How horror films envisioned a global pandemic and what we can learn

Do infectious themes in films satisfy our appetite of vicarious experience of threat scenarios?

Updated Apr 27, 2020 04:37pm

Dr. Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist and senior advisor to the creators of the 2011 movie, Contagion, recently took to Twitter, saying, "We who made #Contagion the movie know that you are watching it again now. This video is not about the “fictional” virus in the movie but about the real pandemic we struggle with today."

Accompanying the tweet is a video with members of the cast speaking about the important precautions one needs to take in order to stay safe from the coronavirus.

What’s interesting though is the first line of the tweet: “We who made Contagion the movie know that you are watching it again now.”

A simple Twitter search of the phrase “contagion movie” shows that Dr. Brilliant is not wrong, with numerous users not only talking about how they are watching the film again, but also pointing out the similarities between the spread of MEV-1 virus in the film and the Covid-19 in real life.

The film has seen a revival in its relevance since the outbreak of the virus. What’s creepier, however, is how much this revival mirrors the spread of the virus.

If one compares a graph representing the trend of Google searches about the film and that of the rise in Covid-19 cases worldwide, they are almost identical.

Contagion is not alone in this regard; other horror movies that explore the human experience of infections and diseases, like World War Z (2011), I Am Legend (2007), and Outbreak (1995), have also followed similar trends in 2020.

And in the study of this genre, these graphs are representative of a phenomenon called the “paradox of horror.”

Happiness and horror go hand in hand

For the past many decades, researchers and film enthusiasts alike have made attempts to understand this "paradox of horror."

It is based on the premise that fear is a strong negative experience, and as such, human beings are evolutionarily geared to steer away from situations that evoke this emotion.

This begs a question that is central to the paradox: why, then, is a genre that essentially aims to scare the living daylights out of us, and brings us face-to-face (or face-to-page, or face-to-screen) with our fear of death, so popular?

Horror as a trope and an art form, however, has existed for as long as humanity, and within it, so has the theme of contagion. Psychologists argue that catching a disease is actually one of humanity’s oldest fears and anxieties.

More specifically, why are films that depict the biggest threat facing humanity right now suddenly growing in popularity almost in tandem with the growth of the threat itself?

The questions might be contemporary, but the answer is as old as time.

Horror as a trope and an art form, however, has existed for as long as humanity, and within it, so has the theme of contagion. Psychologists argue that catching a disease is actually one of humanity’s oldest fears and anxieties.

And like most of our fears and anxieties, contagion has also found its way into our art and culture. Stories of the 'Plague of the Firstborns' that afflicted the pharaohs of Egypt are found in folklore and scriptures, while the death and decay caused by the Bubonic Plague have been immortalized in European art.

It was in the 19th and early 20th centuries that horror emerged as a distinct genre in literature, and was later adapted into film. These cultural developments led to the fear of contagion finding a place in popular culture on a much larger scale.

This fear — mixed with the societal anxieties around declining health in the rapidly industrializing Europe — produced a potent cocktail that pressed the cognitive buttons on our evolutionary fears like never before.

The most popular monster in literature and film, the blood-sucking vampire, Count Dracula, was a product of this era and embodied this cocktail like no other.

The lore of an archetypal vampire

Stories of vampires and blood-sucking humanoid predators had existed in East European and Persian lore for centuries before. The Dracula, however, was categorically different from its predecessors.

He was not a predator looking to kill and devour you. He was the carrier of a disease, and his bite would infect you and produce symptoms of illness. Bram Stoker describes victims of the Dracula’s bite as weak, ghastly pale, and suffering from throat pains.

Furthermore, Stoker penned Dracula at a time when Europe was facing one of the worst outbreaks of syphilis in history. Many argue that he himself suffered from it.

The anxiety surrounding the fear of a transmittable disease found its way into how Stoker and those who adapted his work imagined the monster.

*Count Orlok in Nosferatu* (1922)
Count Orlok in Nosferatu (1922)

Stoker’s Dracula, and his first film adaptation, Count Orlok in Nosferatu (1922), bear a striking resemblance to an adult patient of congenital syphilis, with pointy teeth and nails, frontal bossing, and slow movement being salient similarities.

The Dracula, thus, is not just a monster of imagination. It is a representation of our evolutionary fear of contagion and our anxiety around health.

A zombie apocalypse

With a nuclear apocalypse having become a reality, and numerous viral outbreaks of Ebola, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, the late 20th century inspired a monster that embodied large-scale contagion in its entirety: the zombie.

Whether it’s the slow and bumbling zombie infected by nuclear toxins from Night of the Walking Dead (1968), or the menacingly fast virus-infected undead from World War Z (2013), this monster had a singular goal: to infect as many as possible.

The zombie also raises the stakes on contagion. They won’t infect a small group of people like the Dracula. Rather, in the same vein as viruses like SARS or the Covid-19, they have the potential to cause a pandemic, infecting the whole world at a lightning-fast pace, essentially bringing about a collapse of society as we know it.

Zombies also bring about this post-apocalyptic order which is as (un-)deadly as the zombie, introducing tensions into human relationships.

It brings with it everything that is detrimental to the survival of human beings as a species; mistrust, uncertainty, suspicion, and isolation.

It represents the worst-case scenario that our fear of contagion can have us conjure up; an unrelenting attack of disease which destroys everything that is meant to protect us and keep us together, slowly picking us off one by one.

It’s the stuff of our worst nightmares. And yet, people pay good money to experience their worst nightmares.

Research shows that between 2006 and 2016, seven zombie movies featured among the Top 100 films in the North American Box Office, collectively making over $52 million annually.

