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People have found a way to cope with pandemic fears: Watching ‘Contagion’

With coronavirus concerns spreading across the U.S., many are looking to thrillers and horror movies for examples of worst-case scenarios and happy endings

A scene from the 2011 film “Contagion,” which features an eerily similar plot to the onset of the coronavirus epidemic. (Claudette Barius/Warner Bros./Everett Collection)
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Faced with fear and uncertainty about a dangerous virus spreading quickly and potentially becoming a pandemic, many people are turning to movies and TV shows that depict a dangerous virus spreading quickly and definitely becoming a pandemic.

That’s good news for the streaming services renting out the 2011 thriller “Contagion” by Steven Soderbergh, which on Thursday was the eighth most popular movie in the United States on iTunes. The movie is currently the second most popular film in the Warner Bros. catalog, up from 270th last year. Its newfound popularity coincides with the novel coronavirus being diagnosed in more people around the world and across the country.

The film depicts the rapid spread of an unknown virus that originated in Asia and graphically claims the life of Gwyneth Paltrow in the first 20 minutes. It is considered one of the more realistic depictions of how such an illness could explode around the world, cause panic and upend the social order. It is also quite entertaining.

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If the coronavirus continues to spread, more people are likely to start working remotely, staying at home to avoid groups, or self-quarantine. To fill the time, they’ll likely rent and stream videos from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Disney and iTunes, where there are libraries filled with old, forgotten flicks about outbreaks and pandemics.

People can stream the entertaining 1995 Ebola-in-the-U.S. movie “Outbreak” staring Rene Russo and Dustin Hoffman, a 2013 South Korean movie called “Flu” about a fast-killing strain of bird flu, and multiple movies and at least one docuseries called simply “Pandemic.” “Contagion” is available to rent on iTunes, Google Play, YouTube and Amazon for $3.99. Once you’ve binged all those, there’s the entire modern zombie genre to devour, which is heavily based on pandemic fears.

“One of the great things about horror is it allows us to experience heightened emotions. We can experience fear and tension and suspense, but we have control over it,” said Lindsey Decker, a lecturer at Boston University who studies horror films. “We can hit pause any time we want — we can fast forward. We have control over our experience of that fear, which I think is very comforting.”

Across social media, people are trading recommendations for their favorite pandemic-adjacent films, shows and books. They’re reading “Severance” by Ling Ma, “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel and “World War Z” by Max Brooks.

Decker’s favorite zombie films are “28 Days Later,” the South Korean movie “Train to Busan” and the comedy “Shaun of the Dead” as a palate cleanser. The 1995 Julianne Moore movie “Safe,” about a fear of disease and contamination that results in isolation, could be another relevant option if more people end up self-quarantining.

Sam Scarcello, a 29-year old from Buffalo, N.Y., decided to watch “Contagion” for the first time after spotting it in the iTunes trending section recently, in part to see how the spread of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, could hypothetically play out. He says the movie made him more aware of his actions, especially the part that mentions how many times people touch their faces every day.

“I was pretty bummed out after it ended,” said Scarcello. “It takes the concept of a viral outbreak to some extremes, but it showed some of the uglier sides of humanity, and I’d like to think we’d react more reasonably.”

Watching “Contagion” was partly a kind of masochism for playwright Chas LiBretto, a 36-year-old living in New York City. He says he rented it on iTunes to get an idea of how bad things could possibly get, but also to see humans persevere in the face of catastrophe.

“It did make me feel a little better just because the disease they face is so much worse than the one we’re facing,” said LiBretto.

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The compulsion to watch these fictionalized, sometimes graphic versions of things that are unfolding in the real world can be a way of making sense of what’s happening when we’re faced with uncertainty, experts say.

“With the coronavirus, given the total information universe that’s happening and the distrust for a lot of the information in the public sphere, people are putting together whatever they have at their disposal to make sense of it,” said sociologist Thomas Beamish from the University of California at Davis.

People might combine what they hear in news reports, from government updates and through their own networks with fiction like “Contagion” to try to visualize, prepare and react to a risk like covid-19. The scenes in a movie like this might be the only visual information some have about what a pandemic or quarantine is like, says Beamish.

In addition to knowing what to expect in the event of a full-blown pandemic, “Contagion” and other films also offer some of the same practical advice being given by experts daily: Wash your hands frequently, stop touching your face, and stay home from work or school if you’re sick.

But watching these films is not for everyone and could have a negative impact on anybody with health-related anxiety issues.

“I think watching ‘Contagion’ will likely impact people differently depending on different psychological characteristics. Some people are going to be entertained. Those who are prone to health anxiety or prone to overestimating threats, they’re likely to be prone to overreaction,” said professor Gordon Asmundson, a mental health researcher and clinical psychologist at the University of Regina in Canada.

Those reactions might include unneeded isolation, hyper-vigilance to bodily changes related to the coronavirus, and emotional buying, like the kind of panic shopping that has led to empty shelves of hand sanitizer. Even people who aren’t prone to those kinds of actions might want to keep their binging in check.

“Keep things in perspective and remind yourself that the graphic images in the movies, on social media and on the Internet can exaggerate threat,” said Asmundson.

One thing fiction can offer that isn’t always present in real life is a happy ending. Spoiler alert: At the end of “Contagion” and “Outbreak,” they develop vaccines to save humanity. Zombie movies and other more dystopian tales might kill off most of the human population but still end on a note of hope for survivors. Even there, “Outbreak” manages to stay realistic.

“It has a happy ending, but it takes a long time to get there and a lot of people die along the way,” LiBretto said. “The world goes through hell in the journey to getting that vaccine.”