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  • Hooman Razavi

A Dive Into Sub-conscious: Pandemic Catharsis Through The Medium Of Cinema

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

By: Hooman Razavi


The Corona outbreak, though not too unexpected, has become a global pandemic in the matter of a few months and impacted the entertainment industry and sociopolitical fabric of the world in an unprecedented fashion. The fatalities and infected statistics, which are increasing day by day, shed light on the social reality that the entire 7 billion residents of the earth face a shared common struggle with no end sight into its cure and complete eradication, at least for now.

As with other fields of human creativity and knowledge, one can think of Cinema and filmmakers who are always ahead of the curve and intuitively predict the zeitgeist and events to unfold for humanity. No wonder that since the pandemic has been announced and people has become more affected by it, pandemic films such as Soderbergh’s (2011) classic

Contagion has surged in popularity and viewership. This aspect has even compelled the acting team to plead the public to stay home and really take the COVID-19 outbreak seriously.

The references made into the background of the outbreak and film industry prior portrayal of the pandemic can make us think why global audience choose to watch these films and how this viewing benefits them. Can cinema always be a good medicine to social and civilizational calamities or is cinema just a temporary comfort pill that take us through the tough time but cannot address our core human needs and existential angsts, this paper attempts to provide some solutions.

Analytic Framework

The analysis of this phenomenon made the author to look at the pandemic movies released in the past twenty years, and especially ones popular since the outbreak has started in December. Accordingly, using Google Trends feature, the access and viewership, in the U.S, in relations to three films in this category, namely: Contagion- 2011, Outbreak-1995 and World War Z-2013 were obtained as seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Google search of three Pandemic films- March 2019-2020

Additionally, based on the choice of films selected, genre-based and analytical theories are selected, utilizing Tom Ryall’s theory of Genre and Aristotle’s conception of Catharsis in his analysis of nature of tragedy. These theoretical explanations were used to explain the upsurge interest in the films in the pandemic genre and why global audience search and crave for them.

Theoretical Framework

Genres in Cinema could be viewed as historical evolution of artistic traditions in theatre and literature such as tragedy and comedy with its own semantic and aesthetic codes and targeted audience. A genre can evoke different types of emotion and sensibilities. Among the many identified, horror is one in which audience need for safety and resolution after an upheaval are mainly considered. In this venue, great filmmakers of this genre as Hitchcock, accomplished this by manipulating audio-visual codes, iconography, characters and narrative is built and presented. Nevertheless, understanding genre in one-dimensional manner is not problem free. Ryall’s theory of genre extends beyond the cinematic codes and innovations and incorporates how the action of the auteur, film and audience, make meaning to the films categorized as Horror.

Pandemic films could cross different genres such as action, comedy, thriller and Sci-fi but, mainly their overarching generic orientations are Horror. These films come in different flavor and sub-genres such as classic pandemics, zombie films, post-apocalypse, alien films, pandemic comedies and outbreak potpourri which depicts extreme gore and violence. The narrative structure of these films as part of horror sub-genre is usually linear and follows the tripartite structure. In general, an uneventful beginning is interrupted by calamitous event threatening the life and existence of a group and films’ main characters through their encounters and endeavors finally resolve this situation and bring their life back to normal. The ending could be open-ended, and the story could have multiple protagonists working together or a single hero who frequently steps outside the confine of human wisdom and save the humanity and the values that hold the society and culture previously together.

The second theoretical source relevant to explanation of this phenomenon is the classic Aristotelian rendition of the nature of tragedy. In Poetics, he states that tragedy “through pity and fear, accomplishes the catharsis of emotions.” In this conceptualization, pandemic films or any artistic form involving tragedy can help audience to cleanse themselves of unpleasant feelings. The source behind these stressors could be pandemic, possibility of conflict, economic hardship or even loss of cultural and deep-held values. As such, viewership so much as it is a curious and conscious move to understand why this upheaval takes place and in some instances, to kill idleness, it is an unconscious and intentional act to relive existential angst and physical stress caused by the event. Interestingly, the ease of access to these films and the virtual lifestyle that most world population are now entrapped add to the reasons why these films are sought, and people take solace in watching them.

Selected Films

This section provides a short summary of the three films, Contagion, Outbreak and World War Z respectively in Table 1. This serves the goal of making the readers to recall the story line and other relevant features.

Table 1. Three selected pandemic film features

Analysis & Implications

As the trends clearly demonstrated in Fig. 1, search and access to all three films spiked after the incidence of the breakout. World War Z seems to have garnered less interests than the other two films, different explanations can be provided. First, global audience may have encountered and heard Cantagion and Outbreak more in their networks and they are top entries in normal Google search. Contagion story line involves Bat & Pig transmission with Hong Kong as its origin point, which is very similar to the one in Corona outbreak. Similarly, Outbreak is also zoonotic in origin and show the way the virus was brought to U.S highlighting the global connectivity. One can further think of this aspect in terms of how these films have simple titles as opposed to World War Z which might have been popular at the time of its screening but not easy title to come to mind. Secondly, viewers may have read online reviews that these films to most extent, portray the current situation of the outbreak with more realistic depiction of patient zero, transmission mode, source of virus and best remedy solutions. In fact, this explanation is further supported as World War Z is viewed as a Zombie pandemic which may seem unrealistic at the time that COVID-19 is spreading. The audience my want to watch a film not involving aliens and zombies but ones that show animal-to-human transmission as outbreak. These two points may be easily countered based on viewership access to these films. As seen on Figure 1. World War Z has a spike in March of 2019 which could be related to the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), even though this does not explain why the other two films were not searched to the same extent. Secondly, one can think of the role that celebrities may have on global viewership dynamic. In this case Brad Pitt could be the star with the most profile, so through this association, World War Z should be expected to garner the most viewers which is not the case.

