneath the kitchen cabinets and soft-white light bulbs for good glow.
Other amenities are available. One bunker the company recently built had an indoor shooting range and a greenhouse. Another had space for a client’s racehorses, which were ferried into the metal den by a purpose-built elevator hidden in a grain silo. A teapot bunker retails for just shy of $40,000; a more pharaonic model, complete with swimming pool and hot tub, bowling alley, and home theater, goes for $8 million. (Bunkers have become must-have items for conspiratorial or simply small-c conservative American oligarchs of late.)
Rising S’s most popular bunkers are utilitarian; its consumer base trends survivalist. Republicans are somewhat overrepresented, Lynch told me, though less than you might think, particularly since Trump’s election. (Very overrepresented? Dentists. Lynch had no idea why.)
Vivos, meanwhile, sells itself as a “modern day Noah’s Ark,” “the backup plan for humanity,” and a “solution to ride out and survive,” as the promotional materials put it, catering to those with more urgent, conspiratorial concerns. The company provides empty underground wombs in what are functionally bunker-condo complexes. Each unit promises a full calendar year of “autonomous underground survival” so that members can be confident they do not have to return to the surface until “the worst is over.” The advertised costs are $35,000, per unit or per person, depending. (The company does not make money, Vicino told me.)
Its main bunker complex, called xPoint and advertised as the world’s largest, is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, at a munitions-storage facility decommissioned by the Army in the late 1960s. Up close, its concrete bunkers look like Swedish backstuga or the hobbit houses in The Lord of the Rings, half-built into the prairie and roofed with soil. Seen from the air, the edifices look a bit like hanging chads, or an allergy panel erupting on an immense, grassy back. Inside, each bunker is 2,200 square feet, with an arched ceiling, like an overturned pig trough. The floor plans are flexible, the possibilities endless, and the outside world kept outside by a blast-proof door.
Getting in a bunker with Lynch, I was surprised not to feel claustrophobic. The sense is much more of being in an RV or a shipping container than in a submarine. The other thing that struck me was how quiet it was. No birdsong, no traffic noise, no lawnmowers, no neighbors’ radios or misbehaved dogs. It reminded me a little of those saltwater isolation tanks that had a moment a few years ago. The world really did feel shut out.
Thus far, most of his clients have had cause to use their shelters only during natural disasters, Lynch told me, as we toured through model after model, staff members with welding equipment working around us, though one client had lived in his for nine months while avoiding social unrest in Venezuela. “He came out periodically just to check on things,” Lynch told me.
Here in the United States, it would take a long domino fall of terrible events to persuade Lynch to go underground, he said. “Personally, I think that social-civil unrest is the only thing a person should prepare for.” Unrest will lead to “pestilence, disease, famine—because the guy [who] works at the sewage treatment plant, he’s not going to work. He didn’t prepare. He’s going to be pillaging, robbing, and strong-arming people for cans of tomatoes. As absurd as it might sound, you’re not going to watch your children starve. You will kill your neighbor for a can of pork and beans to stop your kid starving. Everything could lead to a collapse of society.”
A few of Vivos’s clients concurred, explaining why they’d shelled out tens of thousands on a windowless concrete shack in the middle of nowhere. Tom and Mary, an affable and practical-sounding older couple—he works in IT, she worked in accounting and payroll; I agreed to refer to them by first names only to protect their privacy—once planned to build a fortress on 17 acres in central Tennessee, a house with a safe-house basement, basically, but instead settled on buying a bunker. It just made sense, they said. “Most people now, they’ve never experienced anything like our parents and grandparents went through,” Mary told me. “Younger people don’t understand the concept of it. They have no clue. I think that’s part of why there’s so much panic going on with the virus. I don’t think a lot of people were taught anything like this in school.” Tom concurred: “Growing up, we didn’t have running water for keeps in the house until I was in my late teens. The apocalypse, from my perspective, is not going to be that much different than when I was 12 years old. Aside from the hostile humans.”
It all seemed a little intense to me, and a little silly. So much pain and tumult exist out there. So many people have died alone, their family members prevented from holding them. So many people killed and maimed pointlessly in the street. There’s so much division, so much chaos, so much trauma. But is hiding out in the middle of nowhere really the answer? And if you are going to hide out, do you really have to be underground? But those questions also struck me as too literalistic. A bunker is not so much a utility as it is a security blanket.
The bunker business is just one instantiation, the grandest instantiation, of what you might think of as conspiracy capitalism. Conspiracy theories themselves are big business, of course, selling books, videos, conferences, and all kinds of merch. Then there is the economy that promotes conspiracy theories to sell goods such as supplements, survival gear, and yes, bunkers. Alex Jones and his InfoWars empire are the black hole at the center of this financial galaxy: Come for the Sandy Hook trutherism, and stay for the colloidal-silver pills and overelaborate water filters. (Jones did not respond to a request for comment for this piece.) Of course, this is just capitalism itself: Create a need or a fear, and hawk the solution for that need or fear. A bunker is a security blanket, and also a Swiffer, a yoni egg, an adult baby wipe.
When I asked Vicino how he felt about selling an imprecise fear, a terrible what-if and an expensive perhaps-then, he insisted that he did nothing of the sort. Would I accuse the creators of fire extinguishers of promoting fire? “Let me be frank: We don’t create the fear,” he told me. “We’re not stoking the fear. The fear is out there. Just listen to the news. Read your own publication. We’re not creating the fear. We’re resolving it. We’re a resolution for the fears. We’re giving people peace of mind.”
Too many people, maybe even me, are “not ready” for a bunker, he said. Maybe they do not have enough responsibility in their life. Maybe they do not take things seriously enough. Maybe there isn’t enough for them to care about. The issue with people who do not recognize the need for a good bunker lies with the people, not the bunkers, he proffered. Later this year, the whole world will be able to see what the bunker business does for people, he added: Right now, a camera crew is at Vivos, filming for a series. The place is filling up. Some very high-profile people, names withheld, are buying in. The bunkers are selling themselves.