World War Z, The Walking Dead, The Jakarta Pandemic, and any of the dozens of books titled simply “Pandemic“: what do they say about readers, and what is the future of the popular topic after the global COVID-19 pandemic ceases to make us all characters in a horror story?
A quick book search will turn up hundreds of books on the subject of contagious disease and it’s far-reaching fallout. Fiction, non-fiction, thriller, horror, and I’ll bet that even though I haven’t come across it there is a romance novel with a pandemic backdrop. We’re contemplating the potential of a COVID-19 baby boom–a romance novel only makes sense!
Dealing with the anxiety, depression, and hopelessness most of us are feeling during self-isolation leads to escapism in many forms. With most public spaces closed or severely limited, media is filling the need: books, Netflix, movies, games.
Through February and March of 2020, I was scrolling actively past the trends on Netflix. Outbreak? No thanks. Pandemic? Too soon. I’ve got enough anxiety over running out of toilet paper, I don’t need a documentary that likely offers brutal scenarios with probably slim reassurances. Parks and Recreation? You betcha, and yes, Netflix, for the rest of flattening the curve efforts you can assume I’m ALWAYS still watching.
Why are pandemic shows and books so popular, and why are they trending during an actual pandemic?
A certain sort of reader
“I delight in what I fear.”
– Shirley Jackson
Dr. Margee Kerr, the staff sociologist at Pittsburgh’s ScareHouse, teacher at Robert Morris University and Chatham University, and a bonifued “scare specialist” explains in an interview with The Atlantic the type of person and conditions that make the experience of fear enjoyable.
“Not everyone enjoys being afraid… this isn’t just about personal choice, but our brain chemistry.” – Dr. Kerr
Dopamine is one of the main chemicals released in thrilling situations, and not all of our brains handle it the same way. Those who lack “brakes” on their dopamine response enjoy the sensation of being frightened much more than those who don’t.
Evidence also suggests that fear can boost self-esteem with an “I survived!” sensation when it’s over.
A certain sort of space
Dr. Kerr emphasizes that in order to enjoy the dopamine release of reading a thrilling book, watching a horror movie, or even playing a scary game, we need to feel fundamentally safe. The characters scream because it’s real for them; we scream and then we laugh because our brain has reassured us that we are not actually being hunted by a werewolf.
For example, one of my favorite authors is Stephen King. My favorite book is “It”. The high-point of my publishing journey so far has been that day my book showed up directly above “It” in Amazon clown horror results. I love his style of fear.
But I hated Pet Sematary. My kids are the same age as the children in the book. I often catch my son, just like the tragically killed Gage, playing in the road. I do not feel safe about the subject matter–my greatest fear is the death of my children–and my fear response was a sick feeling in my stomach, not a tingly “what’s going to happen?” glee.
No one wants to read a book about murderous stalkers when they have been finding footprints in the bushes outside their bedroom window. I don’t want to turn my face from a broadcast about COVID-19’s death toll and open to a chapter about failed containment in World War Z.
How COVID-19 changes our response
When we look at brain chemistry and how dopamine reactions cause some people to enjoy fear more than others, it would be tempting to say that these people would be enjoying the chaos and pain of a global pandemic, at least, moreso than those who have a hefty dopamine “brake” system.
However, only the craziest of people would suggest that everything is going to be just fine after COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror. We will all be touched by this pandemic, either with the illness itself, with the death of a loved one, with economic instability or the loss of a job, and even the wealthy securely cushioned physically and financially might just lose that Mom and Pop restaurant around the corner they love so much.
This isn’t fun, and we all know it.
I don’t feel safe. I live with and care for my 88-year-old grandmother. My sister, mother to a young family of four, is diabetic and high-risk. Every time I go to the grocery store, I’m living with the worry that I’ll track COVID back on my shoes and kill my loved ones. My husband, our primary bread-winner, is in construction and has only had one $600 job in the last three weeks. I was let go from my $200/month job because of financial pressures. The $200 makes a dent for me, and it made a dent for them! (No hard feelings, they’re a good company in a crappy climate.) And health insurance? Haven’t had that in five years. A stint in the hospital for us or our two young kids would ruin us.
So, yes, I’m scared.
I may be one of the fear-loving dopamine junkies but a real, extended threat causing chronic stress is killing that dopamine kick. I’ll continue to pass on Pandemic and Outbreak, and The Stand can sit on my shelf for another year in my TBR pile. Because I don’t feel safe. It’s all just a little too soon.
Is it too soon for everyone?
Probably not. Varying responses to the situation result in varying illusions of safety and threat. This may be the juiciest backdrop for the reading of some serious zombie-making virus books. It’s not for me.
You know what I am going to read? The Cult Called Freedom House by Stephanie Evelyn. From the description: “A psychological horror thriller, this book will frustrate you, scare you, disturb you, and at times, it will make you want to be ill. Are you ready to learn what’s going on behind the doors of Freedom House?”
If I don’t feel safe during COVID-19, why would I escape into something that is frustrating, scary, disturbing, and will possibly make me ill?
Because I’m one of those fear-lovers and because The Cult isn’t about contagious disease (I really hope). I’m safe from cults, so I enjoy a thriller book relating to one, but I don’t feel safe from contagion and the messed-up world surrounding it, so I won’t enjoy the fear sensation from books and films about pandemics.
What is the future of pandemic fiction?
“If you’re too young to know the monsters are fake, it can be quite traumatic and something you’ll never forget, in a bad way.” – Dr. Kerr
The future of pandemic fiction depends on the pandemic itself. Should it go as well as we hope, vanish in a year after we get the vaccine and the economy bounces back so I don’t have to file for bankruptcy, then by 2022 I will be ready to read the pandemic books that will inevitably come out of this. If it doesn’t go well, maybe not.
The more compelling enigma is what our children and young adults will read in a decade from now. Would Judith from The Walking Dead pick up and read World War Z?
Dr. Kerr sheds some light on how our children may feel: “The chemicals that are released during fight-or-flight can work like glue to build strong memories (“flashbulb memories”) of scary experiences, and if you’re too young to know the monsters are fake, it can be quite traumatic and something you’ll never forget, in a bad way.”
The exposure our children have to the scary aspects of this outbreak will affect their future perceptions. Will my five-year-old daughter get an unpleasant lurch in her stomach when she walks into a store as a young mother and finds an aisle empty? Would that lurch be a manifestation of a trauma so feared that she won’t read pandemic fiction? Probably not. But if she watches my 88-year-old grandmother choke, gasp for air, and die in the backseat of our car as we drive away from a hospital too full to take her? She may forever pass on the topic of life-threatening viruses.
Those who read pandemic fiction in the future will depend less on brain chemistry and more on how bad this virus gets, who it kills, and what the fall out will be. COVID-19 is going to change our taste in what fear fiction we read. Some will love it more, some will like it less.
In a decade, we’ll see. If we live that long.