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Exposure therapy: why we’re obsessed with watching virus movies

Streaming numbers for Contagion and Outbreak have been huge, suggesting people are choosing exposure over escapism Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Warner Bros In flagrant disregard for the old adage about the show going on, the entertainment industry has ground to a halt. Reports of coronavirus outbreaks put a stop to production on everything from…

Streaming numbers for Contagion and Outbreak have been huge, suggesting people are choosing exposure over escapism

Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak.






Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak.
Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Warner Bros

In flagrant disregard for the old adage about the show going on, the entertainment industry has ground to a halt. Reports of coronavirus outbreaks put a stop to production on everything from the teen soap du jour to a high-profile Elvis biopic. (Get well soon, Hanx.) With movie theaters shut down across the globe, studios have pulled their big-ticket releases en masse with an eye on a more clement climate by late summer or fall. Even if the theaters were still running, it’d be a moot point, given the populace’s general reluctance to leave the house for any high-density social areas. Everyone’s hunkering down to spend what could be a very long stretch of time at home, and in terms of movies, that can mean only one thing: these are boom times for streaming.

The usual lineup of publications have all run their own guides to ideal quarantine viewing options, whether that means the absurd pleasures of fiasco Meet Joe Black, the soothing comforts of the Nancy Meyers canon, or the germaphobe terror of Safe. Others have taken this as an occasion to revisit films that speak more directly to the phenomenon at hand; screening rentals and downloads of Stephen Soderbergh’s disaster thriller Contagion have soared, as have considerations of its chillingly realistic simulation of a pandemic. On Twitter, colleagues have recommended Ling Ma’s recent novel Severance and the 2011 cult sci-fi thought experiment Perfect Sense, more dystopian accounts of worldwide sickness.

The 1995 film Outbreak – the original release of which hits the 25-year mark this week, a creepy cosmic wrinkle of chance – has also enjoyed a huge surge in streaming views (as of writing, it’s the third most watched film on Netflix in the US) as its subject matter grows increasingly, stomach-churningly relevant. It would appear to be a perverse quirk of the modern human condition that compels us to seek out media foregrounding that which upsets us, but this has been hardwired into our pathology for millennia. Viewers have been flocking to these films for a sanctioned version of exposure therapy, in which an inconceivable menace can be experienced and survived. (That, or everyone just wants to watch the scene from Outbreak where Kevin Spacey gets infected.)

For some psychological profiles, keeping fear out of sight only enables it to expand in size and intensity. Such films as Contagion and Outbreak – or less literal projections, like the zombie armageddon of 28 Days Later – allow audiences to vicariously live through the end of days and survey what will be left after. It’s a form of emergency preparedness for the mind, rendering thinkable the unthinkable and theorizing where the average person’s place in all of it might be. It’s a disquieting way to kill two hours, as affirmed by the sheen of dread covering every “I rewatched Contagion today, oh boy” essay. All the same, it theoretically leaves the viewer a bit tougher and more inured to whatever horrors may still come.

But I’d contend that there’s a faint futility to analyzing apocalypse viewing of any sort, because when something occupies as much mental real estate as the widespread panic of Covid-19, everything becomes apocalypse viewing. If it’s impossible not to spend every waking hour obsessing over the precarious state of the public’s health, it’s likewise impossible not to project those anxieties on to anything one might choose to watch.

To speak anecdotally: just last night, I did what all the reports said to do and tore my eyes away from the news to spend time on the couch with my loved ones. The safe refuges of Mad Men and 30 Rock reruns, however, didn’t afford the instant morphine wave of relief they usually do. Any premise or plot development could be contorted into an unnerving parallel with the viral elephant we desperately wanted to keep out of the room.

Don Draper has a panic attack after his shameful secrets are nearly outed for the umpteenth time, and his shaking feverish sweats bring to mind only one thing. Liz Lemon advises Jack Donaghy that his elderly mother may not be long for this world, and that he would do well to get whatever closure he can with her while there’s still time – that one doesn’t even require much of a stretch. With the stakes this high, anything and everything can be a hypochondriac trigger.

For the first time of my life, moving pictures have proven insufficient consolation from the day’s stresses. At times like this, the viewing equivalent of the fight-or-flight response should drive the Homo sapiens toward the full-on confrontation of disaster movies as a method of gaining control or the warming effects of escapism as a haven of denial. But even those of us usually in the escapism camp can only take that defense so far. It’s starting to seem like the only real therapy is the detached, unplugged, attention-commanding simplicity of chopping vegetables.

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