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Going Viral

Why we love a good fictional pandemic

I mostly avoid slasher flicks. You could not pay me to watch a Saw movie; I still can’t comprehend the existence of The Human Centipede. I’ve come to appreciate complex allegories like The Babadook and satires like Drag Me to Hell, but if there’s mutilation or extreme torture, count me out.

That said, I have always loved a good plague.

Maybe getting amped about diseases laying waste to society makes me a bigger sadist than someone who enjoys watching a handful of attractive, deeply unlucky twentysomethings get ripped limb from limb by a serial killer. But the medical apocalypse genre — specifically, pandemic porn like Outbreak, The Strain, Helix, and Contagion; the zombie-inflected The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, and World War Z; and classics like Albert Camus’ The Plague — has a unique hold on our cultural imagination, one that can’t be merely chalked up to humankind’s underlying savagery. A plague’s terrors are multifold: The fear doesn’t often end, as in body horror movies, when the credits roll. Call it a collective subconscious death wish, but unlike pure slasher movies (and zombie films, too, if the brain-eating apocalypse isn’t presented epidemiologically), plague thrillers aren’t metaphors for larger social anxieties or vehicles for individual catharsis. They’re literally our worst nightmares embodied — not to mention a dispassionate if extreme solution to society’s ills.

Naturally, I took special notice when the CW debuted Containment last month. The trailer for the show — which follows the minute-to-minute spread of an unknown viral pathogen that surfaces in Atlanta and kills 100 percent of its victims — sent such primo chills up my spine that I watched it at least three more times. The premiere set the stakes high in its first moments by opening with a flash-forward two weeks into the pandemic; those trapped in the quarantined area have devolved into bloody hysteria and panic in the streets, as the military moves in to “keep the peace” between them and sick people who stumble around coughing, spitting and vomiting blindly into open air. Now four weeks in, tensions and suspicions have risen considerably — which makes this week’s news of its cancellation after just one season, even while it was branded as a “limited” series to begin with, pretty disappointing. While Containment still falls on the CW’s typical spectrum (somewhere between brilliant pulp and nonsense pulp), its populist aesthetic has been perfect for the topic. As a straightforward TV series with neither the dramatic time lapses of typical pandemic movies nor the artistic flair of a Guillermo Del Toro joint, it’s been able to follow — practically in real time — exactly how a virus of this caliber would be methodically addressed: first by the local authorities, then the CDC, then the federal government. It’s added an authentic, commonplace bureaucracy that’s terrifying in and of itself — a quality this increasingly potent genre could always use more of.

Containment is just the latest in a long tradition of viral apocalypse narratives in pop culture, but the genre has taken off in recent decades, starting during the Cold War and especially in the years since 9/11, when deadly diseases like anthrax swiftly rose to the top of the public’s list of fears. In 1986, sociologist Ulrich Beck speculated that we now live in a “risk society,” wherein the increasing actual likelihood of total annihilation — be it via nuclear holocaust, climate change, natural disaster, or global pandemic — has seeped into our collective bones, becoming an underlying influence in everything from pop culture to politics to our individual, day-to-day subconsciouses. In that light, it makes sense that we’d have an almost instinctual attraction to fictional disaster scenarios that validate our sinking suspicions that we’re all totally screwed.

Which isn’t to say that the science doesn’t support those suspicions. While plagues like the mystery monster-virus in Containment are science fiction, most of their fictional aspects are relegated to the details. In reality, humans are long overdue for a deadly global pandemic; now, it’s simply a question of which one will find that perfect window of opportunity. We modern folk like to think we’re more evolved than our ancestors, who succumbed in droves to the bubonic plague and cholera. First-world countries would certainly like to believe they’re above third-world scourges like malaria and ebola, but we often forget — until reminded by a fictional outbreak, of course — that even metropolitan white-collar folks touch their faces three or four times an hour.

“Pathogens themselves are microscopic and immobile. They have no … independent means of locomotion,” writes Sonia Shah in her recent book Pandemic, a fantastic non-fiction exploration of how modern viruses spread. “On their own, they are isolated as island castaways, marooned in their obscure birthplaces. To progress to the next stage in the journey to pandemicity, [they] have to rely almost entirely upon us.”

The only thing needed to usher in another medical disaster, in other words, is the collision of human bodies.

Still, our cultural fascination with the themes of Containment — if not Containment itself, which was apparently doing badly enough in ratings to warrant its execution — could never have been sustained exclusively with the collective mortal terror of the inevitable. They also fulfill an entirely plausible fantasy in which an all-powerful agent lays waste to our bodies and our false senses of hierarchy simultaneously, with an objectivity only a force neither living nor dead could achieve. Pandemics are the ultimate social equalizer: They don’t give a damn about your offshore Panamanian accounts or your SoulCycle membership. (A virus only cares about how to get from your instructor’s spit into your mouth.) Containment has made a point of exploring the ways power can be redistributed (and abused) in a crisis. Patient Zero, for example, appears at first to be a young Syrian refugee fleeing the influence of actual terrorist cells, but the extremist bioterrorism theory has faltered since then, suggesting his identity might make him the ideal scapegoat for a more sinister origin. Regardless, the Islamophobic panic evaporates rapidly as even top doctors start dying and officials outside the cordon sanitaire scramble to contain the spread of a mystery disease and exert total control over the people inside. A barrier of shipping crates is all that separates the sick and potentially sick from the powerful. Being rich and white may buy you time, but it won’t save you forever.

In a world where it feels like bad news piles up by the minute, chaotic pop culture — be it slasher horror, psychological thrillers or pandemic disaster stories — can be a salve. Shit is bleak, whether it’s because these are truly darker times or we’re just more aware of the awfulness in the world than we used to be, so it’s comforting to remind oneself once in awhile that things could always, always be worse. I guess I am a sicko, just like everyone else. But if we’re truly heading down the road to self-destruction, I’d rather stare it in the face and take comfort in its inevitability. If we can’t be prepared, at least we can learn the script.

Devon Maloney is a culture writer living in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in Wired, Vanity Fair, Grantland, Vulture, and The Los Angeles Times, among others.