Throngs of masked people. Locked-down cities. Abandoned theme parks. Infected cruise ships. Schools closed indefinitely. Public gatherings restricted. Annual events postponed. Sporting events played to empty stadiums. Flights canceled. Restaurant dining forbidden. Empty market shelves. Millions self-quarantined at home. “It sounds like a scary movie,” an 18-year-old says after reading the news about the global pandemic caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus. She couldn’t be more right.
When the rapid spread of a new Chinese illness of undetermined origin hit the news, it sounded like a frightening epidemic film’s premise. However, as the cases move closer, many Americans feel like they are in a horror film. As few facets of life remain unchanged, no one knows how long the panic will last.
Is the widespread fear a normal reaction to this dangerous situation, or is erratic behavior and irrational terror resulting from more than cautiousness?
Decades of Disease
A current popular reassurance is “This is not a movie.” This statement is intended to reassure us that the pandemic isn’t an apocalyptic nightmare, although it sounds more like a bulletin that we haven’t slipped into the parallel universe of a pandemic horror film. Why are people comparing COVID-19 with diseases in films? Does the comparison simply remind active imaginations that life isn’t a movie, or does it reveal that epidemic films are more than harmless, entertaining fantasy?
For decades, epidemics have been a popular film genre. This category includes depictions of realistic illnesses that threaten humanity, stories about less-believable sicknesses that somehow wipe out civilization, and absolute fictions in which bizarre viruses turn most of earth’s inhabitants into zombies. While the last subcategory is hardly confusable with reality, movies about realistic viral outbreaks evoke fear because they seem feasible.
One famous epidemic film is “Contagion” (2011), about an airborne virus which, due to scientific consultation during filmmaking, is unsettlingly realistic. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that “there is much in the film that relates to real life.”
Another such film is “Outbreak” (1995), which follows an epidemic of a zoonotic virus that enters the United States through a monkey’s bite. In his 2003 essay “Infectious Diseases in Cinema: Virus Hunters and Killer Microbes,” Dr. Georgios Pappas called this film “the most important film about an outbreak of infectious disease” and “the most sincere attempt to accurately portray the science of clinical microbiology in cinema.” Many assume that real pandemics could be as devastating as these fictional ones.
Many popular outbreak films are decades old. Films like “The Last Man on Earth” (1964), “The Satan Bug” (1965), and “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) popularized the genre in the 1960s, while “The Andromeda Strain” and “The Omega Man” continued the trend in 1971. Since then, epidemic, outbreak, and post-apocalyptic films have only increased. In the 21st century, more plague films are released than ever before.
However, one doesn’t find such films made before the late 1950s. What sort of epidemic films existed in earlier decades?
History, Not Hysteria
Few movies from the 1930s, the ’40s, or the ’50s focused exclusively on epidemics, but some featured outbreak subplots, like “The Painted Veil” (1934), “Jezebel” (1938), “Prison Nurse” (1938), “The Rains Came” (1939), “Vigil in the Night” (1940), “Wagon Tracks West” (1943), and “Elephant Walk” (1954). Most of these films’ epidemics occur in foreign countries or past ages. Those in modern America are in isolated locations like prisons, hospitals, or remote towns.
None of these classic epidemic films are apocalyptic horror stories about lone survivors on a ravaged globe. There are no plague-ridden zombies. There are no mysterious viruses that destroy most of humanity. These films’ diseases are real ones that are depicted realistically. Unlike later films, they don’t feature fictional viruses with implausibly devastating consequences. While “Contagion” and “Outbreak” seem realistic, these older films are even more so, since they don’t exaggerate illness for drama’s sake.
Classic films are different for a reason. Between 1934 and 1954, the Motion Picture Production Code held American films to high standards by keeping filmmakers from putting profits above ethics and audience well-being. Code movies followed guidelines, which kept them acceptable for all.
While the Code doesn’t forbid fictional pandemics, certain guidelines limited apocalyptic possibilities. The Code section that applies most to horrific illnesses is Section III, Vulgarity: “The treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects should always be guided by the dictates of good taste and a regard for the sensibilities of the audience.”
Modern epidemic films violate the Code by irresponsibly causing terror. The Code’s preamble recognizes producers’ “responsibility to the public,” since films are harmful when they become “[e]ntertainment which tends to degrade human beings, or to lower their standards of life and living.”
Some scientists acknowledge Hollywood’s influence on reactions to outbreaks. In “Infectious Diseases in Cinema,” Georgios Pappas said films can have effects “on the public’s perception of infection … that, when misguided, could prove to be problematic in times of epidemics.” He stated that “the public’s perceptions—and, accordingly, their reactions—are significantly influenced by their view on scientific truth as presented by the media.” Epidemic film trends “have subsequently been adopted by the public as facts, and, therefore, they act as determinants of public reactions to possible future infectious outbreaks and, perhaps, government policies.” He concluded that “the premise of epidemics involving unknown viruses of dubious origin that cause apocalyptic events serves to instill the public with fear, which may turn to panic when similar situations arise.”
Another Victory for the People
The CCP virus is certainly not the first crisis America has faced. During the Code years, America experienced two epochs: the Great Depression and World War II. Our country withstood these challenges, emerging stronger. Those crises happened decades ago but are too important to forget. A good way to relive them is through films made during those times, that show their harsh realities. Two such excellent films are “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) and “Since You Went Away” (1944).
“The Grapes of Wrath,” a story about the Dust Bowl, paints a realistic, uncompromising picture of a family of sharecroppers. After losing their Oklahoma land, they travel to California in search of jobs and prosperity, which aren’t to be found. The film makes one realize how far from real hardship most are during this pandemic. It also shows the indefatigable American spirit, which endures despite all adversity. As Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) says at the film’s end: “They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever … ’cause we’re the people.”
World War II brought a new kind of hardship and need to prosperous Americans. “Since You Went Away” shows the battle on the American home front, which was fought and won by those who supported the war effort at home. It is the story of a mother (Claudette Colbert) and her two daughters (Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple) who help “Pops” during the war by rationing, collecting scraps, growing victory gardens, volunteering at the Red Cross, and working at munition plants. These women must find new bravery and faith to keep their home strong as national hardships and personal tragedies try their souls.
If you feel depressed and hopeless because the CCP virus has completely changed our country at present, don’t fall prey to fear and despair. Films like “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Since You Went Away” remind us that America endured greater hardships in the past. We’ll be victorious over this too if we remain calm and keep faith, “’cause we’re the people.”
In the meantime, take a vitamin D supplement, unwrap an elderberry lozenge, and watch a Code film!
The Epoch Times refers to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, as the CCP virus because the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup and mismanagement allowed the virus to spread throughout China and create a global pandemic.
Tiffany Brannan is an 18-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, travel writer, film blogger, vintage fashion expert, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.
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Author: Tiffany Brannan