From “Contagion” to “Station Eleven,” Why Are Folks Craving Apocalyptic Content During a Pandemic?

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In 2014, Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station Eleven, debuted to much acclaim. In the book, a swine flu pandemic, dubbed the "Georgia Flu," devastates the world, killing off a majority of the population and turning the world into an empty, apocalyptic place. Station Eleven made plenty of "best of" year-end lists — and now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, readers are eager to read, or reread, it. On the podcast Conversations with Tyler, St. John Mandel commented on the surprising uptick in sales, saying that at first she wondered, "Why would anybody in their right mind want to read Station Eleven during a pandemic?"

But that was before she found herself watching pandemic thriller Contagion (2011). "There’s just such a longing in times of uncertainty to see how it ends," St. John Mandel says. Of course, this longing has existed for centuries: There’s the myriad end times mythologies and religious texts studied by Eschatologists; the 1826 Mary Shelley novel The Last Man; the Terminator-esque 1921 Czech play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Capek; and works of sci-fi greats like Octavia Butler, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick.

These stories are fascinating — even entertaining. But the undeniable pull we feel toward these stories, in the midst of a real-life pandemic and during a time when federal forces are beating down citizens exercising their rights to protest, is profoundly strange. "Narratives that fall under these categories tap into different things," says Christopher Robichaud, senior lecturer in ethics and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. "Movies like Contagion…try to track with reality...[and don’t] just deal with the contagions abstractly, but [insert] people and their struggles and...moral dilemmas." There’s definitely something to "rubbernecking," but, clearly, it’s about more than just watching the (fictional) world burn.