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Explained: How zombie films may have prepared fans for the coronavirus pandemic

Fans of horror films showed less psychological distress during Covid-19, finds study, suggesting that the information we obtain from an imagined situation may serve us in analogous situations in the real world

A still from George A Romero's zombie classic 'Dawn of the Dead' (1978). A zombie outbreak is almost by definition a pandemic, says researcher Coltan Scrivner.

In the horror subgenre we know as ‘zombie movies’, you might find a ring of the ongoing pandemic. From the pioneering ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) to the recent South Korean production ‘Train to Busan’ (2016), zombies infect ordinary people and turn them into zombies, and, just like it is happening in Covid-19, the uninfected around them live in panic, trying to stay safe.

It turns out that the connection may be deeper than just a resemblance between fiction and fact. If you like horror, particularly zombie films, watching them may have prepared you better for the Covid-19 pandemic. That’s the conclusion drawn by researchers who have published their findings in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Why zombies?

The study actually covered horror fans in general, as well as morbidly curious individuals. The horror fans were people who watched any kind of apocalyptic films — ‘zombie movies’, ‘post-apocalyptic movies’, and ‘alien-invasion movies’.

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“However, I think zombie movies in particular bear resemblance — literally and symbolically — to the pandemic,” said Coltan Scrivner, a University of Chicago PhD student who researches the psychology of horror, and who led the new study. His colleagues were Pennsylvania State University psychologist and professor emeritus John Johnson, and Danish horror experts Mathias Clausen and Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen.

“Zombie outbreaks almost by definition are pandemics,” Scrivner told The Indian Express, by email. “The cause is almost always some sort of infection. Characters in zombie films learn how to avoid getting infected and often try to find a cure for the infection. In addition, they learn what the world looks like when society begins to break down or no longer functions as normal. Although exaggerated in the films, this resembles a real-world pandemic in some ways.”

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But how does watching such films help?

* The information we obtain from an imagined zombie apocalypse, the study suggests, may serve us in analogous situations in the real world. “They [zombie film fans] reported feeling like they knew what to buy for the pandemic and that the consequences of the pandemic did not take them by surprise,” Scrivner said.

* Fans of horror films were found to exhibit less psychological distress during Covid-19: The study describes them as more psychologically resilient. “In addition to learning how to navigate dangerous situations through simulations, people may also learn to navigate their own emotions… Presumably, frequent users of horror media often employ emotion regulation strategies, which may lead to improved emotional coping skills,” it says.

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How does the study draw these conclusions?

It surveyed over 300 participants, who answered a variety of questions. First, they completed a Pandemic Psychological Resilience Scale created by the researchers to determine whether they were showing positive resilience or in psychological distress. Participants also completed a Morbid Curiosity Scale. A third scale was the ‘Big 5’ that measures dimensions of personality including neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion, openness to experience, and conscientiousness. Finally, participants rated how much of a fan they were of several different genres of movies, such as horror, romance, comedy, zombie films, etc.

“Using these questions, we were about to find that, controlling for the Big 5 personality traits, horror fans and morbidly curious people were more psychologically resilient during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic in the US. We also found that fans of prepper genres — the zombie, apocalyptic, and alien-invasion films — reported being more prepared for the pandemic.”

If I am not a horror fan, would it help if I started watching zombie films now?

For resilience against the Covid-19 pandemic, it may be too late. But according to Johnson, the psychologist who collaborated on the study, it is never too late to make ready for the next hurdle in life.

“I’m not sure that watching such movies now would be helpful for our current situation. However, my understanding of pandemics and other life-challenging events is that similar future challenges are absolutely inevitable,” Johnson said in comments published on the Pennsylvania State University website.

Both Johnson and Scrivner believe that fiction is not just an idle pastime but a way to imagine simulated realities that prepare us for future challenges. Scrivner told The Indian Express: “Horror in particular offers a way to safely experience dangerous environments and dangerous social interactions. This lets people do two things:

* “People can practise being afraid or being anxious and learning how to overcome that feeling. This likely can lead to better emotion regulation skills and, ultimately, better psychological resilience.”

* “People can also learn some specific information. For example, people who watched pandemic-themed movies like ‘Contagion’ may have learned what a real pandemic could look like. This could allow people to be better prepared for when a real pandemic like Covid-19 occurs.”

‘Contagion’ (2011) is about a deadly flu-like infection that spreads in the US. Although a decade old now, it became one of America’s most streamed films in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, the study notes.

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