Furthermore, the resurgence of such movies during the current pandemic adds further weight to the question: why are people willing to indulge in the negative experience that our fear of contagion brings?

Key to understanding this paradox is understanding how a viewer of contagious horror films relates to the characters on the screen. The shift to film as the more popular medium for horror fiction changed the impact that the genre had. It also altered the relationship between the viewer and the fictional characters on screen.

When we see hoards of zombies running after Brad Pitt in World War Z, our fear of contagion is triggered, and this produces negative emotions. However, later when we see Brad Pitt discover an antidote and an immunity vaccine is developed which allows humans to fight back, it produces positive emotions.

Psychodynamic film theory argued that the viewer identified with the characters on the screen as a surrogate self.

Cognitive film theorists, on the other hand, posited that while the characters on screen were not surrogates, the viewer responded to the film in the same way they would to a real-life situation. Whichever one you believe, there is one common takeaway: compared to literature, film drastically reduces the psychological distance between the viewer and the characters.

In other words, it makes the experience of horror and the fear of contagion a lot more real. And our response? That is real too.

Why do we like watching horror films if they produce negative emotions in us?

Research shows that contagious horror films do produce distress, disgust, and depression in viewers. However, as the paradox dictates, the same research also shows that despite this effect, viewers enjoy the overall experience.

Some theorists argue that when we watch contagious horror films, our brains engage in what is called hedonistic compensation, which essentially implies a cost-benefit analysis.

Simply put, when we see hoards of zombies running after Brad Pitt in World War Z, our fear of contagion is triggered, and this produces negative emotions. However, later when we see Brad Pitt discover an antidote and an immunity vaccine is developed which allows humans to fight back, it produces positive emotions.

World War Z (2013)
World War Z (2013)

These theorists argue that this positive experience is what we are really after when we watch contagious horror films, and that the negative experience which precedes it just the cost we pay to get it.

It makes some sense at first, but it creates more questions than it answers. Why pay the cost at all? If positive emotion is what we are really after, then why not watch a romantic comedy, which has all of the benefit and none (okay, almost none) of the cost?

And if this compensation is what makes contagious horror films appealing, what explains the popularity of films like 28 Weeks Later (2007) which do not have a positive ending?

Evolutionary researchers, like Mathias Clasen and Christian Jarrett, offer a more holistic answer.

Our fear of contagion has thus been reinforced over centuries of experience and memory, making it one of our most potent evolutionary fears and anxieties. As a result, our evolved fear system is as hyper-vigilant as ever.

Contagious horror films work by targeting this system, and evolutionary researchers argue that this is exactly where its appeal comes in.

They argue that for our earliest ancestors, contagion must have been equally if not more anxiety-provoking than predation. One could run or hide from predators or even kill them, but they could not hide from viruses that evaded sight.

This made them hypervigilant to signs of contagious disease. Our fear of contagion and the distress that comes with it is a result of this hypervigilance, and together they make up an ancient set of biological defence mechanisms known as the evolved fear system.

And while civilization has brought us further away from predators and even given us ways to protect ourselves from them, it has not been as successful in countering disease. The Bubonic plague in the middle ages, the Spanish flu in the modern age, and SARS and Ebola in the 21st century are a testament to this.

Contagious horror films work by targeting this system, and evolutionary researchers argue that this is exactly where its appeal comes in.

Given that that outbreak of disease is a very real possibility, there is a need to keep our evolved fear system tuned, polished, and ready.

Contagious horror films appeal to us because they perform this very function. While film reduces the psychological distance between viewers and characters enough to produce very real horror responses, it still maintains some psychological distance from reality.

This small distance gives us room to practice our evolutionary fear of contagion in relative safety and become habituated to things that evoke it. Clasen argues that in order to stay hyper-vigilant, human beings have evolved to develop an “appetite for a vicarious experience of threat scenarios”

And contagious horror films serve this appetite.

Simply put, we do not watch contagious horror films for the eventual hedonistic compensation. We are in it to learn, not only about the threat of contagion, but also an appropriate response to it.

A film like Contagion (2011) has surged in popularity because it is representative of both the right and the wrong kinds of responses to the threat of a virus, especially in the current pandemic. Whether its the lockdowns being enforced, the mass hysteria being created, or the fake news about possible cures being pandered to line someone’s pockets, Contagion (2011) has it all, and shows us exactly how to approach a pandemic response.

Are we learning though?

Our response to a global pandemic in the real world

Pakistan boasts the 2nd highest searches for Contagion (2011) in the past three months. And yet, a recent survey reported that a mere 20% of our public has been practising social distancing.

This is the lowest in our region, and extremely worrying when compared to the global average of 54%.

Moreover, 43% of our public reported that they have not been taking any precautions at all.

By all means and measures, it does not seem like we are learning.

One of the biggest hurdles to an appropriate contagion response in Pakistan has been the controversial decision to not suspend religious congregations. Government officials have been practising pleas rather than enforcement in this regard, with a large number of people regularly breaking social distancing rules to come out and pray in congregation, even if the mosque is closed.

Does the evolved fear system not work for such people? I argue that it does, only a bit differently.

Ours is a country where social norms, culture, identity, and even fears are deeply embedded in religion. The religious insecurities and anxieties rooted in our colonial experience, have produced new fears in us: the fear of being "bad" Muslims, the fear of not being able to protect Islam, and the fear of going to Hell for it.

And because this fear functions on the premise of a life beyond death, it is strong enough to overpower the fear of death and contagion in itself.

All you need to do is tell us that those who die in a plague are martyrs.