Throngs of people wearing masks. Locked down cities. Abandoned theme parks. Cruise ships full of infected passengers. Schools closed indefinitely. Public gatherings restricted. Annual events postponed. Sporting events played to empty stadiums. Flights canceled. Airplanes with only a handful of passengers. Empty market shelves. Millions self-quarantined in their homes. “It sounds like a scary movie,” an eighteen-year-old girl says after reading the news. She couldn’t be righter.
In late December 2019, a novel strain of coronavirus, COVID-19, broke out in Wuhan, China. This flu-like virus rapidly spread throughout China and then the globe. By February, it had become a real problem in the USA. On March 12, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global pandemic. On March 13, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency. Since then, new cases and restrictions have been announced every day as more areas declare states of emergency. As few facets of life remain unchanged, no one knows how long the panic will last.
When the rapid spread in China of a new illness of undetermined origin hit the news a few months ago, it sounded like the premise for a frightening epidemic film. However, as the cases have moved closer and closer to home, many Americans are beginning to feel like they are living in a science fiction/horror film about a deadly disease which causes global panic and death. Is the widespread fear just a normal reaction to such a dangerous situation, or is erratic behavior and irrational terror resulting from something more than common cautiousness?
During this panic, a popular reassurance in the media has become, “This is not a movie.” This rather obvious statement is intended to reassure people that the pandemic has not become an apocalyptic nightmare, although it sounds more like a bulletin that the world has not slipped into the parallel universe of a viral outbreak horror film. A video from March 9 shows New York governor Andrew Cuomo warning New Yorkers not to panic, saying, “This is not some science fiction movie come to life.” Famous horror fiction author Stephen King used Twitter to assure people that “coronavirus is NOT like THE STAND,” his 1978 novel adapted into a 1994 television miniseries which features a flu-like virus that destroys most of humanity, adding that it is “not anywhere near as serious.”
Why do people keep making the comparison between COVID-19 and films? Is the comparison simply meant to illustrate the immature imaginations of many, which lead to thinking life is like a movie, or does it reveal that some films are more than harmless, entertaining fantasy?
For several decades, pandemic disaster films have been a popular horror film genre. These movies range from depictions of fairly realistic illnesses which threaten humanity to stories about less believable sicknesses which spread one way or another to wipe out the human race to absolute fictions in which a bizarre virus turns most of earth’s inhabitants into zombies. While films of the last category can hardly be confused with reality, movies about viral outbreaks are as chilling as they are popular, since they evoke morbid curiosity and fear because they seem possible.
Like any other genre, some epidemic films receive more acclaim than others. One of the most realistic is Contagion (2011), a Steven Soderbergh film about an airborne virus which, due to scientific consultation during filmmaking, is too real for comfort. In fact, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found that “there is much in the film that relates to real life.”
Another such film is Outbreak (1995). Its story follows an outbreak of a zoonotic virus very similar to Ebola which is spread in the United States by a monkey’s bite. In his 2003 essay “Infectious Diseases in Cinema: Virus Hunters and Killer Microbes,” Dr. Georgios Pappas called this film “the most important film about an outbreak of infectious disease” and “the most sincere attempt to accurately portray the science of clinical microbiology in cinema.”
The earliest apocalyptic films are from the 1960s. In 1964, Vincent Price was The Last Man on Earth after a deadly plague to which he was immune turned the rest of humanity into zombies. In 1965, The Satan Bug featured a deadly virus which a thief uses as bioterrorism against the government scientists who created it. In 1968, Night of the Living Dead was a low-budget film which depicted zombie violence with unprecedentedly graphic content.
1971 brought The Andromeda Strain, a science fiction film about an extraterrestrial virus that threatens life on earth, and The Omega Man, which starred Charlton Heston as another last healthy survivor after a Communist germ war destroys all life and turns the rest into plague-ridden zombies. The rest of the decade brought films like The Crazies (1973), The Missing are Deadly (1975), Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), and Plague (1978).
Since the 1970s, epidemic, outbreak, and post-apocalyptic plague films have only increased. In the 21st century, more films from these genres are released than ever before. However, one is hard-pressed to find such films made before the late 1950s. What sort of epidemic films were made in earlier decades?
There are few movies made during the 1930s-50s which focus exclusively on an epidemic or a viral outbreak. However, many classic films feature epidemics as subplots or climactic occurrences within films of other topics. The Painted Veil (1934) follows an Austrian doctor who fights a Chinese cholera epidemic. The Prisoner of Shark Island depicts an unfairly imprisoned doctor who combats a yellow fever outbreak on the prison island. Join the Marines (1937) follows a young Marine who is stationed on a jungle island where the plague breaks out. Jezebel (1938) is about a stubborn antebellum Southern belle who must save the man she loves during a New Orleans yellow fever epidemic. Prison Nurse (1938) features a small medical team who must fight a prison typhoid epidemic. The Rains Came (1939) shows British colonials in India fighting a cholera epidemic. Vigil in the Night (1940) shows a nurse who works at a country hospital during a smallpox outbreak. Untamed (1940) depicts an outbreak of streptococcus in the Canadian wilderness. Wagon Tracks West (1943) shows ranchers trying to get Indians off valuable land with bad water that causes fever. Stars in My Crown (1950) features a Western minister and doctor who clash during a typhoid outbreak. Saadia (1953) follows two men who love the same Arab girl in French Morocco during a plague epidemic. Elephant Walk (1954) follows an English woman on a British Ceylon plantation which experiences a cholera outbreak.
