Why Disease Makes Such Compelling Viewing

This article originally appeared on KwikMed and has been reprinted with the permission of Guest Author Lily McCann.

The next time you complain about having a slight migraine or catching a cold, just remember that there are plenty of worse things you could catch, especially if you’re a fan of the big screen. Epidemic infections, viruses and deadly diseases all feature regularly in some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. It seems audiences can’t get enough flesh eating bacteria or rabid infected blood – all of which are at the expense of human life.

Why do people pay the admission fee to see the latest horror movie which is based around some form of deadly disease? Why? Some of the reasons are quite obvious. It’s the shock factor; first and foremost, people just love it, being absolutely shocked and scared out of their wits end, or at least they love being scared at in the safe haven of the movie theater – real life deadly diseases are much less entertaining! Being in the movies is far removed from real life, no matter how good the special effects are, audience members know that in a couple of hours they’ll walk out of theatre still in one piece, virus free and safe from any possible deadly infection!

It’s fair to say that a movie which features deadly viral diseases is likely to get a person’s heart pounding much more than the latest Disney animation, which of course is where the main appeal of these types of movies comes from. It’s true that the vast majority of the audience will lead a relatively calm, almost uneventful lifestyle, at least when compared to the lives of those in the movies; therefore, people often seek out something that is going to give their nervous system some form of periodic revving.

Looking for stimulation and excitement

It’s the human need for stimulation and excitement which helps to make these types of movies so popular, as they are a thrilling way of getting a safe fix of shock and terror. However, it is also true that fans of movies, where deadly diseases feature as the main storyline, tend to be more popular with teenagers and twenty-something’s, rather than those approaching middle age. This could be explained by the fact that for the most part it is the younger generations who are most likely to be on the lookout for that all out intense experience. This thirst for a thrill, generally speaking, usually fades with age, especially as people become more content and aware of their own physiology. Older people are less likely to seek out new experiences that will get their blood pumping and their heart racing. Maybe it’s because some find the actual trials and tribulations of real scary enough. Raising a family, divorce, unemployment, mortgage repayments could all be considered real life horrors, so there is little or no need to go and seek them out at the movies!

Deadly disease is the perfect villain

Perhaps another reason why these kinds of movies make such compelling viewing is that audiences definitely love a good villain. Storylines featuring rogue Soviet spies, fanatical terrorists or crazed oil barons with long scars are quite simply just too worn out and over used. Surely James Bond should have killed all of those guys by now, right? Audiences want more and it’s long been time for a new villain – what better than one of the microbial variety to step up to the plate?

As movie villains go, deadly diseases or infections are perfect in so many ways partly because they offer so many choices; they can be invisible, they can mutilate, harm and disfigure and they can of course, be deadly, the possibilities are endless.

It’s time to reach for the hazmat

Looking more closely at some of the most infectious and deadly of these viral villains, it is little surprise that audiences are hooked. Take the movie 28 Days Later as the perfect example. The element of realism that runs throughout the movie is what helps to make it even more palpable, with the eerie and seemingly very real possibility of a highly contagious, incurable disease taking over the streets of London and turning it into hell on earth is not only incredibly creepy but offers the audience a great sense of fear and solitude. The ‘rage’ virus which features in 28 Days Later exhibits somewhat similar properties to that of rabies, with the added danger of flesh eating mutants thrown in for good measure.

Another movie in which the silence from deadly infection is what helps to make it so exciting is I Am Legend starring Will Smith. In this movie the deadly infectious virus is a kind of mutant form of measles which causes victims to become zombies. The movie tells the tale of Robert Neville, the last man alive in the desolate vastness of Manhattan, which has become overrun with zombies.

Speaking of zombies – the movie Zombieland offers what is arguably a more plausible viral infection than that of I Am Legend or 28 Days Later. Here, a variant form of mad cow disease makes suffers feel the urge to consume human brain tissue, which in turn causes their zombification.

Away from zombies, a movie that is said to take its inspiration from real outbreaks of viruses such as avian influenza, SARS and H1N1 is the 2011 disease disaster thriller – Contagion. The movie looks at how an epidemic of some form of flu like disease could spread throughout all of the human population, with the most deadly of consequences. The virus in Contagion is said to be a combination of bat and pig influenza, which can also infect human beings. Interestingly, the movie also looks at issues to do with quarantine, virus control and infection between species, helping to add a certain element of realism, which only adds to the suspense and excitement.

Morbid fascination of deadly diseases

Of course, generally speaking these movies normally stick to an almost rigid moral code. You can be pretty sure that there will be plenty of impending doom and danger, lots of gore (with a decent splattering of blood and guts thrown in for good measure), and almost certainly a high body count, before the relatively happy ending. Yet this somewhat predictable format doesn’t really matter and it definitely doesn’t detract from the morbid fascination many people have with deadly diseases and infections when it features on the big screen.

No matter what you think of movies that feature deadly disease in the plot line, it has to be said that this genre of movie remains one of the most popular for those audience members who are in need of a thrill seeking fix.

One comment on “Why Disease Makes Such Compelling Viewing

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    Most interesting piece here. I agree that people always gravitate towards a good villain, and have a morbid fascination with a crippling disease that takes on plague proportions. My first cinematic exposure to a plague was in Val Lewton’s ISLE OF THE DEAD, a 1945 low-budget shocker of the master of subtlety. Things have changed of course as you well note with some of the films that do immediately come to mind on this terms. Hard to argue with any of your excellent points!


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