Has Hollywood Prepped Us for the Pandemic?

A housebound professor muses on the culture industry and pandemics.

Posted Mar 17, 2020

Housebound (as I imagine many of us are), I have had some time to think about the Big Questions. Such as: Has Hollywood adequately prepared us for COVID-19?

I’m an academic historian of American culture, which, as of now, means that I am an Internet Professor. I’ve written about mental hospitals in pop culture, and I have concluded that movies and books use asylums (Hollywood-speak for psychiatric hospitals) as metaphors for other things bothering us, say, the vicissitudes of democracy, the role of women, the vexed problems of race. Now that we are facing a pandemic, my thoughts again turn to the culture industry. What has Hollywood taught us about pandemics?

There are lots of writers thinking about this exact question lately. Writing for The Atlantic, Megan Garber astutely notes that films like Outbreak (which is popular on Netflix right now) tell us that the government is insidious, and that heroic, individual action is the best means of combating a mega-virus.

In the movie, an evil general (Donald Sutherland) hides the truth about a bad virus, because he secretly aims to cultivate it for bio-warfare. Meanwhile, the Army prepares to bomb the town where the outbreak is happening into oblivion. It is up to a valiant doctor (Dustin Hoffman) to find the cure in time to prevent the annihilation of innocents. The problematic issues of bad government, jack-booted military conspiracists, and individual rather than communal responses lead Garber to the judgment that this movie “understands that, in America, one of the biggest threats to public health can be American culture itself.”

All true. However, though I agree that Hollywood celebrates our worst instincts, it has also tried to inspire our better angels. Perhaps the best pandemic prep is to be found in the zombie apocalypse genre.

Dating in modern form from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), the zombie apocalypse film tells us that a highly contagious disease turns humans into cannibalistic killing machines, whose acts of cannibalism will turn victims into… cannibalistic killing machines. The only cure is to shoot the zombie in the head.

What zombie apocalypse movies (and TV shows, novels, etc.) posit is that a dire disease spreads, and it can only be stopped by killing (permanently) the spreaders. Not much optimism here. But there is also a second message—safety is to be found in a community.

In Night of the Living Dead, an interracial band of survivors makes a stand in a house and survives a night of zombie attackers, only to have their leader wiped out by a trigger-happy mob of nervous, healthy people. One message from this might be that teamwork must transcend race and that the bigger threat to us is fear and ignorance. Still, Romero also seems to tell us that the infection originated in the space program, so there is an anti-government angle here too.

Other zombie offerings also praise the action of communitarianism. The hugely popular The Walking Dead series, for example, tells us that humanity’s best chance rests in selfless actions carried out by quasi-democratic and racially-inclusive groups, rather than by imperious rulers of miniature kingdoms. The answer to the zombie pandemic is in being neighborly.

There are many, many examples of this plotline. I’ll give just one. In the book (and later TV series) The Stand, Stephen King tells us about a government-created pandemic that wipes out over 99 percent of the population. Society breaks down, martial law is tried (and fails), and the survivors unite into two bands.

The good band is led by a spiritual 108-year-old African American woman named “Mother Abigail” who inspires followers to create a new, democratic society in Colorado. The bad band is led by a demonic, supernatural character named Randall Flagg, who caters to fears and builds his tyrannical society in Las Vegas (obviously, it being Sin City). As with Night of the Living Dead, the moral message is that a welcoming, neighborly, democratic society is the only cure for a pandemic.         

We don’t often think about it this way, but pop culture has always preached moral lessons. In the face of apocalyptic disease, the message, as Megan Garber rightly notes, privileges individual heroism and governmental distrust. But that’s not the only message. We also find stories of hope, rooted in ideas of interracial, democratic, selfless neighbor-building. This is something to search for, and maybe even to learn from, in the oft-vapid pop-culture landscape.

Stay safe, everyone. And help each other.     

References

Garber, M. "The Problem of the Pandemic Movie." The Atlantic. March 6, 2020.