Pandemic and dystopian movies: A brief history, with Tom Doherty

a still from the motion picture Invasion of the Body SnatchersPhoto/Getty Images

A production still from the 1956 motion picture "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"

Life as we know it has changed — at least temporarily — thanks to Coronavirus.

While pandemics of this magnitude come once in a generation, some of us have seen this scene play out before — on the silver screen.

Dystopian movies are a popular genre for moviegoers, and have been for some time.

Brandeis American studies professor Tom Doherty — an expert in American cinema — discussed the history of the genre with BrandeisNOW.

BrandeisNOW: When did pandemic and dystopian movies start taking hold in American cinema? Was there a seminal moment? 

Tom Doherty: We’ve always known we’re going to die, of course, but the development of the atomic bomb, and especially the detonation of the H-bomb in 1952, confronted postwar America with the fact that we could all die — that the entire human species could be wiped out. 

So, you get a proliferation of nuclear disaster movies, alien invasion scenarios, and end-of-the-world narratives to express the intimations of mortality. Pandemic films are a variation on the theme—perhaps in some ways more terrifying because their conceit is all too plausible. Elia Kazan’s “Panic in the Streets,” release in 1950, really provides a template for the pandemic films that follow. It’s about a health worker and a police detective trying to track down a Patient Zero in New Orleans to prevent an outbreak of pneumonic plague.

What role has literature played in getting these stories from pages onto the silver screen?

Enormous. Not to poach on the territory of Ann Koloski-Ostrow, my colleague in the Classics Department, but the ur-source for all lot of this is a harrowing passage in Thucydides’s “The Peloponnesian Wars,” when he describes the plague that struck Athens in 430 BC — how the citizenry became unhinged in the face of a visitation that  killed both the just and unjust with no rhyme or reason. 

Other wellsprings of inspiration include Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year,” a chronicle of the bubonic plague that hit London in 1665; Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” about a l’amour fou during the cholera epidemic in Venice in 1911, and Albert Camus’s eponymous “The Plague,” set in Oran, French Algeria, in the 1940s.

Has the audience for these changed at all over time? What's our obsession with these sorts of narratives?

I think the source of the obsession is classic Aristotelean catharsis. The films provide an outlet for the pity and terror we feel when confronting our mortality in the face of a dreadful disease. Besides the terror of the thing itself, plague is a dandy metaphor for the uncertainty of the human condition. But the difference between a plague film like “Panic in the Streets” and the ever-popular zombie apocalypse genre is that the former scenario can really happen — as we’ve found out. 

These films straddle a few genres now...sci-fi, horror, suspense, drama....has it always been that way?

Yes. Remember that in the original Dracula movie, F. W. Murnau’s German expressionist horrorshow “Nosferatu (1922), the vampire arrives in London bearing rats that bring the black plague. Science fiction films such as the oft-remade “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) and “The Andromeda Strain” (1971) posit pods and viral infections that come from outer space. 

But I guess I’d separate the plague-bearing horror and sci-fi films from what you might call the pure contagion films — films that are based on epidemiology, that focus on a named virus, and send out a shiver of a real-life dread — for example, “Outbreak” (1995). and “Contagion” (2011).  

Oh, and we mustn’t overlook Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece “The Seventh Seal” (1957), the definitive fear-the-reaper film, whose background is the black death in Europe in the 14th century, a plague that killed upwards of 60% of the population.   

What kind of societal pushback have these movies gotten over time?

Not much, I think. The pandemic films are based on reality and more often than not teach good practice — celebrating heroic doctors and nurses, condemning stupid victims who don’t heed warnings and spread the disease, and depicting family members and neighbors who are either kind or cruel. 

For myself right now, with a fearful pandemic coming at us 24/7 on the news, I’m taking a break from plague bearing cinema and watching nothing but romantic comedies.

Categories: General, Research

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