The usefulness of horror movies in a pandemic


Gwyneth Paltrow in Contagion

Journaling the Coronavirus, Sunday April 26: the horror, the horror edition

The virus continues to wend its way through the populations of the world. In the past five weeks, more than 982,000 Americans have become infected and more than 55,000 have died. This time in March, one in ten Americans knew someone infected with coronavirus – now, that’s increased to one in three, according to research by navigator, a real time pandemic opinion poll. 

We know now that the disease is spread by both asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers. It is communicated by droplets of saliva which can survive surprisingly long indoors and in dry conditions, spreading as far as three feet and hanging around in the air up to three hours. It can even survive for three days on plastic and steel surfaces like those on trains and buses. On surfaces, bleach will kill the virus in five minutes; isopropyl alcohol will kill it in 30 seconds.

Another contaminant of the virus is media driven – you are what you watch. Researchers discovered that “Greater exposure to Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight leads to a greater number of Covid-19 cases and deaths, finding  “a one-standard deviation increases with approximately 30 per cent more Covid-19 cases on March 14, and 21 percent more Covid-19 deaths on March 28.”

I think there is something to this; as a veteran watcher of horror movies, I recognize the plot line that is unfolding before us. Decades of watching zombie outbreaks, alien abductions, monsters from the deep deep ocean or in deep deep caves, and the antics of Freddy, Michael, Jason, Chucky, and Annabel, provide clues as to what will stop the horror or make it worse.

Why do you watch that junk? a friend asked. I looked pointedly at his World of Warcraft 3 monitor setup, but he ignored me. As long as I can remember, I’ve always been drawn to horror. It’s an attraction-repulsion thing; I don’t watch horror for enjoyment, I watch it as a kind of training. Watching, I’m as scared as anyone else, maybe even more so, and frequently watch through my fingers or squinched-shut eyes and hands over my ears. But I have an equally powerful pull to see how the last survivor survives. The world on its surface can be a beautiful place, but it is also an indifferent and unfair place, and there are infinite ways to die in it. Even during this terrible pandemic, there is the shock of unexpected death –  the woman who paddled with her son onto the bay to quickly retrieve a ball only to be overtaken by rough water and never seen alive again, a couple dying in a one car highway crash earlier this month, leaving behind three young children. Right now, as I write this, there are people who are hurting other people, unable to stop making the world a worse place.  I’ve always seen watching horror movies as sort of training for the world. It might be unlikely that long-buried aliens rise up to vaporize us, or a shark takes multiple victims from the same beach, a demon takes possession of a little girl or a virus infects everyone it comes into direct contact with, but if any of these things do happen, I’ll know what to do. Or so my reasoning has gone.

But already this pandemic has blown a hole in this horror-movie-as-preparedness theory, because the one thing that increases survival in a horror movie is for everyone to stay together, which of course is the exact opposite of what increases survival in a coronavirus outbreak.

Still, an intimacy with the horror genre has given me a lens through which to understand what is unfolding. Although ‘horror’ is too broad, there are many sub-genres that contribute to the canon of chaos: there is alien abduction horror which is closely related to but not the same as demonic possession horror; there is body horror and slasher horror and franchises like Saw that straddle both. Asian horror is a sub-genre with sub-genres – Japanese horror (The Ring, The Grudge) is very different from Korean horror (Parasite, Train to Busan, The Host). There’s monster horror (all werewolves, vampires, Frankensteins) and demonic witch horror (Blair Witch, Paranormal Experience). There is ironic horror: Scream, The Rise of Leslie Vernon. There is dreamlike horror that crosses genres, Pan’s Labyrinth has a creature, Nightmare on Elm Street has a slasher, Insidious has a demon. There is doll horror (Chucky, Annabelle) and haunting horror (Christine, The Haunting of Hill House). There’s virus horror (The Stand, Contagion, Outbreak and the Korean horror film Flu) and zombie horror which are of course related (28 Days Later, Night of the Living Dead). There’s humor horror that by definition crosses genres – Shaun of the Dead is a funny zombie flick, Teen Wolf is a funny werewolf pic). There are horror directors whose names evoke specific genres, expectations and reactions: Eli Roth’s bougie comeuppance horror (Saw), Dario Argento’s moody buckets of blood (Suspira, Jenifer), George Romero’s consumers from beyond the grave horror (Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead).

