Study focuses on the popularity of pandemic themes in Hollywood cinema

A movie poster from “Contagion” in 2011.

A movie poster from “Contagion” in 2011.

There’s no shortage of medical studies examining every possible aspect of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic that one could imagine, and the data will never be enough to meet the insatiable thirst for more information among scientists and the public alike. But it helps when journalists can break up the intensity of their COVID-19 coverage while still tapping into the zeitgeist.

A new study in JAMA offers the perfect opportunity: How has Hollywood treated pandemics throughout the history of film?

In a serious, but still fun investigation of this question, author Walter Dehority, M.D., tapped to examine trends about disease outbreaks in cinematic history. It wasn’t just an academic exercise. Films “are a shared cultural experience that… (reflect) accompanying hopes, fears, and at times, uncomfortable realism about contagion,” he writes.

Indeed. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, I had a strong need to watch the 2011 film “Contagion,” which I found oddly comforting, engaging and realistic, as well as cathartic.

Dehority, an infectious disease pediatrician (of course, he’s a pediatrician!) at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in Albuquerque, used 163 infection-related search terms (I didn’t know that many existed) to identify movies through December 2019 that focused on infectious disease. Of 373 movies he found, nearly two in five (38%) involved a human outbreak or pandemic as a key plot or narrative component. He narrowed the films down to 80 that he deemed “culturally relevant” because they made at least $10 million at the box office, won an Oscar, or were otherwise alluded to in pop culture (via TV or another movie) more than 25 years after they premiered.

Here’s the fun part: Dehority apparently watched all these movies and “thematically analyzed” them. It’s fascinating to see how themes have shifted over the years. The earliest films “feature the selfless heroism of medical professionals,” but after Sputnik’s launch in 1957, alien microbes become far more popular — but possibly also, paradoxically, a little more realistic. “Interestingly, Space Master X-7 presented the first detailed depiction of globalization contributing to a potential pandemic, as an exposed woman is shown boarding a train to Los Angeles followed by a plane bound for Honolulu,” he wrote, referring to the 1958 American black-and-white sci-fi film.

In the 1970s, concern for the environment inspired darker films that looked at humanity and the world after an apocalypse — and then transitioned into films about HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. The darkness grew, Dehority writes, leading to films featuring “hordes of the undead” that are still a popular theme today.

Dehority also looks common themes that transverse all these eras and trends, and his findings reveal something about our common anxieties and fears. His paper may not have a clinical impact on how physicians treat COVID-19, or what we learn about its presentation, patients’ outcomes or prospects for a vaccine. But learning about how films over the last century have tapped into something deep and primal can offer glimpse into the existential dread so many people are living with day-to-day. And it can’t hurt to try to understand that a bit better.

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