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Art meets life: Can pandemic movies prepare us for the real thing?

Coronavirus outbreak: Stars of ‘Contagion’ movie reunite to film PSAs on COVID-19
WATCH ABOVE: Stars of ‘Contagion’ movie reunite to film PSAs on COVID-19

It might seem like we hear more than enough about pandemics from living through the novel coronavirus in reality.

But, a group of scholars argue in a recent paper, fans of horror and pandemic movies and the “morbidly curious” show better psychological resilience in relation to the real pandemic.

“Exposure to frightening fictions allow audiences to practice effective coping strategies that can be beneficial in real-world situations,” they write in ‘Pandemic Practice: Horror Fans and Morbidly Curious Individuals Are More Psychologically Resilient During the COVID-19 Pandemic.’

It is a ‘preprint,’ a term for a scholarly paper published before formal peer review.

“Stories allow the audience to explore the dynamics of an imagined version of the world at very little cost, making stories particularly good vectors for learning about threats. Through stories, people can learn how to escape dangerous predators, navigate novel social situations, and explore methods for surviving a catastrophe.”

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Read more: Edmonton woman in Italy describes life in travel lockdown ‘like being in a movie’

Coltan Scrivner, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago and an author of the paper, said the study looked at fans of prepper films: “films like apocalyptic films, zombie films, alien invasion, horror films where there’s an end-of-the-world element, where something is invading the world and the world is in chaos.” 

This genre, he argues, has at least some elements of the situation we’re living in.

The study compared the fans to the general population, asking them whether they agreed with statements such as “I have been taking the news about the pandemic in stride.”

“What we found was that fans of, specifically, prepper films were not only experiencing less psychological distress, but also experienced greater feelings of preparedness,” Scrivner explains. “What this means is that if we gave them statements like, ‘I knew how bad things would get before they really took off with coronavirus.’ Or, ‘I knew which supplies I should buy in order to prepare for the pandemic.’”

Read more: Gone viral — 5 movies about outbreaks

Scrivner is an expert on morbid curiosity — a stronger-than-usual interest in themes related to fear and death.

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He argues that in a real-world catastrophe, morbid curiosity can be an advantage, which was another of the study’s findings: morbidly curious people “experienced significantly greater positive resilience during the pandemic.”

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Morbid curiosity is often discouraged, if only because it can make other people uncomfortable, but Scrivner argues that it isn’t a good or bad thing in itself.

Commentary: Pandemics like the coronavirus crisis inspire outbreaks of art

“Traits are either well-suited or ill-suited to certain situations,” he says.

Read more: ‘Outbreak’ cracks Netflix Top 10 amid coronavirus spread

In mid-March, as Canada started to shut down in response to the pandemic, the 1995 movie Outbreak made the Netflix top 10.

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According to the film’s synopsis, Outbreak follows “army doctors struggling to find a cure for a deadly virus spreading throughout a California town that was brought to America by an African monkey.”

Scrivner says his favourite pandemic movie is Contagion (2011), in which a devastating pandemic spread by touch arrives in the United States from east Asia.

“I watched it in March or April, and it does such a great job, now that we’re kind of living in it, of really simulating what that looks like. There’s everything from the shortage of supplies to Jude Law propagating this kind of miracle cure — all these things that we’re seeing in the real world.”

Read more: ‘Contagion’ cast reunites to offer coronavirus advice

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“It’s really interesting, really well-done with regard to how well they predicted what would happen in a true global pandemic breakout.”

Coronavirus outbreak: Stars of ‘Contagion’ movie reunite to film PSAs on COVID-19
Coronavirus outbreak: Stars of ‘Contagion’ movie reunite to film PSAs on COVID-19

York University professor Steven Hoffman assigns students Contagion as required watching for an international health law class he teaches.

“I have always included Contagion in my … lists, because I felt it so accurately depicted what was likely to happen in a future pandemic,” he says. “And indeed most of what we saw in Contagion has actually happened during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Hoffman points to the breakdown of international health systems under pressure, panic buying by consumers, dubious miracle cures and a disease that “spread very quietly and then very quickly” as common features of both Contagion’s fictional pandemic and the real one.

“It really highlights the power of the arts to bring attention to the way things could be, and to help us be ready for those futures, and ideally craft a better one.”

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Hoffman is open to the idea that exposure to fictional catastrophes could leave us better able to deal with real ones.

“Simulations, and experiences that get people to think about future possibilities, will have a preparatory effect on people. That’s why we often run simulations for organizations and communities in order to make sure that people know what to do when certain events happen.”

“People enter a world, they know it’s fiction, does it actually make them better-prepared? That’s what this study speaks to. It’s a really interesting question.”