“We’ve done a hell of a job, an incredible job, with great ratings, like Monday Night football level, like Bachelor finale level.”

Interestingly, though we are in fact in a pandemic, the pandemic genre is not the most applicable horror sub-genre to the situation.  That’s because, in the virus sub-genre, the medical establishment is almost always heroically American, prepared and swift acting. They’re never wearing garbage bags and yesterday’s PPPE and having to elbow their way through confederate-flag waving protesters to get into the ER with a dying patient. Think of it – even the far-out imaginations of the directors of the pandemic movies didn’t allow for incompetence like we’re seeing with the Trump administration’s response because it wouldn’t be believable. In pandemic horror movies there is always  a lot of medical experts in top shelf PPE, shields and all, coordinating the virus response. In Contagion, Gwyneth Paltrow’s death by virus is scary but not made worse by an incompetent nincompoop president on the television reassuring bewildered husband Matt Damon “It will go away like magic, I hear light and disinfectant might help, or even hydroxychloroquine, what could it hurt?” Apparently director Steven Soderbergh’s imagination for the fictional horror of pandemic didn’t extend to include the actual horror of an incompetent leader with an insatiable appetite for television ratings in charge of scientists and doctors and saying  “I don’t think we need so much testing, the Democrats only wants so much testing so they can get Trump.”

MovieNite!Featuring Pamela, Nora, Peter, Stuart and Guests: The ...

If the pandemic sub-genre isn’t particularly helpful in limning this disaster, the rampaging monster sub-genre offers insight. In rampaging monster horror there is a moment between creature arrival and creature destruction in which someone – usually teenagers, or a drunk guy, or a couple making out in a car – sees the arrival of the danger and warns others. In our situation, the Steve McQueen character in The Blob is played by Dr. Fauci, Tony to his friends. “You gotta warn the town people, there’s a monster on the loose,” Steve McQueen begs the Sheriff, much like Tony must have painted the picture for President Trump. “Tell everyone to stay inside!” Steve/ McFauci pleads but at first the Sheriff isn’t inclined to believe a bunch of kids led by a smartass troublemaker. It’s not until people start dying that Steve McQueen is able to convince the Sheriff, which is not unlike what it took for Tony to convince the President, who chided a reporter “I couldn’t start closing things when there were no deaths.”  I’m still kind of amazed no one made a bigger deal when he said that. I mean, the whole point of containment is to prevent deaths.


Invasion of the Body Snatchers  |  Credit: MGM/UA

Our current reality contains echoes of another horror movie sub-genre: alien abduction. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers and it’s filmic offspring The Invasion (with Nicole Kidman) and Body Snatchers, people are taken over by aliens and going around saying things that sound off-kilter in reassuring tones. and leaving everyone with the uneasy impression they are living with facsimiles of their friends and family. Listening to the task force members repeat their long lists of numbers of beds and Air Bridge flights with millions of masks and the the low and high throughput machines that will double testing capacity always in the same unchanging tones of optimism is a daily trip through the Uncanny Valley. Are they still our leaders, or have the pod people gotten to them too? It’s hard to tell.

“If heat is good and sunlight is good that’s a great thing, as far as I’m concerned.”

Federal health officials estimated in early April that more than 300,000 Americans could die from COVID-19 if social distancing measures are abandoned too soon.  If the trajectory of the Spanish flu suggests a playbook, it is that prematurely relaxing social distancing  will bring the pandemic roaring back, like a grassfire that died to embers would with a tablespoon of gasoline thrown on it. It doesn’t take much – back in 1917, people were tired of social distancing and didn’t want to wear masks. Some politicians thought that a war bonds parade might be just the thing to perk people up, a decision that ironically set off a chain of events ensuring the flu killed more American soldiers than the war itself.  Tired of being cooped up sheltering in place, people came out by the thousands to support the war effort, setting off a  killer tidal wave of flu deaths – 100,000 people died in the month of October alone.

