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Pandemics in popular culture

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Updated March 30, 2020

Are you the kind of person who processes things by experience? You're not alone. With a real pandemic sweeping the world, many are now looking for similar scenarios in movies, books and games.

There are several examples of how pandemics and various apocalyptic scenarios are currently in demand more than usual in popular media. The virus film Contagion premiered in the fall of 2011 and was then quickly forgotten by most. Now all of a sudden it is back on the radar and people are watching it in droves

The streaming service Netflix has seen great interest in the documentary series Pandemic, which inadvertently but very fittingly had its release at the same time as the current pandemic took off.

And this applies to many different kinds of popular culture. On Google Trends, you can clearly see a pattern in what people are looking for on the internet right now. The trend shows that there is a general increased interest in movies and video games on the theme of viruses, epidemics and zombies.

3 questions about pandemics in popular media

1. While the coronavirus is now spreading across the world, many people are searching for movies and books related to pandemics. An example is "Contagion", a film from 2011, which suddenly tops the rental listings. How does one explain this sudden interest? Is there any particular psychological phenomenon behind it?

There are several ways to explain and understand this. First and foremost, we are highly social and story-telling creatures. Other primates groom and pick lice to manage and strengthen relationships. The language, the gossip and the fairy tales, which have followed us from campfires in ancient times to television and computer screens today, are important for understanding both how we create groups and how we try to understand the world and what is called a sense of context.

In addition to the gossip and the fairy tales, you can understand the hype with "Contagion" based on games and entertainment. Games and entertainment can be valuable in itself as just being fun for the moment, but it is also part of exploring, practicing, trying, learning and dealing with reality. Imagination and facts complement each other.

For a while, we had a wave of disaster films that caught accidents in buildings, at sea and in the air. The two rather elusive phenomena with infectious diseases as well as the climate issue have been captured pretty well with zombie-related stories. The cartoon series and the TV series The Walking Dead as well as the book and movie about The Girl with the Gifts are two clear examples.

When we now have a virus and a pandemic in motion, it can fascinate, confuse and captivate us in several different ways. “Contagion” is a good example of a way of trying to tackle the current problem in order to make it understandable. The effect can also be the opposite. Namely, that people seek entertainment that has nothing to do with the problem at all and view it as a distraction. Both scenarios can be seen as methods of managing and making everyday life and reality meaningful and manageable.

2. Is reading or watching virus-inspired media harmful?

No, consuming media of this kind in and of itself is not harmful. In fact, it might even be healthy in helping you contextualising reality. It is however, just entertainment and you should view it as that and nothing else. As with many other interests, the biggest problem may be that your surroundings feel may eventually lead you to becoming bored or feeling isolated if you can’t leave your home for one reason or another. It is possible that for an individual who already has some underlying issues, it could be unhealthy to over-consume this type of media even if it is not harmful in itself, e.g. for those prone to hallucinations, paranoia or compulsions. In these cases however, the root of problem is not the entertainment but something else entirely.

3. How does one know if engaging in this type of popular culture right now will make you feel better or worse?

A problem could be that people often believe that worrying, fear and sorrow is dangerous or wrong, when in actuality, these are healthy reactions to some of the serious events taking place. In many self-help books, social media channels and advertisements, it’s easy to get the idea that positive and happy thinking always is how everyone should feel by default. Feelings of worry, fear and sorrow are completely normal however, and should not be stigmatised.

There’s also the risk of falling into the trap of being caught up exclusively in bad or negative news, which only unnecessarily feeds into one’s sense of worry or fear. Being informed is a great thing but getting too caught up in your worries or fears over things you can’t control can lead you to being in a more stressed and negative headspace. It’s therefore important to not become overly fixated on news reports, statistics or following all the latest buzz on social media.

13 tips for managing your worries about the virus

  1. Take the warnings and advisories seriously. Too many are dismissive in thinking these issues are not serious, when they are life-threatening for others.
  2. Accept the things you can and cannot control.
  3. Draft up a simple plan of things to do in the short (days/weeks), medium (a month) and long term (months/years).
  4. Be kind and help others in your flat building, neighbourhood, community town and at your workplace.
  5. Read information from several reliable sources and follow instructions from health authorities and professionals
  6. Try to limit the volume or the amount of time you spend following negative news reports and media.
  7. Maintain a daily routine, whether you’re working from your workplace or at home.
  8. Get up early in the morning, eat routinely, balance work and free-time and wind down and get a full night’s rest (7-8hrs).
  9. Physical activity is important – try to exercise at least 30mins every day.
  10. Relationships are important - Use your computer, mobiles, tablets to keep in contact with friends and family if you can’t leave your home.
  11. Try to create your own space for some alone time – this is important if you’re working at home with kids or caring for a sick family member.
  12. Have fun, remember to have a laugh and enjoy each day.
  13. Feed your creative side – write, read, draw, paint, play or listen to music to decompress and balance your positive and negative feelings.