Another dimension is in relation to the interest of global audience especially North American ones seen in the graph towards pandemic films. All three films could be categorized in Horror genre. In all of them a hero or a group of dedicated individuals, specialists, investigator or family father dedicate their lives to save their families and the entire humanity. This feature and theme of collective security and survival makes them psychologically potent for the stressed audience who may fear the worst outcome for themselves, families and their life savings. All three films, typical of Horror genre, depicts an unusual outbreak, with varying source and patient zero, that creates havoc for their family and community. The course of events, use of special effects and music and strong dialogues suits audience that craves for finality. Again, in all three films, personal sacrifices, scientific breakthrough and herculean actions lead to antidote and solution to reverse the chaos and bringing back the humanity back to normal. Zombies, infected people and their sources must be annihilated and recovered, so that peace can return. These films, through their formic tripartite structures make the audience feel the catharsis and for a short period of time, regain the peace of mind. This could be another way to understand the turn to these films, a defense mechanism, albeit temporary to the menace of Corona.

Lastly, from a genre-base perspective, Ryall’s Genre theory can provide a good theoretical explanation as well. Apart from thematic and formal features that makes horror pandemic to suit needs of audience at the time of emergency, it is the connection that these audience sense with the artists and other human beings that create that bond and craving to watch these films enthusiastically. In all these films, the feature that standout is the global solidarity to defeat the virus and pathogen. The audience feel this sense of community watching the films like many others. This communal viewership has the subconscious effect of making cinema to transcend art and create a platform to unite all affected people and souls. The analogy in this case is like listening to a classic melancholic music that can evoke the sense of nostalgia and loss in almost every human being at the time of trauma. In this interpretation, genre theory can transcend formulaic functionalities. And in turn, it can connect the auteur/director, film as a cultural product and soothing device and global audience as atomized subjects under the same banner.

These theoretical tools to explain the viewership trends comes with implications for the film industry and the viewers alike. Cinema is viewed to be a combination of art and entertainment in the hand of culture industry. Accepting this fact means that pandemic sub-genre can not only be a good medicine for the bad time, giving the audience hope for future but an enlightening tool for the audience to understand the phenomenon of pandemic, transmission, loss, survival and other challenged social values and relation in tough times. Films in this sense can play and active social role to entertain and educate the audience, closer to the what Ryall conceptualized in Genre theory. From a spectator perspective, the encounter with these films may not only be an idle spectatorship with popcorn and pizza after a long day, but a moment to reflect on social and health malaises facing the entire humankind. The almost happy endings of these films and end to the outbreaks testify the optimistic outlook of these directors toward the menaces that can engulf humanity.

These films come with shortcomings as well. One aspect is the marginalization of the non-American subjectivities at the expense of American triumph and exceptionalism. In all three films, the family structures are bonded back and the heroism (Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, American medical community/Matt Damon) save the country, and by extension, the world from the devastating effect of the outbreak. The point is missed out is that the source and people globally who are all affected seem to be bystanders and marginal in their impact to finding the cure and post-outbreak recovery. Hence one can call the happy ending and plot lines to be misguided from the perspectives of global connection and solidarity to overcome the crisis. The romantic subplots can also be viewed in a critical fashion. It is undeniable that love (especially in World War Z and Outbreak) is tested during the time of crisis, but how much should this take the center stage in pandemic films. Should it drive entirely the central protagonists’ drive to find the remedy or should it be only a part of the motivation. In a sense the successful elements of cathartic moment, the unification of family and delayed love, could be the Achilles heel of the stories that ignore the global and communal dimension of the suffering.

Therefore, as evident and elaborated so far in this section, these films through characterizations (hero and anti-hero) that overcome difficulties, use of visual/audio and stylistic elements of pandemic sub-genre charted in Table 1 , and convincing fictionalized account of the outbreak, make their impressions on global audience with upsurge appetite for knowledge and relief. As such, the argument can advance the points that audience are both engaged viscerally and intellectually through these tragic and survival stories, validating the potent and elevated power of tragedy in meaning-making and lessoning of trauma. In conclusion, Aristotelian catharsis could be the starting point not the end to an agony but a moment in which the universal emotions of humankind can be revitalized to think deeper about the collective fate and suffering of humanity.

Final Words

When Contagion casts such as Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Gwyneth Paltrow encourage people in the U.S and around the world to stay at home, the secret to their message lies in the power of cinema and its actor to communicate the message of confidence, peace and stability; the Hobbesian world of chaos is normalized by heroic action of central characters to restore community and sense of social belonging. This paper attempted to shed some lights as to the underlying mechanisms that make viewers around the world to take refugee and view pandemic films erratically, though predictably. However, cinema has more power than abating collective anxiety, cinema has the power to use its aesthetic and genres to compel and direct us to dive deeper into our sub-conscious and make us realize where we stand at the time of uncertainty.



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