A few days ago I watched a video by PsychIRL about how the media affects our perception of mental illness. In brief, the needs of story in films and television shape the portrayals of various conditions. The hero needs to overcome their obstacles in order to create emotional beats, and to deliver a satisfying ending. This runs counter to the realities of mental health. Most struggles aren’t overtly dramatic. Rarely are people “cured” or just “get over” mental illness.
The following day I was still mulling that over when I saw the trailer for the new miniseries based on Stephen King’s The Stand. A pandemic strikes, and people immediately suffer visible and violent symptoms. Within a short period of time most of the world’s population has been wiped out. This seems to be the typical portrayal of a pandemic in fiction. It covers everything from semi-realistic thrillers like Contagion and Outbreak to most zombie apocalypse tales. The effects of the illness are swift, consistent, and obvious.
Has Fiction Made the Pandemic Worse?
I’ve written before about people who don’t take covid-19 seriously. Like most things where there are ample amounts of reliable data available, I’m baffled by a lack of “belief” in objective reality. Now I’m wondering how much of their reactions were programmed by media portrayals. We’ve been primed for a sudden onset of worst-case symptoms; the movies don’t show asymptomatic people, or mention the possibility that most people could catch a mild case. The fiction gives us bodies in the streets, abandoned cars, and government teams wandering through empty cities in hazmat suits.
Faced with a lack of general education, a profusion of anti-science propaganda, and a huge void where critical thinking and empathy ought to be, I understand why people some people still don’t see covid as a threat, It doesn’t look like the movies. Reality doesn’t align with fiction, therefore it’s reality that’s wrong. If civilization didn’t collapse within a week like on The Walking Dead (that bastion of verisimilitude), then what are we even worried about?
This is why I fear the virus less than I fear other people.