As Georgia and Tennessee get busy re-opening and people begin trekking to the beaches in large numbers, the feeling in my stomach is akin to watching an installment of Final Destination, or It Follows, movies in which people are being stalked by a silent killer that follows its own terrible rules.

“That could be setting us back,” Dr. Fauci warns when he hears what the Massachusetts Governor has planned.  “It certainly isn’t going to be helpful.” But the Governor, not to be deterred by public health officials or even the president, green-lighted the opening of hair salons, spas, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys this weekend. You can almost hear the Twilight Zone music playing in the background, and a voice over in Rod Serling’s intensely hushed, conspiracy-promoting voice: Why is Georgia, whose state motto is wisdom, justice and moderation, rushing to be the first state to open up the lockdown orders? Is Governor Kemp a pod person? If President Trump is also a pod person, does this make Kemp’s defiance the equivalent of a double negative and therefore a positive?

Where does the buck stop, you might be wondering, if not with the president? President Trump is taking the tack of giving the governors guidelines he recommends they follow but won’t stop if they don’t. So if the buck doesn’t stop with the governors, then where does it stop? “The people themselves are primarily responsible for their safety,” said South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

The State of Missouri thinks the buck stops with China, and filed a lawsuit against the Chinese government, claiming China’s deceit, concealment, malfeasance and inaction  led to a global pandemic that unleashed economic devastation in the Show Me state. 

That economic devastation is a case of the cure being worse than the disease according to the president’s favorite pundit. “Are we just going to sit by and watch the $22 trillion G.D.P. evaporate?” asks Rush Limbaugh, recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to the art of being shouty.  But in a movie-ready irony, it turns out the rejection of the cure is in fact what is most dangerous for the economy.  Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found cities that acted early and aggressively to impose social distancing to limit the spread of the Spanish flu performed better economically after the pandemic than those “let’s not let the cure be worse than the disease” types. To sum: history says we’re not ready to open up, the doctors say we’re not ready, but we’re opening up, because the president trusts the governors who trust the people to do what’s best. How will the people decide? Let me pose this as a classic horror movie choice: will they listen to Police Chief Brody and stay away from the cool inviting water, or will they listen to the Mayor of Amity who says the beaches are OPEN!

 “I’m not a doctor. But I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.”

There are a few politicians leading the charge – safely, from their Zoom app – to make sure that people who want to not believe in the virus, coupled with people who believe in it and want to be protected, can all get back to work and hopefully not infect more than one person apiece. Hope is pretty much the strategy, as the only way opening back up now can be accomplished without risking a deadly second surge of infection is through rigorous testing, isolation and contact tracing, something no city in America is, as yet, set up to do.

The drum beat to ramp up testing is loud and ever-present, and maybe there is actually progress being made in pockets here and there around the US, but generally the feeling is, we squandered the time when we could have contained the virus, and instead of responding with the massive coordinated testing effort that is needed,  we have been too busy putting out the fires of overcrowded hospitals and not enough PPE are causing. This past Thursday testing tents went up in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco, targeting an area of eight or so city blocks. As far as just needing to know where to go to get a test, that’s a question the vast majority of San Franciscans and Americans still don’t have an answer to, even as countries like South Korea and Taiwan take the world to school on how pandemic preparedness is done.

Working from home
In a strange plot twist, I’ve worked from a home office for more than a decade, using video conferencing platforms, remote online presentations and project collaboration applications as part of my daily routine.  It will be interesting to see which apps pass the sudden stress test of user design they are getting with million of new users overnight. So far Zoom gets a D, for allowing trolls to exploit a weakness in the software, hack into meetings and do the kinds of things fourteen year old boys (both the literal and metaphorical variety) find amusing, like draw penises onscreen.  Zoom stock is soaring. We’re getting a view of reporters we’ve never had, seeing which ones have big libraries and what their taste in art is like and who has good audio and video (I use classic Sony Dynamic Stereo headphones) and who has shitty wifi.

