Long Reads

Coronavirus: the psychology behind watching apocalyptic pop culture in the middle of a pandemic

Everyone is watching Marion Cotillard’s disease thriller Contagion and reading Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a novel about a killer flu. But will this soothe your coronavirus anxieties or exacerbate them? 

In the first chapter of Emily St John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven a character called Jeevan goes to the theatre.

He has a ticket for a production of King Lear at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, one of the city’s most beautiful venues. The domed ceiling is covered in gold leaf; the seats are plush velvet and red. During the production, Jeevan witnesses the actor Arthur Leander – a Hollywood star in the twilight of his career – have a heart attack. Jeevan is a paramedic, so he tries to resuscitate him but his attempts are unsuccessful. Afterwards, Jeevan spills out of the theatre onto the street in a daze, where his friend – an emergency ward doctor – calls him in an agitated state. 

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A mutated form of swine flu is ripping through Toronto, and the rest of the world. Hundreds of people are dying before they can even get through the hospital doors. Jeevan’s friend, struggling to get the words out, warns him to stock up on essentials and save himself. The line cuts out. Jeevan rushes to the supermarket, fills a trolley with bottled water, canned goods, medicine and other supplies, returns to his apartment and isolates himself. 

Within the next three weeks, 99% of the earth’s population has been killed by the virus. Civilisation has collapsed. And that’s the end of chapter one. 

I came to Station Eleven late. I only read it in December of last year, inhaled in one greedy gulp during that fractious, liminal space between Christmas and New Year. In other words, I read it very close to an actual pandemic. 

I finished reading the book on 27 December, 2019. On 31 December the WHO was first informed of a pneumonia cluster caused by a strain of coronavirus centred in Wuhan, China. Since then, the virus known as COVID-19 has infected more than 100,000 people and killed 4,000 in a deadly pandemic that has spread from China to South Korea, Iran, Italy, the US and the UK.

Would it surprise you to learn, then, that sales of Station Eleven are up? The novel – which was critically acclaimed at the time of its release and is soon to be adapted into an HBO Max miniseries starring Mackenzie Davis, Himesh Patel and Gabriel Garcia Bernal – is having a resurgence. A recent tweet noted that St John Mandel has said that sales are up. But why? Rather than encouraging everyone to dive in, the author has been actively trying to convince people not to read her apocalyptic novel in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Counterpoint: maybe it’s the worst possible time to reread Station Eleven?” St John Mandel tweeted on 28 February. In another tweet, she wrote: “To all the distressed readers in my mentions: we’re in agreement that it just wasn’t a great week to start reading Station Eleven, and I don’t like to think about the coronavirus either.”

Woman reading a book outside
Why, in the middle of a pandemic, are we all reading books about deadly epidemics?

Station Eleven isn’t the only piece of pandemic disaster pop culture that is witnessing a resurgence in our days of COVID-19 panic. Contagion, the 2011 Steven Soderbergh thriller starring Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon and Jude Law about a deadly virus has jumped from the 270th most popular film in the Warner Bros video-on-demand catalogue to the 2nd. (The only Warner Bros film more streamed than Contagion right now is Harry Potter.) 

This is a film that opens, lest we all forget, on a black screen with nothing but the sound of Gwyneth Paltrow’s character coughing a body-wracking, deep-in-her-lungs cough. Within minutes she will be dead.

“Should we tell somebody?” one doctor asks, after they perform the autopsy and discover the fatal particles causing this terrifying illness.

“Tell everybody,” another doctor responds. 

“There’s something about human nature where we get ‘hooked’ by unusual or extreme events,” explains Dr Elena Touroni, psychologist and co-founder of My Online Therapy, explains. Dr Touroni isn’t surprised that, as COVID-19 spreads rapidly around the world, people are seeking out pieces of pop culture that reflect similar pandemics. “Anxiety and excitement can easily get confused and interlinked,” she says. “So we might end up finding excitement in something that is very anxiety-provoking.”

The danger, she adds, is in thinking that you can understand everything about coronavirus simply by reading a novel or watching a film. COVID-19 is a specific virus that exists in our world; the pandemics in Station Eleven and Contagion are fictional and do not.

Station Eleven doesn’t even devote that much time to the nitty gritty of its particular pandemic, known as the “Georgia Flu”. We learn, as the novel progresses, that it causes respiratory failure and is highly contagious. Over the course of three weeks, when almost all of the world’s population is wiped out, society grinds to a halt. Transport stops running. Electricity is cut off. The internet is erased. When the novel picks up again, 20 years later, the world looks like a completely different place. 

In Contagion, humanity is only saved from this potential outcome by an enterprising scientist played by Pride & Prejudice’s Jennifer Ehle, who comes up with a vaccine in the nick of time. (Maybe the same could happen with COVID-19? Get Lizzy Bennet on the case.)

Matt Damon rushes through a looted supermarket in Contagion.

“Reading books and watching movies about viral epidemics might give someone the sense that they’re gaining mastery over the phenomenon by attempting to ‘understand’ it in some way,” Dr Touroni adds. “However it’s unlikely to be a helpful strategy as it isn’t necessarily connected to the reality of the situation and if anything, amplifies anxiety.” 

If it’s a story based on real past events, like the bubonic plague, “then it’s likely to belong to a different era which makes it incomparable,” she explains. “And if it’s science fiction, then it’s out of touch with reality and what’s actually happening.”

St John Mandel agrees. The author – whose new book The Glass Hotel will be released later this year – has been flooded with tweets asking her thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic’s parallels to Station Eleven. (“[It] remains fictional,” was one of her anxiety-quashing responses. Also, she stressed to her followers that now is most definitely not the time to start reading the novel.)

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Similarly, Stephen King, whose book The Stand envisioned a world ravaged by a biologically-engineered strain of influenza, cautioned readers to consume their pandemic pop culture with a grain of salt. “No, coronavirus is NOT like The Stand,” King tweeted on 8 March. “It’s not anywhere near as serious. It’s eminently survivable. Keep calm and take all reasonable precautions.”

The interesting thing is that – as those who have read Station Eleven already know – while the book might begin with a pandemic, it’s not really about a devastating illness and the end of mankind as we know it at all. 

No spoilers – though you really should think twice before reading Station Eleven right now, St John Mandel is right – but her novel is actually less interested in a deadly virus, and much more concerned with the notion of human connection. When the novel really begins, 20 years after the pandemic ripped through society, it does so with the character of Kirsten, a young actor who tours America in a travelling Shakespeare troupe, performing plays to the survivors left behind. 

Yes, even in the wasteland of a post-pandemic world, there’s art and culture and beauty. As it turns out, Station Eleven is not a book about how the world ends; it’s one about the only way we can survive.

Images: Warner

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