In the last two months, my go-to stories featured disasters and dystopias. I watched the Hunger Games films, Contagion, 2012, the Insurgent series, World War Z, Oblivion, the new Amazon series Tales from the Loop, Battlestar Galactica and Jericho.
And I’m not alone.
While much of the U.S. is under stay-home orders to slow the spread of COVID-19, films like Contagion (2011), Outbreak (1995) and World War Z (2013) have surged to the top of viewing lists on streaming platforms.
Why are stories like these so popular right now?
They resonate with our unease or dissatisfaction with the state of society and touch on our longing for a world set right. They help us contemplate our place in life and what we value. They help us process or deal with a real crisis in metaphorical form.
In the Washington Post, Travis M. Andrews interviewed Robert Schenkkan, who adapted The Andromeda Strain (2008) for television. Schenkkan isn’t surprised that these kinds of films are popular during the current crisis: “By recasting our experience in real life within the confines of a story, it is easier to absorb and explore the ‘what if’ notion of such an event in a way one is less able to do while sitting in your living room and wondering if you should go outside and buy toilet paper from the grocery store. . . . Framing it within a story with a beginning, a middle and an end gives a kind of confinement that makes it more accessible.”
In other words, writes Andrews, “Since the movie ends, it gives people the feeling that the real crisis will.”
And in most of these films, as Whittier University film professor John Bak points out, “there are survivors at the end. There is a next chapter.”
In a very real sense, then, these films can give us hope.
In M. Night Shyamalan’s alien invasion film Signs (2002), Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) touches on this hope in a conversation with his brother as they watch news of mysterious lights appearing over Mexico City: “People break down into two groups when they experience something lucky. Group one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group two sees it as just pure luck.”
And that affects how they react in times of crisis. Group two, says Graham, knows the situation could be bad or good, “but deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they’re on their own. And that fills them with fear.”
But group one, says Graham, “deep down, they feel that whatever’s going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope.”
And that gets at the most significant reason I resonate with these stories. They remind me of a deeper truth.
Early church believers also faced pandemics, societal collapses and wars. It appears they too took comfort in stories of disasters on epic scales and dystopian circumstances: the flood, the Passover and exodus, the existential writings in Scripture, the dystopian landscapes of the prophets and captivity.
The common thread in these stories is a God more powerful than it all, a God watching out for them, weaving everything into a story with an end where everything is not only better but good and right.
And that gave them hope. It gives me hope, too.
Carmen Andres, a former editor of the Mennonite Brethren magazine Christian Leader, lives in Alexandria, Va.