As we roll down US Highway 41 in Terre Haute, Indiana , my guide insists I give him my iPhone. Then he tosses me a satin blindfold. The terms of our trip were clear—I wasn't to know where we were going or how we got there. That's because we're on our way to the undisclosed location of an underground bunker designed to survive the end of the world, whatever form that apocalypse takes.
When I remove my blindfold, I am standing in a grassy clearing looking at a boxy concrete structure that serves as the entrance to a Cold War–era government communications facility gutted and reborn as Vivos Indiana. This is the Ritz Carlton of doomsday shelters, a hideout where residents can wait out a nuclear winter or a zombie apocalypse in luxury and style while the rest of humanity melts and disintegrates. The living area has 12-and-a-half-foot ceilings, sumptuous black leather couches, wall art featuring cheerful Parisian street scenes, towering faux ferns, and plush carpets. Faith Hill croons from a large-screen TV set in front of three rows of comfy beige reclining chairs. The cupboards are stocked with 60 varieties of freeze-dried and canned foodstuffs; an evening meal might include spaghetti aglio e olio topped with skillet fried steak chunks, a fresh tomato-and-zucchini salad fresh from the hydroponic garden, and decadent turtle brownies. An eight-by-nine bedroom is designed for four people (there are larger units for six) and comes with double-queen bunks clothed in 600-thread-count ivory sheets and duvet covers worthy of a four-star hotel, a comparison highlighted on the Vivos website.
I plop down on a Sealy's Presidential Pillowtop mattress and decide, yes, a person could sleep here quite soundly while the world burns.
There are pet kennels for furry friends large and small, a gun safe (duh) in which to house weapons, a small gym, medical facilities, and a sound-proofed engine room housing two generators that run on diesel fuel stored in a 30,000 gallon tank—enough for over a year's supply. Another room contains high-grade filters that scrub incoming air of nuclear, biological, and chemical particles.
According to Robert Vicino, founder and CEO of survival prep company the Vivos Group, when the shit hits the fan these facilities will house those who have had the foresight to pay the $35,000 entry fee. These clients, he tells me, include a top surgeon, a colonel in the US military, and a movie star. Most of his clients, Vicino tells me while we're underground, tend to be "conservative types who don't trust the government to deal with a disaster."
"As Ayn Rand said, ignoring reality won't protect you from it," Vicino intones.
Those who make it their business to equip themselves for a civilization-ending mega-disaster—a.k.a. "preppers"—are sometimes stereotyped as wild-eyed tinfoil hat wearers who live outside of society, but Vicino caters to survivalists whose fears are backed up by money. The San Diego businessman is gunning to be the vanguard of a multibillion-dollar industry. If we're to follow the entrepreneur's logic, the rich don't live on the same scale as ordinary people in today's society—why should that change after the end of the world?
Even at 6'8" and 300 pounds, Vicino has a body that seems barely equipped to contain his outsized personality. A psychic once told him that he was sent to Earth from a planet of giant superior beings dedicated to saving the human race, and that's why he needed such a large frame. Clearly he sees himself as a man with a mission: For the last 20 years, the 61-year-old has had a premonition that "something's coming our way."
While we're inside Vivos Indiana, Vicino rapidly shuffles through end-time scenarios—financial breakdown, flesh-melting pandemics, magnetic pole shifts, cyber warfare, and Biblical tsunamis—with lengthy digressions on the possibility that alien reptilians are impersonating the British Royal Family and that a secret wrecking ball called Planet X is hurtling towards us from space. He wants to make one thing clear to me, however: When the end comes, you will not be ready for it. It's a hell of a pitch, I have to admit.
The way Vicino speaks about his life, you get the impression it's been guided by auguries and accidents. When he was a bored Connecticut art student in the 70s, a falling ice sheet shattered the windshield of Vicino's car, the bad omen convincing him it was time to try his luck in California. There, he set up an inflatables business that culminated in a grand plan to affix a gigantic inflatable King Kong to the top of the Empire State Building for the classic film's 50th anniversary. (The massive balloon ripped in high winds and deflated.) By his late twenties, Vicino tells me, he was driving a Rolls Royce, but lost the business in the 80s and had to reinvent himself as a real estate entrepreneur. In the 90s, he took up selling shares in villas in swanky spots like Aspen and the South of France. It was the idea of fractional ownership that got him thinking about a long-coveted dream of his to build survival bunkers where people of means could escape Armageddon in comfort. In 2007, just before the financial crash, he decided to give it a go.
His timing was impeccable. Since 2013, the country has minted 1.6 million new millionaires , and there are an estimated 3 million-plus preppers in the US. It stands to reason those groups overlap, especially since in these divided political times, many of the rich are concerned with their money's security: what threatens it, how to hang on to it, and above all, what happens when the have-nots get tired of not having it. (Witness the infamous 2014 Wall Street Journal letter to the editor that compared America to Nazi Germany and the wealthy to the Jews.) Vicino warns that the rich need to be ready for a scenario that will "turn Suzy Homemaker into a gun-wielding predator." As he asked me, without any apparent irony, "Do you really want to fight off all the zombies, the predators, the gangs, the militias, whatever else is roaming the streets to get what you got?"
It's a good time to be in a fear-based industry. Public comments from some of the planet's richest people reveal a strain of paranoia about insurrection. At the last annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, observers noticed elites growing more alarmed about the possibility of social unrest. Last year, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer published an open letter to his "Fellow Zillionaires" in Politico Magazine that summed up the growing worry among the wealthy: "What do I see in our future now? I see pitchforks."