One wonders what Zoom will do with its big head start.  My personal recommendation, a series of questions on a screen you can click yes/no before the meeting starts, establishing your settings before you join. Those of us who remember when AOL was synonymous with the internet, when Lotus 1 2 3 came preinstalled and Excel was still just a verb, we know being first to catch the wave doesn’t predict who will ride it longest. And we’re definitely in a long haul situation here, working from home and video conferencing will be increasing just as surely as air travel and WeWork stock will keep decreasing.

Pssst, have you heard
Did you get the message? I did,  passed along by a former colleague. He said he got it from a current colleague, whose brother-in-law worked for a government agency.  The messages said the Trump administration was about to lock down the entire country; the National Guard was being deployed.

I didn’t see the White House’s National Security Council announcement via Twitter that the message was “FAKE” but if I had, I wouldn’t have believed the NSC’s Twitter message more than my friend, even though my friend was wrong.  I’m not super trusting of our institutions any more, and I’m not alone – a study by Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project with USA TODAY. found that nearly a third of Americans believe a vaccine for the virus probably or definitely exists, and the government is hiding it. This leads me to think trust is going to be the currency of the 21st century, in the same way popularity was the currency of the 20th century.

Speaking of trust, Florida’s surgeon general was escorted out of a briefing by Governor DeSantis’s for the crime of pointing out Florida wouldn’t get back to “normal” until there’s a vaccine, which most experts estimate will be not be available for a year or even two. Governor DeSantis went ahead and opened the beaches, and beaches were open this weekend in California too. All we can do is watch them and hope they know better what they are doing than all those swimmers in the waters of Amity in the movie Jaws.

amity beach

These people listened to the Mayor not the Police Chief

The trends prove that our strategy is working and we can reopen, the Vice President intones.  It’s these kinds of statements that used to drive my journalism professor crazy, the taking of two independent clauses and marrying them in a quick shotgun wedding conducted by the conjunction ‘and’.  The trends do indeed prove the sheltering in place to slow the spread is working.  But the “and we can re-open” does not necessarily follow. unless by that clause the meant “And now we need to turn our attention to testing to that we can safely reopen so let’s talk about how we’re tackling that ball of wax”.  Which he didn’t.  To sum: follow the governor. Unless he contradicts the president, then follow the president. If the president’s contradiction contradicts the governor, then follow yourself.

In other news, CDC Director Robert Redfield warned in an interview that the second wave of the coronavirus next winter could be even worse than what we are now experiencing. Some newspapers printed this story and the president didn’t like the headlines they were using so he symbolically frogmarched the director to the lectern to clarify,  “I didn’t say that this was going to be worse,” he said. “I said it was going to be more difficult and potentially complicated.”

If you feel an overwhelming urge to check the dictionary to see if worse and difficult and more bad mean the same thing, I already did, and according to the Cambridge online dictionary, the word “worse” is comparative of bad referring to something more unpleasant, difficult, or severe than before. So Dr. Redfield wants you to know the second spike of infections aren’t going to be worse, just more difficult or unpleasant, which are synonyms of worse.

Suspecting he is in fact speaking to a pod person, the reporter asks “Director, are you accurately quoted in the Washington Post “CDC Director warns second wave likely to be more devastating”? To which Dr. Redfield affirms, “Yes I am accurately quoted in the Washington Post “CDC Director warns second wave likely to be more devastating.”

In a horror movie this is where the director yells “Scene” and then they go work on the script some more, realizing how bat shit crazy it all sounds, even for horror.

3 guys

“Some people are very big on testing, much less than I am,” President Trump tells us. “Nobody’s done it like we’ve done it and we’re getting very much stronger.”

