Since the dawn of storytelling, humans traded tales of pandemics. From the Bible’s punishing plagues to George Romero’s zombies, humanity’s appetite for watching the worst-case scenario play out in the pages of a book, across a stage or on a screen seems insatiable. Sometimes, the humans win. Sometimes, the disease proves victorious. The one constant is how voraciously we devour these stories.
Though it might seem counterintuitive, the current global pandemic of the novel coronavirus has only served to whet that appetite. Since the news began breaking in January, “Contagion,” released in 2011, is Steven Soderbergh’s strikingly realistic portrayal of the modern world scrambling to contain the fictional virus MEV-1, broke into the top 10 movie rentals on iTunes. “Outbreak,” a 1995 film that was inspired in part by the AIDS epidemic, soared to the ninth most streamed item on Netflix. References to Stephen King’s “The Stand,” Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain” and Max Brooks’ “World War Z,” which have all also been adapted for the screen, have proliferated on social media.
In a time of real crisis, many of us are spending our time watching fake crises. But why? And does it help?
“I think in the early stages of any crisis, there is curiosity” that leads people to consume (or re-consume) these types of stories, Brooks told The Washington Post. Like many others, one of the first things he did when news of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, began breaking out of China was watch “Contagion.”
That doesn’t surprise Robert Schenkkan, who adapted “The Andromeda Strain” for television in 2008. “By recasting our experience in real life within the confines of a story, it is easier to absorb and explore the ‘what if’ notion of such an event in a way one is less able to do while sitting in your living room and wondering if you should go outside and buy toilet paper from the grocery store,” he said. “Framing it within a story with a beginning, a middle and an end gives a kind of confinement that makes it more accessible.” Since the movie ends, it gives people the feeling that the real crisis will.
“In uncertain times, I think people are trying to get a handle on what to expect and how bad can things get,” said Tracey McNamara, a pathology professor at Western University of Health Sciences who worked as a scientific consultant on “Contagion.” Some, she surmised, might be looking to fiction for answers. And Soderbergh’s movie “rings true now, because it showed how quickly a virus can spread.”
Much of the film, in fact, rings true. Rebecca Katz, a doctor and director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, said “Contagion” contains “scenes where it doesn’t feel like a movie anymore ... (such as) the dynamics of figuring out when to sound the alarm when people aren’t ready. That’s very real.”
But be careful not to let certain tropes in these fictional movies cause unwarranted anxiety, she warned. While they may contain useful lessons, they “are not documentaries.”
“These movies show a complete breakdown of society. And I really do not anticipate that we’re going to see major disruptions in the food supply or the water supply or electricity. That’s purely for Hollywood,” Katz said. “COVID is bad. COVID is going to have major implications for a lot of things in our life coming up very soon, if not already. But we’re not at a case fatality rate of 20% like ‘Contagion’ was.”
For creators of fiction, it can naturally be a bit confusing that folks self-quarantining might be turning to their work for answers during a very real pandemic.
Brooks, meanwhile, wishes the conversation about his book would feel a whole lot more absurd right now than it does.
“I wish people could have looked back on ‘World War Z’ and laughed at it, rather than taking it seriously,” he said. But there’s hope.
“This is not an asteroid headed for Earth. Godzilla isn’t coming out of the ocean. We don’t need an ‘Independence Day’-type of magic bullet,” Brooks said. “We all just need to do our part and we can knock this thing out.”