In the early days of the pandemic, I remember hovering over the tab for the 2011 film Contagion on a streaming site even as my brain screamed ‘Don’t go there! Triggers! Panic!’. Something compelled me to watch it finally, and contrary to all expectations, after I'd finished, I felt a sense of calm falling over me. I was no longer the twitchy, anxious, perpetually on-edge person wondering where the infection was hiding, waiting to catch me unawares and put me on a ventilator in an ICU bed.
This was odd, as the movie clearly shows infection being transferred through public spaces as innocuous as a door handle or a bus grip or just by sitting in a taxi previously occupied by an infected person. But here’s the thing—after I watched the film, I searched for how contagious the coronavirus was through fomites or surfaces, and found that even as early as April, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had said that “spread from touching surfaces is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads” (it maintains this stance even today).
Suddenly, Contagion, though as realistic a Hollywood apocalypse film as can be expected, felt a bit exaggerated. It also mattered that the effects of the virus in the movie were much more lethal than what we knew, even then, to be the mortality rates of covid-19.
But most importantly, watching the film made me hopeful of an ending to this ongoing crisis. It made me believe that we would develop a vaccine (as we have), that science and human ingenuity and human kindness would see us through. Contagion helped me get through the real contagion.
Now, a scientist has actually studied whether watching apocalypse movies can prepare our brains in some way to deal with actual apocalyptic scenarios. John Johnson, professor emeritus of psychology at Penn State, recently led research revealing that those who have been on a steady diet of horror films could have been better prepared for the pandemic as opposed to those who are not exposed to this genre of entertainment. Their findings were reported as a paper, Pandemic Practice: Horror fans and morbidly curious individuals are more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
The researchers designed a survey they administered to 310 persons via a website. Thirteen items in the survey assessed positive and negative resilience. A set of six questions covered preparedness for the pandemic. Participants then indicated the extent to which they were fans of horror, zombie, psychological thriller, supernatural, apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic, science fiction, alien-invasion, crime, comedy, and romance genres in movies and television. Next, participants were asked about the past and present experience with and interest in films that were explicitly about pandemics. Other questions appeared in the survey for other projects and as controls, reported Science Daily.
“One explanation for why people engage in frightening fictional experiences is that these experiences can act as simulations of actual experiences from which individuals can gather information and model possible worlds,” the study's authors say in the paper.
Around the same time as watching Contagion, I also read Emily St John Mandel’s fantastic and beautiful Station Eleven, which starts with a pandemic that seems to mimic our current situation. In the book, it turns out to be far more apocalyptic and final, and most of the events in the book are set a few decades later, when the fallouts of the pandemic are more visible and, in a sense, more settled. It should have scared me into a quivering mess, but as I was drawn into the intersecting lives of the book’s characters and the cool randomness of its exploration of the theme of ‘survival is insufficient’, the fears began to fall away. Maybe reading the book gave those nebulous, unnamed fears some sort of solid shape. They helped me imagine better, and realise that the reality was not quite as frightening as my catastrophizing had led me to believe.
John Johnson, the lead researcher of the Penn State study, puts it well: “To me, this implicates an even more important message about stories in general — whether in books, movies or plays. Stories are not just entertainment, but preparation for life.” Survival is insufficient.