It might seem bizarre that people would want to watch a horrifying story about 26 million people dying in a global pandemic while we’re in the midst of an actual global pandemic.
But we are storytelling creatures, we humans; stories are how we learn, how we process, how we relate, how we empathize.
Stories are exceptionally useful when we are trying to get our heads around concepts bigger than our individual experience. Stories help us think through how things could play out, whether we should be hopeful or disheartened, whether this could really be as big a deal as people say it could.
So it’s natural we would turn to movies when we’re trying to get our heads around the pandemic, a concept far bigger than anything we can experience first-hand.
And "Contagion" is the perfect candidate for the job: enough parallels to COVID-19 to feel like we’re being informed, with enough Hollywood blockbuster-ness to bear it. 26 million deaths may be a statistic, but watching Gwyneth die helps us connect to the human cost of the tragedy.
But there’s a problem when we turn to movies for lessons: Movies end.
Even if the plot of a movie spans months -- years -- our experience of it is still sub-two-hours. "Contagion" lasts just 106 minutes -- and, of course, by the end of it, there’s a vaccine (developed at warp speed and rushed past the testing process by virtue of having the scientist test it on herself), and people are starting to return to normal.
We’re simply not accustomed to stories that take years to play out, that don’t travel a linear path or a hero’s journey, that don’t have a dramatic story arc or clear good guys and bad guys. And when we’re faced with those stories in the real world, we do our best to contort them to fit the kind of story structure we experience at the movies: one with a clear start and a tidy resolution.
This is exactly what we’ve begun to do with COVID-19. The virus came. It spread. The number of infections was accelerating. We responded with social distancing, which was effective -- and so the number of new daily cases started to go down.
So, naturally, we’ve begun to shift our narrative about COVID-19 to make it sound like the story’s starting to wrap it up. States are reopening, as are countries. People are starting to emerge from hibernation, blinking in the bright sun as they learn to trust other humans again.
In the movie, this would be the final scene. But it’s not a movie. The cases didn’t go down because the virus got weaker, or because we found a cure or a vaccine. The cases went down because we were staying apart. We are not at the 102-minute mark of “Contagion.” We’re at the 10-minute mark of the full Hobbit trilogy.
The virus hasn’t gone away. The economic fallout is only beginning. We do ourselves a disservice by thinking we’re on a fast track back to normal.
Movies help us accept the possibility that something like a global pandemic could really happen. But the true story is going to take longer than anything Hollywood can dish out. It will be simultaneously more painful and more boring. And it won’t have a tidy resolution.
Let’s stop looking for the movie ending, so we can be better prepared for the real story.