Warner Bros

The psychology behind obsessively watching pandemic movies

With streaming figures for 'Contagion' and Netflix's 'Pandemic' going through the roof, we asked experts to unpack the reasons why we're flocking to films that mirror our own potential fate.

by Jack King
27 March 2020, 7:00pm

Warner Bros

Whether you’re Extremely Online or just an occasional user of the frenzied sphere of social media, it’ll hardly come as news to you that Contagion -- Stephen Soderbergh’s pandemic drama which maps the eruption of a lethal novel virus, one which begins by unceremoniously offing Gwyneth Paltrow before claiming the lives of 29 million others worldwide -- has become grotesquely popular in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

It’s currently the third-most popular rental on iTunes in the UK. Earlier this month, The Verge identified four major spikes in the film being illegally torrented, each instance tied to a major development in the pandemic’s spread. Similarly, Letterboxd recently released statistics suggesting that interest in Contagion on its platform had bumped in early February, before a massive spike was registered in March. At its peak, around 1,600 people in one day had logged the film on their viewing diaries.

Contagion isn’t alone in this, either. The Netflix documentary series Pandemic remained within the platform’s UK top ten for the past month. And the mobile game Plague, Inc., in which you control the evolution of a potentially lethal virus, is currently the number one downloaded app on the App Store. While this phenomena may not be totally surprising, it feels somewhat counter-intuitive. Conventional wisdom would suggest that human beings seek out escapism in times of trauma, but these films represent the opposite. So why the sudden spike in interest?

Perhaps the most obvious answer, psychologically, lies within the impulse to be informed and prepared. “I would only be speculating, and I don’t know of any work that speaks directly to this, but my guess is that people are just seeking any kind of relevant information,” Dr. Michael Muthukrishna, Assistant Professor of Economic Psychology at the London School of Economics says. “That includes articles, opinions and news, and fictionalised simulations like movies and games.” Journalist Ryan Gilbey, writing for The Guardian, takes a similar position: “It must be the case that viewers have been watching it as a sort of ‘how to’ guide in the event of a catastrophe in their vicinity. Or at least a ‘what to’ -- what to expect when you’re expecting an epidemic.”

Dr. Ashok Jansari, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Goldsmiths University in London, says that the most significant factor is how our attention has been so strongly drawn to the specific issues raised by the crisis: “‘Contagion,’ ‘outbreak,’ ‘virus’' -- once your attentional system is activated, then you start noticing it physically, or you seek it out,” he says. This phenomena, Dr. Ashok suggests, can be noted within pregnant women, or women who want to become pregnant too: their attention is disproportionately drawn towards relevant stimuli, such as other women with babies. “In this way,” he continues, “‘attentional capture’ is enough to make people seek out video games, films, and TV shows.”

Another suggested impetus is our need to confront and reconcile the reality of the COVID-19 crisis - and, in doing so, retain control of it. Film critic Charles Bramesco took this line in a recent article for The Guardian: “For some psychological profiles, “ he suggests, “keeping fear out of sight only enables it to expand in size and intensity. Such films as Contagion and Outbreak [...] allow audiences to vicariously live through the end of days and survey what will be left after.”

You could fairly assume that these are cyclical impulses; that our heightened attention to the pandemic leads us to the need to be informed. The saturation of information that we’re currently experiencing with the COVID-19 crisis, after all, is unprecedented: much like the virus itself, it’s everywhere. There’s no escape. While there have been other catastrophic crises in recent times, from the London Bridge attacks (both of them) to the Pulse shootings, their ramifications have never bled into the vast majority of our daily rituals. But right now we can’t even shop without being reminded of it, and this has been sustained for a significant amount of time, with no end in sight.

The most frequently referenced contemporary comparison to the coronavirus pandemic, at least in terms of its seismic socioeconomic implications, would be 9/11, after which films akin to the blockbuster disaster flicks plummeted in popularity. No one wanted to see American landmarks being destroyed anymore: on the morning of September 11th 2001, they’d all seen it play out live. A global pandemic is a different existential threat to that of terrorism, but the immediate consequences -- restrictions in air travel, strict lifestyle restrictions, existential dread -- strongly correlate.

“The difference with 9/11 is that we had an enemy,” Dr. Dimitrios Tsivirikos, a Consumer and Business Psychologist at UCL suggests. “Consumers and governments -- they had someone to blame. As traumatic as that situation was, as much as it was a paradigm shift, we knew where it came from. The narrative of terrorism was understood.” What has startled consumers into seeking information is the disruption to our everyday lives. “With this particular concept, things have changed,” Dr Dimitrios adds. “This coronavirus situation has caused a lot of anxiety around the connecting pieces of society. In terrorism, the connection was so much cleaner. This has reset everything.”

Charles Bramesco has come to a similar conclusion. “I’ve observed that the big difference between this virus and 9/11 is that unlike with terrorists, we can’t do anything to show the virus that we’re not afraid,” he says. As an ‘enemy,’ this virus presents a unique hurdle: there’s nothing to defeat -- regardless of what the Trump administration’s adoption of war-like rhetoric, or Boris Johnson’s wannabe Churchill persona, might have you believe. “I think retreating into life-as-usual or an escapist fantasy improving on it, was suggested as a way to fight back,” Charles adds. “In this situation, the opposite is true. The virus is here, now, everywhere.”

Perhaps, then, the structural simplicity of such Hollywood narratives as Contagion and Outbreak, more than anything, is what makes them so attractive. They frame viruses as an enemy in a way that we can’t in real-time; in Contagion, Soderbergh manifests villainy out of empty space, his camera lingering on doorknobs and rails, images suggestive of microbial antagonists. It allows us to visualise the invisible enemy towards which we so need to direct our collective ire. In visualising such a simple opposition, we can envision a return to normality after all of this blows over. At least to some degree.

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