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.
Seeing Ourselves in Apocalyptic Stories
In the mid-2000s, both post-apocalyptic and dystopian works became all the rage in literature, with Cormac McCarthy’s bleak novel The Road winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy topping bestseller lists worldwide. In The Road, which takes place in a disturbing, near-hopeless post-apocalyptic United States, McCarthy writes, “People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn’t believe in that. Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them. It didn’t even know they were there.”
For McCarthy’s nameless character, the happenings of the world feel insurmountable at times — there’s no rhyme or reason, no easy path to understanding how things got the way they did. But, still, the characters soldier on. In films and TV shows like Children of Men, The Walking Dead, The Leftovers and Mad Max: Fury Road, this sentiment rings true too. And thanks to video games like Resident Evil, we can take down zombies (and Big Pharma), or, in landmark games like The Last of Us, we can become part of a ragtag, chosen family that’s just barely making it through a world full of violence and desperation.
That is, the apocalypse, something big and bombastic and universally devastating, amplifies a character’s personal struggles and tragedy. If they can overcome, or at least keep surviving, then there’s hope. More often than not, a character’s personal trauma feels weightier than the mess that is the world at large. Sure, the protagonists can’t undo the broken world, but they can take some modicum of control over their own lives — and that’s something to be celebrated.
From “Contagion” to COVID-19: We’re Controlling the Narrative
In The Leftovers, the inciting incident is a global cataclysm known as “The Sudden Departure,” in which 140 million people disappear without a trace, leaving those who remain behind to deal with the aftermath. No one knows why it happened — why some people were taken and others were left behind. No matter their medium, these works all have something in common: They’re about survivors — survivors who find hope even in the bleakest of moments.
Sure, it sounds both obvious and trite, but, like with anything, seeing a possibility reflected back at you, as a reader or viewer, can do wonders when it comes to grounding yourself. When Contagion opens with the sounds of Gwenyth Paltrow’s character coughing, all seems fairly innocuous (well, besides the fact that the film is called Contagion, but I digress). And then, the next moment, things have reached a point of no return. Like a switch being flipped. Businesses are shuttered, folks are being told to stay home and the stock market is crashing.
It may seem scarily close to how the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic played out — and how it’s continuing to play out in the U.S. — but watching characters go through the motions, be it making the mistakes we’ve made or overcoming obstacles that are yet to come, feels satisfying. Unlike real life, there’s that element of control. When everything else is spinning, we can situate ourselves in a two-hour movie and know it’s just that. We can see our greatest fears and hopes mapped onto these narratives and, in seeing them, we might feel less alone in the struggle.
If Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us can save each other’s skins and work toward finding a cure, then maybe we can too; if Katniss Everdeen can overthrow a corrupt system, then maybe we can too; and if The Leftovers‘ protagonist, Kevin Garvey, can stop wondering what happened to the disappeared — and why they were taken — and focus on why he’s the one left behind, then maybe we can find purpose and motivation, too. In The Road, McCarthy writes a scene in which a son asks his father, “What’s the bravest thing you ever did?” to which the nameless man replies, “Getting up this morning.” Some days, that’s the only feeling, and, even if it sounds bleak, there’s strength in taking those small, controllable steps.