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Why we're finding coronavirus comfort in catastrophe films

As Covid-19 anxiety increases, more and more viewers are taking solace in movies about disease outbreaks and even an online series that explores a pandemic, writes Ed Power


Brad Pitt in the 2013 zombie plague film World War Z

Brad Pitt in the 2013 zombie plague film World War Z

Life imitating art: Kate Winslet in the 2011 movie Contagion, which has uncanny parallels to the current pandemic

Life imitating art: Kate Winslet in the 2011 movie Contagion, which has uncanny parallels to the current pandemic

Deadly plague: Sean Bean in Black Death

Deadly plague: Sean Bean in Black Death

Brad Pitt in the 2013 zombie plague film World War Z

We are all coping with the coronavirus lockdown in our own way. Some people play video games until their thumbs turn numb. Others get stuck into that nagging pile of unread paperbacks beside the bed. And then there are those who like to escape the pressures of life during enforced isolation by watching incredibly graphic and often upsetting films about global pandemics.

As Covid-19 has progressed from a vaguely ominous news story from the other side of the world to a clear and present threat to our way of life, something strange has happened: the popularity of movies and documentaries about outbreaks of killer diseases has undergone exponential growth.

In our moment of crisis, we're turning for comfort to the very subject that has set the world head-over-heels.

In the United States, where the pandemic is becoming a whirlwind of near-Biblical destructiveness, Steven Soderbergh's 2011 film Contagion shot into the iTunes charts of most-rented movies. Netflix's series Pandemic: How to Prevent An Outbreak has, meanwhile, taken up residence in the top 10 of the most popular shows in the UK and Ireland.

People have also rediscovered the 2013 Brad Pitt (below) vs zombie plague flick World War Z and the thematically once removed Terry Gilliam curio from 1995 12 Monkeys (also starring Pitt).

Others dived deeper. Did you know that, a year before Game of Thrones, Sean Bean and Carice Van Houten (also known as Melisandre) starred in a movie about the black death called Black Death? If you'd ever paused to consider what Ned Stark vs Covid-19 would look like, wonder no more.

Were you similarly aware that the Resident Evil films were actually about a lethal virus that grinds civilisation beneath its heel? Perhaps you didn't notice because you were too busy enjoying the second season of Netflix's Korean zombie caper Kingdom. The appeal is obvious: it's about a mystery disease that breaks out in the Far East and has the potential to devastate humanity. Perfect pandemic viewing.

Let us also salute those hardy souls who have gone so far as to make it through the ancient Richard Harris thriller The Cassandra Crossing (you can watch it right now and for free on YouTube). Harris plays an Irish medical expert (or so his accent suggests) trapped on board a trans-Europe express train, on which a new strain of flu has been unleashed. That's scary but not as scary as the performance OJ Simpson puts in as a US federal agent travelling on the train disguised as a priest.

Even before Covid-19 many of these films and shows had their fans. Contagion, for instance, was a medium-scale hit the first time around, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon among the A-listers pitched into battle against a coronavirus-esque menace.

Today, however, the parallels are uncanny.

"As of right now, we have no treatment protocol and no vaccine," says a medical expert after Paltrow's businesswoman Beth contracts a lethal dose of a previously undiscovered new disease on a work trip to China and then gives it to a lover before returning to her family.

Later, a Centres for Disease Control and Prevention expert portrayed by Kate Winslet explains that the new virus is passed on "through sneezing and coughing". Yikes on a bike.

"It has been very strange to me, whether on social media or in conversations with friends, that people will say to me, 'This is uncanny how similar it is'," Contagion's script writer Scott Burns said last month. "I don't find it to be that surprising because the scientists I spoke to - and there were a lot of them - all said that this was a matter of when, not if."

"It was very deliberately designed to be a cautionary film. We got the science right," producer Michael Shamberg told BuzzFeed News.

"It was clear to me in January that this was something unlikely to be kept in China. It seemed quite likely that we would be where we are now," Burns said.

"I knew it was much bigger than our government was telling us, or even than the media was reporting.

"It's a tricky situation for a government. You don't want to cause panic, but if you minimise what's going on, it means people won't have adequate time to prepare themselves, so you see things like hoarding and panic.

"Then, when things do get worse, people don't listen to you anymore because the last thing you said ended up not being true."

Whatever about accuracy, the real mystery, surely, is why we wish to sit down to these films at the end of a stressful day. With coronavirus disrupting life and threatening our health and mental wellbeing, surely the last thing we would want to do is wallow in the horror of it all? The truth - counter-intuitive though it may seem - is that these dark and distressing films bring a degree of solace, or at least they do provided we don't become obsessed with them.

"No one wants to be alone," writes Dr Pamela B Rutledge in Psychology Today.

"In Contagion Matt Damon is sharing the burden. Fiction addresses our real-life worries and can impact us in profound ways, changing our attitudes and improving our understanding of others. Right now, we are struggling to manage anxiety in the face of unanswerable questions such as, how long will it last? How bad can it get? And Can we survive? The fact that Contagion is fiction does not matter. An on-screen threat helps us manage our own existential fear of danger and a lack of control."

"The brain is a problem-solving organ, so when we are confronted with a new problem, our brains automatically try to explore, analyse and resolve this problem," agrees the psychotherapist Stella O'Malley. "This pandemic is not a problem that many of us have thought about before, so our brains simply can't get enough of it. We want to examine this issue from every single angle as a way to practise how we should handle it.

"This can be a helpful coping mechanism. On the other hand, there can be an issue with this because our brains also seek out the dramatic. People who suffer from anxiety can seek out the dramatic with series like Pandemic. Yet this could be quite harmful because they are raising their already heightened emotions by watching frightening programmes.

"This means that watching programmes like this is quite subjective, but an easy way to figure out whether it is an adaptive or maladaptive coping mechanism for you is to assess whether you feel better or worse after watching it.

"Movies like Contagion help us experience and manage emotions by making the dangers seem possible to defeat.

"When we watch a scary movie, especially if we identify with the hero, we get 'proof' that we can survive and that everything will be alright, or at least we feel like we're not alone."

Belfast Telegraph