Has Coronavirus Made You A Viral Viewer?

As books and films about viruses see a spike, Hanna Flint explores why people can't get enough of pandemic cultural content.

Contagion 2011

by Hanna Flint |
Updated on

Have you spent the weekend binge-watching Pandemic on Netflix? Or dusted off your old copy of Stephen King’s The Stand for a re-read? Well, you’re not alone in coping with the Coronavirus by consuming a serious amount of epidemic content.

The 2011 movie Contagion, starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Marion Cotillard, has stormed up the iTunes Movies chart and is currently sitting at No. 5. The Steven Soderbergh-directed thriller is all about a deadly virus that is spreading across the globe and causing worldwide panic. It’s also got some serious similarities to the COVID-19 outbreak: the virus originates in China and bats are believed to be the animal that spread it.

If you think that is spookily similar to our current pandemic troubles, then wait until you hear about Dean Koontz’ 1981 novel The Eyes of Darkness. The novel’s fictional virus is called 'Wuhan-400' - the same region of China that Coronavirus originated - and some conspiracy theorists believed he actually predicted our current circumstances. It’s thanks to these theorists and a description of the book’s illness going, ahem, viral, on social media that the novel has now jumped to No. 3 on the Amazon chart.

'Following Coronavirus I found snippets from this book on Facebook (sic),' a reviewer commented. 'Intrigued so I bought it. Wow! I had goosebumps for most of it...haven’t read a book for over 20 years.'

Amazon review for The Eyes of Darkness by Dean Koontz
Amazon review for The Eyes of Darkness by Dean Koontz ©Amazon

'Is this book purely fictional?' another reviewer asks. 'How could a writer possibly know about man-made viruses in 1981 that are now killing people in the same way that is described in this book?'

Not exactly the same way, after all, the death rate in the book is 100% while the World Health Organisation says the mortality rate for Coronavirus is 3.4% (as of March 3). Still, people are hooked. The book’s publisher Headline says it has seen ebooks sales increase by a staggering 3,000% in just three weeks, while other publishers are reporting massive surges in sales for various pandemic tombs including Albert Camus's 1974 novel La Peste (The Plague) and King's 1978 book The Stand, about the accidental release of a strain of flu called Captain Trips. There’s also a 1994 miniseries based on the book if you fancy a watch while you’re housebound.

So why are people eager to consume fictional versions of an outbreak right when one is happening in real life? According to Dr Barrie Gunter, psychologist and Emeritus Professor in Media at the University of Leicester, the widespread media coverage has caused people to panic and look to 'films, TV programmes and other information sources about pandemics,' to get a handle of what is going on.

'Widespread media coverage has drawn public attention to stories about the new virus,' Dr Gunter says. 'A certain amount of public fear has resulted, giving uncertainties about how serious this situation could get.'

People seek out fictional stories that deal with the same themes or issues causing public anxiety.

'We know that being better informed can make people feel more in control [and] people seek out fictional stories that deal with the same themes or issues causing public anxiety,' he adds.

'This action represents a form of self-inoculation against real-world causes of fear by establishing their own cognitive coping mechanisms through exposure to fictionalised representations of events similar to those real-life sources of their fears.'

Professor Mike Berry, a consultant clinical forensic psychologist, says that morbid curiosity is also a factor for people’s viral viewing habits. 'People read or watch from a psychological distance that is safe for them because it is unlikely to happen to them,' he explains. 'Plus we do like to enjoy other people’s pain and distress, while the more sensitive and possibly caring amongst us are likely to empathise with those who suffer.'

The UK is currently low on the list of countries affected by Coronavirus, so for most of the country, we are watching it unfold from a safe(ish) distance. So if you need to cope with the pandemic by watching fictionalised outbreaks on film, TV and in books then you’re in vigilant company.

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