A Horror Movie for Germophobes
My name is Ryan Douglas, just joined the offices of 4381 Productions this Fall.
Probably not a controversial opinion, but I love horror films. They provide a unique sense of fear induced escapism that other genres can’t quite give their audiences. Most popular horror films are generally associated with a face to it’s name (e.g. Nightmare on Elm Street – Freddy Krueger, It – Pennywise, Scream – Ghostface etc..). Such has been the tradition for most, if not all horror films to have a Man V. Monster story whether that be a dream haunting serial killer or a dad with cabin fever and an ax. Audiences have been watching physical antagonists in horror films for years, that is until 2011 when Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion was released. Contagion is scary.. in it’s own way. The film takes place in a global pandemic (sound familiar?) and follows it’s lead cast of characters as they endure its effects. This movie is a part of the horror genre, because while there is no visible monster on screen, Soderbergh’s careful direction of this film gives presence to it’s frightening antagonist by putting emphasis on touch and the psychological effects it has on it’s victims.
**MAJOR SPOILERS FOR A FILM THAT WAS RELEASED 9 YEARS AGO**
It is established early on in the film by Kate Winslet’s Character, Dr. Mears that the virus (MEV-1) is a fomite. For those not scientifically inclined (myself included), a fomite is something that can be spread through contact with objects and let me tell you, there is a lot of touching things in this movie. Soderbergh makes MEV-1 a character by pulling focus to everything the characters touch on screen that includes everyday objects like food, furniture, faces, hands, etc.. Every scene in this movie has several specific camera shots of the objects the characters interact with and the camera lets it linger on screen as if it had a physical presence. Two scenes in particular really capture these interactions and emphasizes just how many objects we come into contact with even within a short amount of time. The first involves an infected man receiving a phone call from the CDC while he’s on the bus. He is informed that he may be carrying the virus, is advised to get off the bus immediately, and to quarantine himself. The camera follows the man through a public place and everything he touches in his path from bus seats, to door handles, and even others. The second and final scene in the film is a flashback to day 1 of the pandemic. It begins in China where humans are deforesting a jungle, they knock down a tree which sends a group of bats flying off for a new home, the bats take refuge in a barn full of pigs where the snack on nearby bananas, the bats leave droppings, the pigs below eat the droppings, the pigs are butchered, frozen, shipped to a restaurant, where the head chef chops the pig, when Gwyneth Paltrow’s character (patient zero) enters the restaurant, and before washing his hands the head chef goes out to greet her. The films ends with them touching and taking a picture, showcasing the beginnings of the virus. Drawing audiences’ attention to these everyday objects and interactions not only gives them a sense of the volume to the situation but also a sense of fear of how easily spread and fast acting the virus really is.
Another aspect of the MEV-1 virus that is shared with other horror villains is it’s psychological effect on the characters and the audience. Horror movies that have a physical monster inspire terror through jump scares, really long drawn out scenes of running away, hiding from the villain, and being gutted like a fish to name a few. These horror movie troupes are meant to frighten, pump your adrenaline, give you nightmares, and keep you up at night thinking about the unstoppable boogeyman under your bed. And despite the virus not having a literal physical presence it works in much the same way. The virus kills its victims within days of contracting it, it causes seizures, it spreads fast, and without a vaccine there’s no way to stop it. This causes public outrage which leads to rioting, looting, protesting, and conspiracy theories. MEV-1 has a profound effect on its victims whether they are infected or not purely through the psychological terror it unleashes onto the human race. We see this in average horror movies all the time, while a man with a chainsaw is butchering their friends, the surviving characters don’t think rationally, and make dumb reckless decisions like the people in the world of Contagion. While the terror is delivered in different methods, it still has the same result.
Horror movies need a compelling antagonist with the ability to not only physically threaten but mentally as well. Much like your Michael Myers and your Jasons, MEV-1 is an unstoppable force to be reckoned with causing not only fright from its “physical presence”, but also inspiring fear through its effects and the public reaction it causes. Contagion meets the qualifications of a horror film because while not having a physical monster, the feeling of dread and despair is as apparent for the characters in this film as well as it’s audience. Contagion may not give that usual sense of gut wrenching terror most are accustomed to, but instead it provides something new and fresh for the genre. I can only imagine what kind of horror themed pandemic films we’ll see next in the post-coronavirus world (if we ever get there).