Tips on entertainment for those who want to process things via fantasy

Films

Books, Fiction

Board Games

Films, books or games- what strikes your fancy?

Regardless of how you you prefer to digest pop-culture, you can find loads of stuff out there related to the themes of pandemics, contagious diseases and/or zombies. We’ve gathered some of the most sought-after titles in this area and would like to present our 3 top lists below:

  • 10 popular films about pandemics with different outcomes
  • 10 read-worth books on the theme of viruses or infectious disease
  • 10 games that take place in worlds characterised by illness

10 films about pandemics

10 movies about pandemics

The variety of movies centred around the theme of contagious diseases is very broad. A very popular sub-genre of these are zombie-films, which often involve some form of disease spreading and turning people into the living dead. Other films take a more realistic angle, describing the course of a pandemic in ways similar to how they are viewed in real life. Several of these films are partly based on books.

For those wanting to read more on the subject, scroll down to our book recommendations on the theme of viruses and epidemics.

I Am Legend [DVD] [2007]

I Am Legend (2008)

Robert Neville believes he’s the last survivor in New York after an outbreak of the contagious “KV-Virus”. The City is evacuated in an effort to halt the spread. It doesn’t help that Robert loses his family after an evacuation attempt. He’s been living for 3 years with his dog Sam within a fortified apartment with a lab in the cellar where he works tirelessly to develop a cure.

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Outbreak [Blu-ray] [1995] [US Import]

Outbreak (1995)

Colonel Sam Daniels discovers that a virus, the motabavirus, is spreading death around him. From Africa to America, it destroys everything in its path. But no one wants to believe in Daniel's warnings, not even his ex-wife. The colonel is suspended from the case without further explanation. Shortly thereafter, an ominous military plot develops at the same time as the deadly virus spreads at an ever-faster rate.

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Resident Evil [DVD] [2002]

Resident Evil (2001)

Something horrible is hiding in The Hive, a genetic research lab underground run by the faceless organization The Umbrella Corporation. A deadly virus has been released.

The Red Queen - the supercomputer that controls and controls everything in The Hive - closes all exits again, killing the trapped staff. Alice and Rain are tasked with leading a command force to isolate the virus. However, the team soon discovers that the workers have turned into zombies

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Blindness (2008):

Synopsis: In a city where everyone is hit by a mysterious epidemic that makes people blind, only one, the doctor's wife, has the vision left. She pretends to be ill in order to take care of her husband while society is broken down into chaos and disorder

Contagion (2011):

Synopsis: Two days after returning from a business trip to Hong Kong, Beth Emhoff dies of symptoms she thought were jet lag. Suddenly, similar cases emerge and soon the number of people who are sick and dead becomes incredibly high. It seems that a single contact surface can transmit the virus from one person to another. The globe is filled with infected people - and it seems that the only thing that infects faster is fear.

28 Days Later (2002) [DVD]

28 Days Later (2002)

London, present day. A group of animal rights activists are taking action against an animal testing facility and, without caring about the warning from a terrified scientist, they release the chimpanzees. What the activists do not know is that the animals are "infected" with a deadly virus and after a bloody attack from one of the chimps, a powerful virus spreads.

28 days later. Bicycle messenger Jim wakes up from a coma in an abandoned intensive care unit at a hospital in London. Confused, he wanders through the halls and corridors in search of others and finally he goes out into the streets to call for help and finds infected and uninfected people.

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World War Z [Blu-ray] [Region Free]

World War Z (2013)

Science fiction in which UN official Gerry Lane travels around the world in a fight against time to prevent a zombie pandemic that has hit armies and governments and is now threatening to eradicate all of humanity. Based on the best-selling book of the same name, by Max Brooks from 2006.

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The Flu

Synopsis: The brothers Ju Byung-woo and Ju Byung-ki are smugglers in Seoul who discover that illegal immigrants have died in a shipping container, infecting an unknown viral disease. They take the only survivor, Monssai, and then film the bodies to show their boss in Budang. But Byung-woo gets sick and Monssai escapes. The brothers go to a clinic where the infection is transmitted to others who spread it throughout the city.

Train To Busan [Blu-ray] [2016]

Train to Busan (2016)

A group of people board the high-speed train that will travel between the cities of Seoul and Busan, while the country suffers from an extremely contagious epidemic where the transformation takes a few minutes from bitten human to bloodthirsty zombie. Shortly before the train departs from Seoul Central Station, an infected person stumbles aboard.

When the infection breaks out on board, a bunch of survivors do everything they can to not get in the claws of the infected, while the train is heading towards the destination, which is possibly the only place in the country that has not been taken over by the zombies.