What do yo have to do to become the King of testing? a reporter asks the President, and he responds in a warning tone “I just said there is no country in the world has done more.”

But Dr. Fauci says testing needs to be doubled before the US reopens the economy, says one reporter.

“No, I don’t agree with him on that,” the President decides. “No, I think we’re doing a great job in testing.  I don’t agree.  If he said that, I don’t agree with him.”

“What we just went through, we will not go through again.”

But how do you know, asks a reporter to which Trump answers  ” I didn’t say I know, but it won’t come back at the scale it did.”

In what might be the best gotcha question of all time, a reporter asks reasonably (but unnecessarily) “If it’s not coming back why are you spending so much on ventilators?”

“We need them for other reasons. Something could happen,” the President points out, nicely summing up the justification for existence of the Strategic National Stockpile that just six months ago he was safely ignoring. “No one writes about it,” he gripes about the lack of recognition he is getting for becoming the undisputed King of Ventilators, which could be a truly terrifying WWE personality, now that I think of it: a character in stars and stripes tights wearing a Darth-Vader style ventilator mask, and an ermine-trimmed robe and a blonde pompadour.

“No one thought I could solve the problem, and I solved it,” says the President and reader, calling me a crying lib but it tugs at my heart when he reveals his wounds this way. Not as much as when I see small business owners crying on camera because they can’t get the funds they were promised to save their workers, not as much as when I see the ambulances lined up to bring the dead and dying to the hospitals…but there is a little tug. How sad it must be, to feel so beleaguered, to show such naked need for being appreciated.

“If you added up the testing of every nation in the world we’ve done substantially more than that, you people aren’t satisfied,” the President accuses. “If I had 50 million people getting tested 10 times, the media would say where is the 11th time, Trump didn’t do his job,” he complains. Then adds, “You’re fake media” and “It would be great if you wrote the truth.”

“My problem is very much a media trap,” the president of a country with nearly a million infected and more than 55,000 dead in an ongoing pandemic tells the reporters arrayed in front of him. “Whether we (test) 2%, 5%, 50% or 100% it will never be enough. Testing is much easier than ventilators. the swabs are coming in by the millions, we wanted the highest quality. but no matter how well you do you can always ask more.”

In our movie, Tony trusts Debbie and I want to, too, because I do think that she understands the dangers we face and wants to save us from them.  But last week she was quoted saying “Our mortality rate remains roughly half of that of many other countries and [is] one of the lowest of any country in the world” which is a pod people fact (meaning, it’s false). Out of the 134 countries for which Johns Hopkins University has collected data, the United States ranks 33rd highest in death rate – MORE THAN 100 countries have a lower death rate.  So Debbie’s credibility as one of the kids that can save the town is tottering. I’m convinced those scarves of hers will ultimately play a significant role, perhaps tied together and lowered into the next briefing from a chopper, where she’ll call to Tony “Come with me if you want to live!” and haul him up and they helicopter off somewhere they believe in science, like New Zealand.

A Penny For Your Thoughts
Often, when Mike Pence takes the lectern he addresses his initial comments to the President. “Early on the you called forth the full power of the American government,” he intones, gesturing at President Trump, who scowls and nods. “Earlier this month you used the DPA to construct ventilators, and the machinist union in less than one week negotiated with GE healthcare a new contract,” he continues, and the president nods encouragingly at the mention of contracts and negotiations. Mike Pence finishes with a crescendo you can feel, though his tone never deviates from that of a sober Selectman: “You built not just the 100,000 ventilators in 100 days promised, but we’re actually going to have 110,000 ventilators,” he says in a voice that throbs with approval.  He proposes a t-shirt be designed with the slogan “Union Machinists Save Lives” and I think he has a much better chance of getting that expense approved if he changes the slogan to say Union Machinists ❤️ the King of Ventilators.

