The whole idea behind me spending October looking at the horror of non-horror movies is, on some level, about tapping into broader things that we find scary and observing the universality of horror. As outlined in One Hour Photo and The Conversation, surveillance is scary - the idea that we’re being watched, that we don’t have any secrets. Now, I’d like to turn to the idea of disease and infirmity. If it’s frightening to learn that our lives are not our own, it’s even more frightening to learn that our bodies are not our own either, that biology can rebel against us. We are not even safe inside ourselves, the call is coming from inside the house. As killers go, disease is, I think, even worse than the biggest, scariest masked man with a sharp object. It’s invisible, it’s silent, and it’s everywhere all at once. It does its work quietly, and often by the time you figure out what’s going on, it’s too late.
Contagion is ostensibly concerned with one specific disease, but I’d argue that it’s really about two, and how they work together with lethal efficiency in ways that are actually pretty similar to how a slasher movie might work.
The film opens with a black screen, and a cough. Innocuous enough, we meet Beth Emhoff, a marketing bigwig for some large company. She’s in the airport, on the phone with somebody during a layover. The subtitle reads “Day 2”, and this lends it a sense of urgency right out of the gate. Something is happening, and it's already begun. It tells us that whatever we’re about to watch, we’re too late to stop it. The camera follows Beth’s hands as they handle a glass of water, her phone, it catches her coughing. She’s coming back home from a business trip overseas. She’s got a bit of a fever and a cough, probably picked up a bug on the airplane.
A fever and a cough turn into a higher fever, and seizures, and in a couple of days, Beth Emhoff is dead.
The rest of the film follows multiple strands of action - the people from the CDC, overwhelmed by the enormity of their task and hindered by political concerns, an epidemiologist from the World Health Organization who ends up in over her head, the family of Beth Emhoff, who appears to be Patient Zero, and Alan Krumwiede, a conspiracy-minded blogger warning of the dangers of Big Pharma, touting homeopathic remedies with an eye on profit. All set against the backdrop of a country coming slowly to grips with this new, terrible thing.
What transpires over the course of the movie, then, is two different forms of viral transmission. The first is the disease, a biological virus, which moves from host to host, infecting, mutating, and killing. The second (as in The Conversation) is information, which is a memetic virus. Alan Krumwiede is Patient Zero for the memetic virus, introducing the idea into the public consciousness that homeopathic tinctures of forsythia cure the disease but the government (and Big Pharma) are keeping it a secret for reasons. This misinformation leads people to spend money on a useless remedy, ramping up demand to the point of riots and the looting of pharmacies that carry it. Krumwiede is an interesting character. It’s tough to pin down how much of his own bullshit he believes - he certainly seems sincere in his belief that the economics of disease treatment are driven by profit, manipulated by massive pharmaceutical companies for their own benefit, but he also seems perfectly aware that forsythia does nothing. He leverages the audience for his website as a tool to make money for people who manufacture homeopathic remedies as cynically as any pharmaceutical company. He wears a full-body protective suit to pass out flyers that say the government lies and that a cure exists. He plays all the angles, a craven opportunist blithely sowing discord and justifying it as the way of the world. I find him even more disturbing than the disease and the existence of people like him much, much scarier than Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees.
The two viral transmissions are the real killers here, but as in slasher movies, much also can be chalked up to human frailty. One man’s desire to protect his loved ones triggers a panic, ignorance of apparent danger infects others, bad decisions are made for good reasons, venality and pettiness hinder treatment, greed foments civil unrest. Just as human failings open people up to danger from masked men wielding sharp objects (it’s always the teens doing drugs and having sex who die first), so here do they give the disease a vector, a path to kill thousands upon thousands of people. Whether it’s how fragile our bodies are or how easily we are duped, how easily we panic, and how selfishness warps our thinking, we betray ourselves. The killer was inside the house the whole time.
It's not horror because death here isn't especially gory, just sad, and the dead don't rise up to walk again, but that's really all that separates this from a zombie-apocalypse movie. It's basically World War Z without the zombies. The deaths and the scale of the deaths are still there, people act selflessly to save others, selfishly to save themselves, they do the right thing and the wrong thing as they would in any horror film, and with the same result. It’s especially timely as the United States grapples with the presence of highly lethal ebola virus and a movement of people across the country decries the process of vaccination based on spurious logic and outright fallacy, leading to outbreaks of disease nationwide. The twin viruses of disease and misinformation do their deadly work, and isn't that horrifying enough?
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