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10 read-worthy books on the theme of viruses or infectious disease

10 read-worthy books on the theme of viruses or infectious disease

It’s not all that surprising that diseases have fascinated mankind for a long time, especially when one thinks of all the past pandemics that have occurred historically. The Black Plague, Spanish Flu, Smallpox – different diseases with different names but they have all had a major impact on societies and the people who lived through them. For those looking to take a deep into literature inspired by these themes, there are quite a few books to choose from

Station Eleven

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel (2015)

DAY ONE - The Georgia Flu is the flu that explodes across the Earth's surface like a neutron bomb. The news reports mortality rates of over 99%. WEEK TWO - Civilization has collapsed

YEAR TWENTY - A group of actors and musicians, called The Traveling Orchestra, is holding concerts and performing Shakespeare plays for the settlements that have grown up around the continent. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe. But now there is a new danger, and he threatens the hopeful world that all survivors have tried to rebuild.

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World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

World War Z - Max Brooks (2006)

Only ten years ago, the zombie war had been close to wiping out all of humanity after an inexplicable infection spread across the globe. An unnamed writer, driven by the need to preserve the survivors' experiences of the apocalyptic years, decided to travel across the United States and the rest of the world.

World War Z consists of his interviews with the people he met: smugglers and militants who were actively involved in the fight, but also ordinary civilians who once stood face to face with the living - or rather undead - hell of the time.

If you've seen the movie, it's worth noting that the only thing it has in common with the book is the name (and the presence of zombies).

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The Passage

The Passage - Justin Cronin (2010)

The unthinkable happens: A top secret US military experiment goes wrong and a deadly virus spreads unrestrained. The disaster is evident and soon the world has changed forever. All that remains for the shocked survivors is a struggle for existence characterised by fear of darkness, of death and of a fate worse than that.

In this state of emergency, two people are looking for a safe place where they can hide. It is FBI agent Brad Wolgast and orphaned six-year-old Amy Harper Bellafonte who managed to escape from the military base just before the dreadful event. Wolgast is determined to protect Amy. But for Amy, this is just the beginning of a much longer journey, a journey over time and space, toward the time and place where she must end what should never have begun.

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The Demon in the Freezer

The Demon in the Freezer - Richard Preston (2003)

In an alarming perspective on the world of bioterrorism, the best-selling author of The Hot Zone is investigating the return of the smallpox. The disease, which was said to be extinct in 1979, but now returns in a more deadly, genetically engineered form.

We follow three doctors' crusades to not only reveal who was behind the anthrax attacks in the United States in 2001, but also to prepare the modern society for future bioterrorist attacks.

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Where Late the Sweet Bird Sang

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang - Kate Wilhelm (1998)

One of Kate Wilhelm's most famous novels returns to print, the spellbinding story of an isolated post-holocaust community determined to preserve itself, through a perilous experiment in cloning. Sweeping, dramatic, rich with humanity, and rigorous in its science, Where Later the Sweet Birds Sang is widely regarded as a high point of both humanistic and "hard" SF, and won SF's Hugo Award and Locus Award on its first publication. It is as compelling today as it was then.

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Zone One

Zone One - Coleson Whitehead (2012)

From the author of the Man Booker longlisted The Underground Railroad. A pandemic has devastated the planet, sorting humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead.

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Cold Storage (Hardcover, 2019)

Cold Storage - David Koepp (2019)

For readers of Andy Weir and Noah Hawley comes an astonishing debut by the screenwriter of Jurassic Park: a wild and terrifying adventure about three strangers who must work together to contain a highly contagious, deadly organis.

When Pentagon bioterror operative Roberto Diaz was sent to investigate a suspected biochemical attack, he found something far worse: a highly mutative organism capable of extinction-level destruction. He contained it and buried it in cold storage deep beneath a little-used military repository.

Now, after decades of festering in a forgotten sub-basement, the specimen has found its way out and is on a lethal feeding frenzy. Only Diaz knows how to stop it.

He races across the country to help two unwitting security guardsone an ex-con, the other a single mother.

Over one harrowing night, the unlikely trio must figure out how to quarantine this horror again. All they have is luck, fearlessness, and a mordant sense of humor. Will that be enough to save all of humanity?

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The Andromeda Strain

The Andromeda Strain - Michael Crichton (1969)

A military space probe sent to collect extraterrestrial organisms from the upper atmosphere is knocked out of orbit and falls to Earth. Twelve miles from the crash site, an inexplicable and deadly phenomenon terrorises residents of a sleepy desert town in Arizona, leaving only two survivors: an elderly addict and a newborn child.

The US government is forced to mobilise Project Wildfire, a top-secret rescue protocol. Four of the country's most prominent scientists are called to a secret underground laboratory in the middle of the desert, equipped with an automated, self-destructive mechanism in case the mysterious infection begins to spread. Andromeda Strain turns out to be different than anything scientists have ever seen - and what they don't know can not only hurt them, but also lead to an unprecedented disaster worldwide.