A general tells us we’re dangerously over dependent on our global supply chain. “What we’re learning is, no matter how many treaties and alliances, when push comes to shove you run the risk as a nation not having what you need,” he tells us. He does not shout WHICH IS THE ENTIRE POINT OF THE NATIONAL STRATEGIC STOCKPILE (that was me, sorry) and lays out a plan for us to buy Americans for medical counter measures and medical equipment and medicines, and deregulate to facilitate advanced manufacturing on US soil, in this way replacing the Strategic National Stockpile with a plan to  leapfrog the current business model of competing against cheap sweat shop labor and lax environmental regulations that directly attacks our industrial base (as he put it). While that was OK before the pandemic, “Never again,” he says, and I wince at applying this humanitarian plea to capital supply chains.

Reuters broke the ‘story’ that Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services for just over two years, appointed his chief of staff, a former Labradoodle breeder, to be the main coordinator for the government’s response to the virus. Labradoodles are a notoriously easy breed of dog to love – they are cute, good-natured, get along well with dogs and humans and are hypoallergenic. I’m thinking if the head of the virus response was a pit bull or chihuahua breeder, he might have been better prepared to deal with the anxiety and dangers of the emergency we face, instead of expecting happy talk to keep everyone in a row, waiting for the next tidbit.


Heroes and Zeroes
The administration likes to call healthcare and other essential workers heroes, and it’s easy to see that most if not all people agree with that sentiment.  Maybe the protesters blocking up the hospital entrances asking Governor Whitmer to let them get back to work seemed like they were disagreeing that healthcare workerse are heroes – especially the ones honking their horns angrily at nurses – but just wait til one of them gets COVID-19 and watch the Overton window shift.  No one should be mad at healthcare workers, but everyone should be mad at the conditions in which they are doing their critical care work:

  • 47% of nursing, psychiatric and home health aides have no paid sick leave
  • one million front-line health care workers lack their own health coverage
  • the median pay for the nursing assistants and orderlies risking their lives caring for Covid-19 patients – often without proper PPE – is $14.25 an hour

In The Invisible Man, Elizabeth Moss plays a character who, like us, is facing an invisible enemy. In our case it’s a virus, in her case it’s an abusive boyfriend so committed to controlling her, he invents an invisibility suit and fakes his own death so he can keep gaslighting her from beyond the grave. Gradually, Elizabeth comes to realize that no one is going to believe in an invisible enemy, that it’s up to her to believe the evidence of her own senses and fight back, even when the authorities in her life doubt her, maybe even think, like Steve McQueen, she’s just a troublemaker.  She finds a way to fight the invisible threat,  by making it visible, e.g. dumping paint on its invisible head.  That’s what testing does for us, in our movie – testing shows us the footprints of the virus like flour on the hardwood floor shows Elizabeth Moss the footprints of the invisible man.

We’re winning this, and we’re going to win it, and we’re going to keep watching.  We’re going to watch very closely for the invisible enemy.

How will our movie end – will Tony and Deb have time to figure out how to first contain the virus, then destroy it? Or will the pod people prevail, convincing us to go along with them, as infected CDC Director Tucker tries to convince Nicole Kidman in The Invasion, inviting her to get the infection with them, throw off the tyranny of irrational human emotions, and enjoy a better (i.e. 100% infected) world.  “When you wake up  you’ll feel exactly the same,” they tell her.

Me, I’m rooting for Tony being able to convince everyone in the nick of time, it might be too late to stop the monster, but we can at least hide from it until it’s over the horizon, we can at least not become its unwitting victims. What happens when its gone – for now? We should have listened, we’ll all agree. And we’ll figure out a new way of life, a way of moving about in a world that now contains the indisputable proof of a monster that can wipe out thousands with a single month-long swipe of its tail.  We”ll go back to normal, as much as you can while still being on the lookout for signs of its return, knowing the sequel might easily be worse than the original, as so often is the case.

Good News: Amazon is expected to announce a blockbuster quarter. That should make everyone feel great right? Jeff Bezos’ personal wealth has increased by $24 billion since the pandemic started. Who says capitalism doesn’t work.

See past entries in Coronavirus Event

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