This matches what Vicino hears. "They're going to Patagonia, they're going to remote locations of the world," he says. "Their reasoning is more to be insulated from a revolution, rebellion, anarchy, or whatever, following an economic collapse."
The affluent have always spent money on things that they feel will help them hold onto what they have. But the rise of businesses like Vicino's points to a convergence of social and political trends that has become a toxic brew of inequality, paranoia, and extreme individualism.
Vast differences between haves and have-nots tend to unleash pathologies that don't just affect those struggling to get by; they trickle all the way to the top.
Peter J. Behrens, a psychologist who studies doomsday phenomena, sees grand survival plans as a reflection of social and psychological maladjustment, the place where "paranoia meets narcissism." In his reckoning, while having enough food for three days and a working flashlight is reasonable disaster preparedness, imagining that you can survive apart from the rest of humanity in elaborate bunkers and retreats is not.
"Narcissistic personalities—abundant among the rich—tend to view their answers as the only ones that are legitimate, and they are attracted to extravagant schemes," he says. But is the gap between these fantasies and reality slowly shrinking?
Behrens sees America's preppers as a new twist on apocalyptic fears of the 1950s brought on by the threat of nuclear war. He believes that American policies and economic trends, along with the proliferation of social media—where the like-minded can easily network—are stoking new end-times obsession. What he describes resonates with a term coined in the 90s by journalist Michael Kelly that is coming back into vogue: "fusion paranoia," where conspiratorial worldviews get cobbled together from a mishmash of sources from across the political spectrum. Prepping can also be linked to the rise of libertarian strains of thought in American life that hold that the government is unable to properly address social and ills, or that any attempt on its part to do so would qualify as tyranny. It's a philosophy that at its most stark replaces love thy neighbor with a mystical faith in self-interest. Hiding in a bunker as the rest of humanity falls apart because they failed to prepare as you did is, in some ways, the ultimate libertarian fantasy.
Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist and senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning think tank, says that you probably won't find many old-money types in the affluent prepping community. Sudden wealth, he points out, fuels the vertiginous insecurity and solipsistic detachment that leads to thoughts of ensconcing yourself in a high-tech cocoon when the apocalypse strikes.
Behrens observes that among the Fords, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts, a strong Judeo-Christian ethic of giving back at least some of your riches to society led to the erection of libraries, museums, and other institutions. He thinks that not only are today's wealthy increasingly insulated from the rest of society via gated communities, exclusive clubs, and personal airplanes, but they also do not feel that they owe anything to the rest of us.
Vicino's properties include the recently launched Vivos Europa One, an invitation-only nuclear blast–proof subterranean complex tucked into a former Cold War munitions storage facility in Germany. It was purchased by Vicino and his partner, a German developer, for $2.25 million and unveiled this past summer. The property, now valued at over a billion dollars and boasting 227,904 square feet of "secure, blast proof living areas" is big enough for 34 "high net-worth families" to inhabit for a full year, says Vicino. They can enjoy swimming pools, a wine cellar, and living quarters they are encouraged to customize with fittings created by their favorite yacht designers. Worried about the collapse of the rule of law? After the end of society, each Vivos properties will be governed by its own bylaws and the various bunkers will have their own tribunals to handle conflicts between wealthy residents, who may well get twitchy during their confinement. An armed security force employed by the company will handle threats from above—presumably the have-nots who want in.
A berth on this subterranean Noah's Ark will run you $3 to $5 million—about 100 times or more what an adult spot in Vivos Indiana costs.
Additional Vivos facilities, Vicino explains, are private and unpublicized. Understandably, his clients don't want to advertise themselves, but Vicino's PR people provided me with anonymous quotes ostensibly from his satisfied customers.
Writes one: "Like everyone else, I have a sixth sense that something may happen soon. It is time to prepare for a contingency on many fronts for my family. There are more possibilities of devastating events happening now than any other time in my lifetime."
"The times speak for themselves and growing increasingly more dangerous," says another. "Where else can we go when the inevitable SHTF?" (SHTF means "shit hits the fan," prepper slang for a doomsday scenario.)
Vicino is not the only one trying to cash in this new breed of preppers. The entrepreneur gives admiring credit to a competitor, developer Larry Hall of Silo Home , who has built a luxury condo complex housed in an abandoned missile silo in Kansas. (The eight $2 million units have reportedly sold out.) Vicino says he's sold all but around a dozen of the 80 spots in the Indiana bunker—though a few are reserved for his immediate family. He says he's currently talking to buyers for the new German facility, including one uber-wealthy prepper who might just buy the whole shebang.
Read on Munchies: Post-Apocalyptic Dining in Atlantic City
At the end of my bunker visit, I thought of a new society Vicino was trying to enable. Some of the wealthy are not only refusing to read the real writing on the wall—such as inequality being a glaring problem that requires our whole society to confront it head-on—but are living in their fantasies. To some, an escape to gold-plated survival shelters is the answer when reality falls apart for everyone else.
But the entrepreneur has high hopes for the future of his company: "Vivos will build, outfit, stock, and sell as many shelters as we can, while time still permits—and there is market demand. We cannot predict when, or if, the time will come where mankind is safe from both natural and manmade extinction level catastrophes. People don't believe something will happen, until it does!"
The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit, provided support for this article.
Follow Lynn on Twitter.