Most of the epidemics in the above-mentioned films occur in foreign countries. Others occur in America with historical settings. Those that occur in modern America are in isolated locations, such as prisons, hospitals, or remote towns. The characters fight to cure and contain the diseases within small areas, rather than allowing the drama to spread all over the country or world. None of the above listed films even feature a disease which threatens a major city. 1950 featured two such films. In Panic in the Streets, a murdered man is determined to have had pneumonic plague, so officials must secretly find his assassins before they contaminate New Orleans. In The Killer That Stalked New York, a woman smuggles diamonds into New York from Cuba and then tries to locate her faithless husband, unknowingly spreading smallpox throughout the city.
In the fourteen classic epidemic films listed above, there is not one apocalyptic horror story which shows a ravaged globe with only a handful of survivors. There are no plague-ridden zombies. There are no mysterious viruses that destroy most of the human race. All the diseases depicted in these films are real diseases which have been known to man for generations. Their effects are shown on a small but realistic scale. Unlike later films, these movies do not feature fictional viruses with unrealistically devastating consequences. While Contagion and Outbreak have been determined realistic, these films are even more realistic, since they do not use exaggerated illnesses as the basis for cinematic drama.
Between 1934 and 1954, American films had high standards, since filmmakers were not allowed to put profits above ethics and audience wellbeing. The film rating system had not been established yet; its precursor was the Motion Picture Production Code, self-regulation which Hollywood voluntarily adopted to avoid government censorship. Under the Code, movies followed guidelines which kept them acceptable for all viewers.
While depicting devastating epidemics is not explicitly forbidden by the Code, certain guidelines and restrictions would make post-apocalyptic films difficult. The section of the Code which applies most to the depiction of horrific illness is Section III, Vulgarity: “The treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects should always be subject to the dictates of good taste and a regard for the sensibilities of the audience.” However, apocalyptic films of any kind violate the Code more specifically by irresponsibly causing terror. The Code’s opening recognizes producers’ “responsibility to the public” because of “the high trust and confidence which have been placed in them.” Because of this, films “may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.” Films are harmful when they become “[e]ntertainment which tends to degrade human beings, or to lower their standards of life and living.”
Are films or any other type of entertainment related to reactions which occur during real disasters? Do epidemic films deserve any responsibility for the current panic in America? Although not widely reported, scientists acknowledge the influence films have on public perceptions about outbreaks. In “Infection Diseases in Cinema,” Dr. Pappas noted that films can have effects “on the public’s perception of infection… that, when misguided, could prove to be problematic in times of epidemics.” He stated that “the public’s perceptions—and, accordingly, their reactions—are significantly influenced by their view on scientific truth as presented by the media.” Before delving into specific films, he summarized that some epidemic film trends “have subsequently been adopted by the public as facts, and, therefore, they act as determinants of public reactions to possible future infectious outbreaks and, perhaps, government policies.” In his conclusion, he warns that “the premise of epidemics involving unknown viruses of dubious origin that cause apocalyptic events serves to instill the public with fear, which may turn to panic when similar situations arise.”
Dr. Pappas’s warning explains the climate of panic in our country today. Although COVID-19’s symptoms are mild and mortality rate is low, people are treating this disease as though being tested positive for it were a death sentence. This illness is certainly not as dangerous as many others which have caused epidemics in this country, yet it is being treated like the bubonic plague. Is it rational for an entire nation to be shut down and its occupants relegated to isolation because of a virus which causes coughing, short breath, and fatigue and only kills the elderly and those with underlying health issues?
The reaction to COVID-19 has been anything but rational. At the first rumors of panic buying, Americans started hoarding household items when there was no shortage save that created by the selfish shoppers. Events are being canceled, restaurants are restricted to take-out only, and public transportation is shutting down. Students are missing valuable learning time and important activities which can never be replaced. Small businesses are facing ruin because of closures and lack of customers. All social life is being restricted, as gatherings of ten or more are banned and people are encouraged to hide in their homes. That’s not living; it’s merely surviving.
The root of these drastic measures is not caution but panic. They are only reactions to the senseless fear which has gripped the world. This panic can’t be stopped until Americans recognize its cause. Whether consciously or unconsciously, many are confusing this real situation with the cataclysms of irresponsible epidemic films. Every time a healthy person grabs an extra package of paper towels, overloads his cart with hand sanitizer, dons a surgical mask, or hoards canned goods, he is contributing to the problem. He unconsciously remembers some apocalypse film where all but a few fail to heed the warning of impending disaster. He secretly promises himself that he will be a survivor, unaware that he is being deceived into unnecessary panic because of Hollywood’s unrealistic, dangerous epidemic propaganda.
To end this crisis before it ruins our country, we must remain rational. Take only the precautions that you would take against a normal flu. If we all realize that this isn’t some crazy movie, this pandemic will pass soon. In the meantime, take a vitamin D supplement, unwrap an elderberry lozenge, and watch a good Code film!
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