Insatiable Terror

Disaster movies are always the same. In the opening scenes, we observe just faintest signs of a calamity, but only the most Rabid Scientists (our protagonists: often beautiful, always snarky) think anything of it. Then, there is a clear warning sign (perhaps a few people fall ill, or maybe the earth undergoes some rapid transformation). A meeting of government officials calls for some (woefully inadequate) precautions, with the Rabid Scientists shouting out their dissent. Suddenly: oh my god! everyone is dying! the Rabid Scientists were right! So they begin work in earnest. Empty shots of once-bustling cities reduced to ruin. A parent tragically dies for her child. But—what’s that?—hooray! Our Rabid Scientists have discovered a solution, at long last. Finally, we are saved. Many are dead—yet, as some symbol squished in right before the ending reminds us (plants growing? a rushing stream? an all-too-brief smile flickering across a child’s face?), human life prevails.

It’s no surprise that Hollywood relies on tired tropes; the disaster script, however hackneyed, remains more sophisticated than many of the silly movie clichés force-fed to consumers since time immemorial. And the script is compelling. Whatever their faults, 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow—two paradigmatic disaster films—are undeniably successful.

Occupying a special place in the disaster movie pantheon is Contagion, the 2011 blockbuster about a viral disease much like the 1918 Influenza, only more pernicious and more widespread and featuring several particularly Rabid Scientists. The film was well received (boasting an 84% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and if critics found it a little farfetched,[1] the movie still feels almost sober for the genre.[2]

Beyond the film’s comparative realism, what’s remarkable about Contagion is that its filmmakers collaborated with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and not just superficially; Contagion had a science advisor, it included scenes filmed at the CDC’s headquarters, and the CDC helped Contagion’s staff fashion the most realistic Rabid Medical Scientists possible. As it turns out, the CDC frequently dips its toes into the entertainment sphere—in fact, one CDC source claims the organization has helped drive “some pretty exciting pieces on Animal Planet.”[3] But the CDC went so far as to host several Twitter Q&As about Contagion, and we don’t get many of those about the latest Animal Planet TV series, however “exciting” it might be. These particular Q&As, tracked by #CDCcontagion,[4] were populated by those people uncommonly interested in (and uncommonly knowledgeable about) contagious diseases; they were, therefore, not uncommonly exciting bits of online media to follow, with the exception of several jocular responses tweeted out at the end of each session.

But what the Contagion Q&As illustrate is that the CDC twisted Contagion into public relations boondoggle, parlaying the film into a sellable sound bite about how necessary the organization really is. Good for the CDC. It’s tough out there, with Congress in a Tea Party stranglehold, for most non-military government organizations. Few doubt the CDC’s merits, but it’s not often included at the top of the “essential functions of government” listicle, either.

Still, something substantial is at work when public health organizations organize Twitter Q&As to respond to fears occasioned by films. It’s not a secret that an undercurrent of panic threads throughout American society. One need look no further than the omnipresent news ticker, or nearly any nightly news segment for that matter, to confirm that Americans have been seized by fear. But Contagion is a disaster movie, an archetypical one at that, and one might imagine that only hypochondriacs would become disturbed by it, just as only the most overzealously eco-paranoid would swear off fossil fuels after a viewing of The Day After Tomorrow. Both are silly movies, ultimately, and neither was really intended to educate about its subject matter, science advisor or not.[5] Yet as we see from the Twitter Q&A, Contagion struck a nerve so tender that it incited people to tweet to the CDC their fervent questions about border screenings and index cases. And even if most of those people were simply over-neurotic, some, at least judging by their Twitter accounts, did not seem particularly foolish.

There’s a feeling out there that something terrible might happen soon—an expectation no doubt bolstered by the easy-to-criticize, tough-to-improve news and entertainment media—and it’s made the past decade or so feel tense. Sometimes, people trace the unsettled feeling of the Naughties and early Twenty-Tens to the rupture of 9/11; and 9/11 is a very good place to start. If that’s really the case—if 9/11 really did push the Americans’ collective panic level from a largely-satisfied 5 to a hyper-manic 10—then it’s surprising to consider just how deep the ensuing frenzy has run. We’re scared all the time—so scared that government organizations must be prepared to allay public fears via Twitter Q&As.  

Just imagine the terror that would arise if crisis really does strike.

And if the last sentence scares you a little—if it brings to mind the images of riots, broken windows and bloody people that make movies like Contagion so very thrilling—well, then FDR be damned, perhaps we still are afraid of fear itself.



[2] Indeed, my initially reaction after seeing the movie was that it wasn’t very scary. Sure, people die, but society never quite devolves to the The Road-style humans-eating-other-humans madness. 



[5] As the NASA online response to The Day After Tomorrow notes bitterly, none of the relevant government agencies were consulted when that film was in production.