Let’s look back at March 2020. Lacking information on the novel coronavirus ripping across the globe, people turned to their TVs for guidance. While some escaped with lighthearted comedies, others leaned into the times by consuming one pandemic movie after another.
Now it’s December 2021. Covid-19 is still with us, and will likely linger in some form for the rest of our lives. Surging Omicron cases have people wondering whether they’re in for another anxious winter of social distancing and canceled family gatherings.
With this backdrop of Covid fatigue, it might seem foolhardy to release a show about a pandemic. But in launching the miniseries Station Eleven, HBO Max may have counterintuitively provided us with the exact kind of hopeful message we need at this stage of the pandemic.
Adapted from a book by Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven follows a traveling theater troupe working in the aftermath of a flu pandemic that killed most of humanity. Inverse spoke with three experts from the fields of mental health to explain why we turn to pandemic content amid crisis, what shows like Station Eleven have to offer, and whether they’re good or bad for our mental health.
Reel Science is an Inverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV.
Why are pandemic shows and movies so popular right now?
It might seem like a paradox to watch a show about a deadly virus when a pandemic is ruining our real lives.
“If current events are threatening to us, why in the world would anybody consciously make a decision to tune into it when you can't tune it out all day?” says Anthony Tobia, a professor of psychiatry at Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.
In fact, it’s typical to have no idea why we’re watching pandemic movies.
“More likely, the person will be drawn to it without really knowing why, other than that they experience some sense of relief or calm afterward,” psychiatrist David M. Reiss tells Inverse. “Why people may turn to dystopian or pandemic-related content is, in general, complicated and less consciously realized.”
Tobia sees two possible reasons. First, people are seeing an unprecedented event taking place, so they turn to films like Contagion to make sense of the world around them.
“I'm consumed with this topic, and why wouldn't a theme from a movie or TV series also pique my interest?” Tobia explains.
Second, people are subconsciously responding to their fears by consuming onscreen stories similar to what’s unfolding in reality. Confrontation becomes its own form of escapism. “That process is usually referred to as counterphobic attitude, where an individual basically runs towards their fear,” Tobia says.
Similarly, Reiss says seeing scary circumstances onscreen can provide “a relief from being alone” and help reduce our fear during uncertain times. “There can also be a sense of catharsis from watching — bringing fear to a heightened state in a safe environment where it is acceptable to acknowledge the fear.”
Finally, when it comes to the apocalyptic outcome of shows like Station Eleven, we might watch to be relieved by the knowledge that our reality could be much worse. In the book and show, the virus kills 99% of the people it infects, which puts having to get a booster shot in perspective.
“There may also be an unconscious sense that to see something worse than the actual reality is a bit of relief,” Reiss says.
Are dystopian shows good or bad for your mental health?
As you might have guessed, there’s no clear-cut answer to this question. Whether post-apocalyptic stories like Station Eleven will harm or help depends on the individual.
“I think there's a place for dystopian films,” Tobia says. But for people who are “constantly aware” and “consciously affected” by Covid-19, pursuing pandemic-related media might be too harmful.
“For that individual to find a strategy to enjoy the dystopian-based film might be a little too much to ask,” Tobia says.
“Rejection of a fictional depiction may be a symptom of potentially dangerous societal denial.”
While it can be soothing to see characters overcome struggles similar to our own, many people are understandably reluctant to consume dystopian shows.
“An individual may wish to ‘escape reality’ for the moment and seek a different type of entertainment, which is not at all pathological or dysfunctional, and may in fact be healthy,” Reiss says.
But permanently avoiding dark fiction because it’s too distressing could be an unhealthy form of avoidance that has negative consequences when crises emerge. “If a large segment of society is focused on escaping the reality of the actual situation and maintaining a sense of denial, the rejection of a fictional depiction may be a symptom of potentially dangerous societal denial,” Reiss says.
But Station Eleven may give those who reflexively twinge at pandemic shows another reason to tune in.
Station Eleven’s hopeful message
While consuming pandemic media may help people cope with the world around them, they could also provide a sense of community during hard times. “More common would be desiring a sense of connection with others, not feeling as alone,” Reiss says.
That’s what makes Station Eleven the most relatable show for this pandemic. It cares less about making sense of the virus, and more about how we care for others during and after a disaster.
Station Eleven shows “people pulling together and trying to help each other, human being to human being,” behavioral analyst Laurie Singer tells Inverse.
She says the power of Station Eleven lies in its implicit question of “How can we pull together and unite?” It’s a simple message, but a necessary one as Covid-19 and the politics surrounding it divides countries and families.
“We see resilience come across the screen.”
Station Eleven’s first episode centers on Jeevan, a young man who looks after a child, Kirsten, when her parents get sick. Later episodes feature an adult Kirsten as a prominent figure in the theatrical troupe. As the story unfolds, Station Eleven endorses the message that community — not rugged American individualism — is what will save us.
As Covid-19’s variants lead to confusion, rising case numbers, and renewed despair about the future, Station Eleven’s hopeful portrayal of kindness and community resonates.
“As we look around us now — and Omicron is a great example — there is reason to feel hopeless,” Tobia says. So it’s natural that we would gravitate towards pop culture that shows characters banding together to overcome adversity. “We see resilience come across the screen in a show like Station Eleven.”
Tobia adds that “if we can have faith in our own resilience” and “stay the course” when dealing with the pandemic, we too might find shared community in the aftermath. In the meantime, viewers who tune in to Station Eleven will find a profound sense of hope amid crisis.
Station Eleven is streaming now on HBO Max.