COVID-19 will shape pop culture for years to come, but for now we love pandemic stories

Article by Emma Nobel /
ABC News /
April 13, 2020 /
Click here to view original /

If you have been surprised by how you have responded to this pandemic, whether pulling out a jigsaw puzzle for the first time in years, or rewatching old dystopian films, you are not alone.

But you might find yourself having fallen into one of two categories.

“People are having two different responses — one is escapism, so the people who are playing [Nintendo game] Animal Crossing,” said Dr Helen Young, a lecturer in literary studies at Deakin University’s School of Communication and Creative Arts.

“Then there are people who are watching all the movies, watching the TV shows, reading the books.”

Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the wholesome life simulator game from Nintendo, has already sold millions of copies since its release on March 20 — but millions more are turning to everything from South Korean zombie political thrillers, to Netflix docuseries Pandemic, to help them understand what’s happening in real life.

But multiple daily press conferences and the non-stop news cycle means a steady gush of COVID-19 news is always ready at your fingertips.

Why then, would you seek out yet more pandemic-related stories — especially fictitious ones?

“I know, it does seem a little bit strange,” agreed Dr Lauren Rosewarne, senior lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

“But it’s the fiction that allows us a bit of escapism, even though it’s still within the same genre that we’re experiencing in real life.”

Fictitious stories about pandemics give us a way to experience the horror in a controlled way, with the pacing we’ve grown to expect, where resolution is always possible, and where we can always turn off the TV if it gets a bit too much.

According to Google Trends, interest in TV shows, films and books about doomsdays and pandemics is booming in Australia.

Google searches for “virus movies”, “pandemic movies” and “pandemic TV” have all spiked in the country since December 2019.

Films like Pandemic and Contagion are obvious standouts but searches for apocalyptic fiction are also on the up, indicating an increased appetite for the genre.

Dr Rosewarne said it was little wonder we turned to fiction — films, books and on TV — that was close to home in times of crisis. We’ve done it before.

“Hollywood always seizes on any kind of zeitgeist and exploits it in our popular culture,” she said.

“We’re going to get a slew of pandemic film and television series in the next couple of years, because it’s happened every single time we’ve had anything from a volcano [eruption] to a terrorist attack.”

Dr Rosewarne pointed to the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an example of a real-life event that served as a blueprint for popular culture to follow for the past two decades.

“After September 11 we had this resurgence of stories that were about reasserting American authority, but also tapping into things like surveillance and terrorism,” she said.

Television shows like Homeland, 24 and Designated Survivor demonstrate just how closely fiction could mirror real life themes of terrorism and paranoia after 9/11.

“You also saw a massive surge of remakes of Cold War narratives, and this is why I have no doubt that you’re going to see — in a couple of years’ time — remakes of previous pandemic narratives.”

Already Dr Young said she had seen more people talking online about pandemic fiction, movies and television to try to “make sense of what’s happening”, including South Korean TV series Kingdom — part political period drama, part zombie-plague thriller — take off on streaming service Netflix.

The show’s second season dropped recently and Dr Young said the timing put a new spin on the zombie plague as a way to understand what’s going on in the real world.

“When you watch a movie it’s a really contained narrative, so it’s quite different from real life because we’re in this weird space where it’s really boring, but also really stressful at the same time.

“Movies are the opposite of that.”

Dr Young said pandemic films and books could be an easier, more contained way to engage with what’s going on — with guaranteed closure.

“Watching a movie or reading a book gives you a sense that it is going to end, there is a thing that is going to make this stop.”