So what horror movie would this coronavirus pandemic be like?
That was a question early on in March and April when many of us were home and looking for something to watch on Netflix or streaming video to ease down from a binging hangover.
“Contagion,” a 2011 thriller about a globally spreading and deadly virus with Kate Winslet as an epidemiologist, was a quick choice, followed by 1995’s “Outbreak” where Army virologist Dustin Hoffman saves the world. The zombie apocalypse of “World War Z” with globe-trotting U.N. investigator Brad Pitt felt like a pandemic and last year’s television series “The Hot Zone” tracked the deadly Ebola virus.
Back then, I asked two of my go-to guys on films, Baylor University professors Jim Kendrick and Greg Garrett, what they thought a coronavirus pandemic horror movie would be.
Kendrick, who coincidentally happened to be teaching a class on film horror this past spring, thought a zombie movie would come close. “To a large extent, zombie movies are contagion movies: You’ve got to get away from them or you die,” he said. “What makes zombies scary is that a single one isn’t scary, but most (movies) show many, basically outnumbering you. They overwhelm you with numbers. In a way, that’s how we responded to the coronavirus: ‘It’s over there. It’s China’s problem.’ And before you know it, the zombies have the house surrounded.”
Horror movies often parallel times of social unease. Classic monster movies like “Frankenstein,” “Dracula” and “King Kong” came out during the Depression Years of the 1930s. Cold War tensions of the 1950s put invading aliens from outer space and radiation-enhanced monsters on the big screen. The threats of those 1950s films, Kendrick notes, were often resolved through answers from collective science and the might of the military.
Against zombies today? Not so much. “Zombies are a problem almost or never solved,” he said.
Garrett, too, went with zombies, a topic somewhat fresh for the Baylor English professor, who wrote about the subject in his 2017 book “Living with the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse.”
Garrett found it no coincidence that the unstoppable, unreasonable menace of zombies would start to dominate film and television horror in the months after 9/11. “Post-9/11, it seems we live in a world besieged with bad news 24/7. There’s an incessant barrage of bad news,” he said. “But I’ll tell you. Zombie movies are not about zombies. They’re about the human reaction we have to threat. If everything around us collapses, will our better angels continue to operate then?”
The quiet killer
Oddly, I find the 1983 movie “Testament” coming to mind. Jane Alexander is a mom of two living in the suburbs when a nuclear blast levels nearby San Francisco where her husband works. Their suburb suffers no blast damage, but slowly, quietly, inexorably, their connections to the greater world start to wink out.
City utilities start to fail. Television, radio and then ham radio die out. People begin to die from radiation sickness and the bonds of community slip away. It’s a silent, unstoppable tragedy.
In some ways, COVID-19 seems a quiet killer. After some four months, its direct impact now is creeping closer to my inner circle of family and friends. Social distancing and COVID-19 protection measures are cooling the groups and community that have restored my spirit in the past.
Movie model lacking
I wonder, though, if thinking in movies is part of our problem. Decades of movies and television programs have molded our conception of how to solve collective problems. The shorthand of visual storytelling simplifies so much. A single, recognizable villain or threat. A single, recognizable hero who ends that threat. Violence, often as not, as the hero’s solution. Clean ending, unless there’s a sequel already planned, and all within two hours or less.
That’s the basic plot mechanism for most action and horror movies and I think it’s a go-to mental model when it comes to our societal crises. We often need a villain and sometimes create one simply to focus our anger or develop a conspiracy theory to explain things that might not have an explanation. We look for the one person or thing, political leader or vaccine, who we hope can solve the problem for us. And we get fidgety if the problem isn’t solved within two hours.
What the movie model misses is how cooperation and collective behavior can solve crises and find, over time, solutions to complicated issues. Anger and fear pay the bills when it comes to movies and social media, but, in the world beyond the screens, love, compassion and hope carry their own paradoxical power.
Too many voices are drawing lines in sand or setting imaginary timers for solutions; too few call for a greater unity, patience and self-sacrifice.
Perhaps that’s the COVID-19 movie we need. One that starts in fear and uncertainty, but with an ending we have power to write.