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10 games that take place in worlds characterised by illness

10 games that take place in worlds characterised by illness

There are plenty of films and books on the theme. But for those who want to process by interacting, the range of games that address pandemics, and infectious diseases in games is also expansive. Overall, the idea of allowing games to take place in an apocalyptic environment has been popular for a very long time. With modern-day detailed graphics in video games, and complex board games with empathetic descriptions, it is now possible to get the theme even closer.

Plague Inc

Plague Inc.

A board game based on the PC game of the same name, where each player is a deadly disease and they must fight against each other to spread their plagues, develop new symptoms and ultimately annihilate humanity. Starting with Patient Zero, you spread your infection around the world by placing symbols in cities - earning DNA points and preventing other players from becoming dominant. Players choose which countries to place on the board but you must be both climate resistant and connected to a country before you can infect it. Eventually, when countries get completely infected - you try to kill them with Death Dice.

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Pandemic

Pandemic

Pandemic is a game for both the experienced player and entertaining for the family. You play against the game and each player gets their own role in traveling around the world and trying to eliminate infections. In order to succeed, players must cooperate and use each other's skills and knowledge. It must be effective and strategic as new infections and epidemics break out. 2-4 players.

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The Last of Us: Remastered

The Last of Us

Abandoned cities reclaimed by nature. A population decimated by a modern plague. Survivors kill each other for food, weapons; whatever they can take care of. Joel, a brutal survivor, and Ellie, a young teenage girl who is braver and wiser than her age, must work together if they hope to survive their journey across the United States

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Dying Light 2

Dying Light 2

In Dying Light 2, you can walk around in parkour style in an open world where the zombie apocalypse broke out. Every choice you make has a consequence during the course of the game.

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Resident Evil 3

Resident Evil 3

Relive Raccoon City's horrific downfall in an incredible remake of the classic 1999 survival horror game. In the nightmarish hours that follow after the events in Resident Evil 2, only you can help S.T.A.R.S police officer, Jill Valentine, escape this city that’s been overtaken

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A Plague Tale: Innocence

A Plague Tale

Follow the sad story of young Amicia and her little brother Hugo on a heartbreaking journey through the darkest hours of history. While being chased by the Inquisition's soldiers and surrounded by unstoppable swarms of rats, Amicia and Hugo will get to know and trust each other. In the fight to survive against overwhelming odds, they do everything possible to find meaning in this brutal, unforgiving world.

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Days Gone

Days Gone

You are a former lawless biker named Deacon St. John: a trouble-maker, an award hunter, a shard of a man on two wheels. In a world devastated by a global pandemic, St. John the safety of the camps that the survivors have built up to try their luck on the open roads. Against a volcanic background in the northwestern United States, Days Gone gives you the chance to explore a world full of downtrodden, human monsters called “freakers”. Fight your way through the countryside, search for resources and a reason to continue.

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The Walking Dead: The Telltale - Definitive Series

The Walking Dead

Play the series that revolutionized storytelling in games. The Walking Dead: The Telltale Definitive Series contains all 4 seasons, the 400 Days DLC and The Walking Dead: Michonne. Experience the young survivor Clementine's story as she grows from a scared girl to a capable survivor. Clementine, a glimpse of hope in a dark world, goes through many protectors, endures many threats and learns to fight back in an apocalypse where the weak are crushed and the cruel get results.

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Bloodborne

Bloodborne

A trip to a city where death, madness and nightmarish creatures lurk behind every corner. Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware announce Bloodborne, an action-packed role-playing game packed with relentless and ruthless terror and developed exclusively for PlayStation 4. Meet your fears as you search for the truth in the ancient city of Yharnam, where an unknown victim broke out and spreads like a wildfire along the streets. The danger is constantly present in this horrific world, and in order to survive you must know its darkest secrets.

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Tom Clancy's The Division 2

The Division 2

Seven months have passed since a deadly virus broke out, paralyzing the population of New York and the rest of the world. When the virus broke out, The Division, a unit of dormant agents, was activated as the last line of defense. Since then, Division agents have been fighting around the clock to save what's left. For The Division, the stakes are higher than ever. Washington, D.C., the most protected city in the world, is in the danger zone, which risks causing the entire nation to collapse. If the capital is lost, the nation will fall. In the role of Division Agent, who has been out in the field for seven months, you and your group are the last hope of preventing society's disintegration following the pandemic collapse.

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More tips and advice on how to protect yourself from illness

In order to make it easier for you to find great content on the theme of protection from illnesses, we've created a collection page for all of the related stories and content we've made on this topic. The page is updated on an on-going basis and here we'll gather guides and tips we hope will be of use and helpful to you in these flu-ridden times.

Read more guides and tips

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