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Why everyone is binge-watching pandemic movies right now

At a time when both the coronavirus pandemic and fear of the illness officially known as COVID-19 are sweeping the world, it makes perfect sense that we would experience a rise in escapist entertainment. What better way to gain some much-needed respite from the day’s depressing coronavirus statistics than by binge-watching BoJack Horseman or replaying Red Dead Redemption 2 for the umpteenth time, right?

Except that isn’t what’s happening. Instead of attempting to unwind from wall-to-wall COVID-19 coverage with some frivolous, non-virus-related entertainment, people are apparently turning in droves to whatever pandemic-related movies, TV shows, and video games they can lay their endlessly-washed-while-singing-the-happy-birthday-song-twice hands on.

jude law in contagion
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Coinciding with the devastating coronavirus’ reign of terror, Contagion, a 2011 Steven Soderbergh thriller about a virus originating in China, has shot up the iTunes charts. Meanwhile, Plague Inc., a mobile game in which players must spread a deadly virus around the world, became the top-ranking paid app in the United States.

Why on our rapidly infected Earth are people turning to pandemic-related entertainment right now?

It’s all about control

According to Julie Norem, associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, the answer may well be control. Games, movies and TV shows allow us to excerpt a modicum of control over something which, at least right now, seems scarily uncontrollable.

“In most of these movies, the virus/bacteria/alien invasion is much more dramatically deadly than COVID-19,” Norem told Digital Trends. “Yet humanity — and, specifically, at least one of the main characters — triumphs in the end … There’s an implicit implication that if ‘we’ can beat those more serious threats, surely ‘we’ can get through COVID-19. That has a lot of potential appeal.”

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As bad as things can get on a fictitious level in these games, movies, and TV shows, Norem points out that they still maintain a sense of order in the world. Due to the requirements of dramatic fiction, there are good guys and bad guys, reminding us that morality and social structures continue to exist even when things suddenly seem very different to the world most of us are familiar with. We remind ourselves of this by aligning ourselves with the good guys and following certain rules, such as obeying government restrictions on our movements.

“At the same time, it can also license some of our not so good behavior, [such as] hoarding toilet paper, by giving us examples of people doing much worse, like looting or purposely infecting others, [depending on the movie,]” Norem said.

The downward social comparison

The fact that the disasters seen in popular entertainment are frequently worse than COVID-19 may explain another reason why we tune in. As terrible as it undoubtedly is, the current coronavirus is one that the overwhelming majority of people infected will recover from. When we watch movies, TV shows, or play video games about less survivable pandemics, social psychologists suggest that a process called downward social comparison takes place.

This involves making yourself feel better by comparing yourself to a person in a worse situation. For example, interviewees with more survivable forms of cancer will compare themselves favorably to others with less survivable forms. This is one explanation for why neuroscientists have found that people become happier by listening to sad music. The sadder the singer’s story, the better our own recent breakup or firing (or viral pandemic) sounds.

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Mikkel Fugl Eskjær, a professor of communication and psychology at Denmark’s Aalborg University, told Digital Trends that fictitious narratives also give us a way to process complex information that simply isn’t covered by news media. That’s not to say that you’re better off skipping out on CNN for a game of Pandemic Legacy to hone your coronavirus knowledge. But the news media nonetheless only gives us one part of the story that we need to work through as functional humans.

“When faced with crises or with widespread social concern, people seek information on several levels,” said Eskjær, who has written about disaster movies in the past. “Whereas news offer fact-based information, art and culture offer different ways of understanding a crisis like the coronavirus. It is an understanding which is not based on science, logic, and analytical thinking, but on emotions, associations, and identification. It is important to remember that emotions are central to human cognition. Through art and culture, we see, hear, and feel what a virus outbreak is like. We identify with people that suffer and we sympathize with those battling the virus.”

COVID-19 as … utopia?

The idea of morality playing out through disaster movies is one that numerous theorists have commented upon. Disaster movies, despite their disastrous nature, are frequently optimistic in tone. Just like the kind of feel-good stories we see going viral (a buzzword that needs to change) on social media, disaster movies are frequently about the triumph of the human spirit, even as civilization seems to crumble around us.

The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek made this point in a 2003 interview, “Disaster Movies as the Last Remnants of Utopia.” Speaking with interviewer Noam Yuran, Žižek hypothesized that: “Disaster movies might be the only optimistic social genre that remains today … The only way to imagine a utopia of social cooperation is to conjure a situation of absolute catastrophe.”

Already, Reddit threads and articles are beginning to comment on the various positive ways the world might change in the wake of coronavirus. As many scary stories as have come out of it, there are also positive ones — ones about communities supporting one another (hopefully without touching), medical workers receiving the respect they deserve, and more.

Whether the aftermath of COVID-19 really does result in a fairer, better society in which we reappraise where our priorities should be remains to be seen. But it’s certainly a nice idea. And, hey, until it happens, at least we have the fiction to sustain us.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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