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Datebook: Break Out The Virus Movies

Christoph Scholtz
Flickr/Creative Commons
Watching films about viruses can satisfy a number of core needs, said psychology professor Eric Wesselmann

The coronavirus pandemic has millions sheltering indoors and bonding with their streaming services.  

Reality is pretty scary right now, so many of us are choosing to pursue escapism, be it “Friends,” “Tiger King” or a Marvel movie marathon. And then there are those among us who prefer to stare the beast straight in the eyes by viewing films that focus on viruses and plagues. If virtual exposure is what you’re looking for, then Illinois State University psychology professor  and WGLT Psych Geek Eric Wesselmann has some movie suggestions to satisfy your morbid curiosity. Just don’t ask him to watch any of them. 

“It’s the idea that this could really happen,” Wesselmann explained. “I get my thrills from scary films when they are just the right level of realistic, but there’s still a way of divorcing yourself from the situation. 'Outbreak,' for example, was just too real to me.” 

“There’s this virus that kills indiscriminately and there seems to be very little one can do to protect one’s self from it. And then you also have the added layer of the government coming in and being willing to bomb the town, no matter what the town has to say about it. Multiple layers triggered me in a way that was no longer fun.” 

While he’s unnerved by “Outbreak,” Wesselmann is rather bullish on “The Crazies” because it’s a George Romero film. A long-time Romero -- and zombie -- fan, Wesselmann said he appreciates how “The Crazies” draws from “Night of the Living Dead.” “The Crazies” is about a plague that causes people to go insane.  Death soon follows, of course. 

“You can see elements that are connected to 'Night of the Living Dead,' and then later what he does in the remaining 'Dead' films. But 'The Crazies' is unique in a way that’s very, very natural.” 

Another film, “28 Days Later,” made Wesslemann’s must-view list for its contemporary allegory on the AIDS epidemic. So did “The Stand” miniseries that was based on the epic book by Stephen King. After a virulent plague wipes out the majority of humans, the survivors band together in two opposing groups and face off in a final battle of good vs. evil. 

Virus films are more than medical nightmares, said Wesselmann. They often examine the breakdown of society and how humans deal with that issue.  

“We have some core needs, psychologically. One is the need for freedom, to be able to control our own environment and our own destiny. We also have a need for safety and security. These needs can sometimes be conflicting.” 

“These narratives put in stark relief how these can be opposed," said Wesselmann. "When there are extreme threats, it makes our desire for security more salient. So, perhaps we’re willing to forego some freedoms.” 

“So, part of this breakdown of society is people trying to come up with a way of institutionally and personally balancing these needs. When you see, for example, in 'The Crazies,' the government coming in and locking down the town, you see the people rebelling.” 

“The thing I found really fascinating is when the government comes in, you have the mayor of the town fighting back and saying you can’t do this to us. And the military is like, 'We don’t care.' Then they go into a church to take people out and put them into quarantine and the priest explains that the people requested sanctuary, you can’t do this. And the military says, 'es, we can.'" 

“You have one form of institutional authority, all the things that we trust in, saying to the others that they have no power anymore. That’s scary.”   

The virus is a backdrop for the human story that emerges in these films. Whether it’s “I Am Legend,” “The Omega Man” or “The Last Man on Earth,” Wesselmann said virus films show us ethical dilemmas, plus an array of good and bad human behavior. The narratives allow us to safely project ourselves into a scary situation. 

“We can watch these narratives and say if we would or wouldn’t do this or that. There’s a psychological safety in that. It’s predictive control -- ‘I think I would do this.’ Now, whether you would actually do that in the given situation is another story.” 

“At least in the moment, one reason why we enjoy watching how these people behave is to run those simulations.” 

 Another reason we watch is just good old-fashioned morbid curiosity, said Wesselmann. 

“Curiosity is an interesting type of psychological experience. It’s a desire to get new information. There’s some types of curiosity where we just like to learn new things. And then there’s ‘I must learn new information.’ And that one is a little more potent, it’s like ‘I need to learn this to make sure I don’t do that.’” 

Wesselmann speculated that the future of virus films is assured. Although we’re now living through a frightening pandemic, it’s unlikely to put us off from viewing new virus movies. If fact, we may want more. 

“We’ll likely see more of them just because it’s timely. One could view it as a cultural exorcism. There are core elements of horror that cross narratives. Some things scare all of us, regardless of time and place.” 

“But they resonate with us more if there are things that we can connect to our lived lives.”


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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.
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