Ashley Lister’s A-Z of Horror: Q is for Quarantine

Q is for Quarantine

By Ashley R Lister


(Please note, a version of this article appeared in issue 17 of The Digital Dead).


“That would never happen.” I think it’s fair to say that these are words that most of us have said at some point during our careers as aficionados of the horror genre.


A potential victim is running down the middle of a deserted road. There is a car in pursuit, slowly accelerating. (Think of movies such as Christine, Wolf Creek or The Car). We scream at the screen, “That would never happen.” We say this because we know, anyone who doesn’t have the IQ of a flatline coma patient, would have darted into the woods beside the road and escaped on a route that the car wouldn’t be able to manage.


Or, our hero is trying to escape from Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, Chucky or some other unnamed predator. They run up to the sanctuary of their car. And they drop the damned keys before they can unlock the vehicle.


That would never happen.


I’ve been driving for more than 35 years and I’ve never once dropped my car keys whilst trying to open my car. I’m not trying to pretend I have superhuman powers when it comes to holding car keys and unlocking vehicles. I’m just saying that dropping keys is such a rare incident it seems impossible that it would happen with such regularity when people are being pursued by a malevolent force. Indeed, it sort of makes me think that some of these people deserve the grisly fate waiting for them if they’re so inept at a simple chore like holding car keys. Chances are, if you can’t unlock the car door properly, you’re going to be a serious danger on the roads when you’re behind the wheel.


Or, some character in a group says, “Let’s split up.”


That would never happen.


Perhaps someone might suggest splitting up but, in reality, every sane person in the group would scream in their face: “NO!” What’s likely to be safer? A group of people all working together to remain safe? Or a handful of small disparate groups who are easily outnumbered? If I was in such a group I’d probably advocate tying up the person who’d suggested splitting up and then leaving him or her as a gift for the threatening monster whilst the rest of us make good our escape.


I mention these anomalies because we’re currently living through unprecedented times where we’re learning, first-hand, the realities of living through a virus-driven disaster movie and I find I’m watching the news and shouting, “That would never happen.” Even though I’ve been primed for this period in history by a lifetime’s immersion in such films as Quarantine, REC, Resident Evil, World War Z, Cabin Fever and 28 Days Later, I think it’s safe to say that none of these films managed to capture the nuances or veracity of real life made terrifying in a world of contagious disease.


For example, none of these films included toilet roll hoarding. I suspect most people are thinking that the zombifying dangers of World War Z, 28 Days Later or even Dead Snow induced few symptoms that would make anyone require toilet paper in substantial quantities. But the same thing has been said about Covid-19 and that nugget of information didn’t stop thousands of shoppers from stocking up on a rain forest of Cushelle for each selfish household.   


Even films such as Quarantine, REC and Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death did little to prepare us for the realities of life in lockdown.  Admittedly, in each of these films, characters were expected to remain confined to certain secure locations (locations which ultimately proved to be spectacularly unsafe). But these guys made lockdown look like it was fun and exciting, rather than an endless cycle of Zoom meetings, alcoholic breakfast drinks and marathon binge-watching of Antiques Road Trip.


There is nowhere in The Crazies, The Bay or The Cured where the new normal is to spend five minutes on a Thursday evening clapping loudly to support keyworkers who have continued to work during the chaos of the situation (and then reward them with a 1% pay increment). Indeed, on the subject of keyworkers, think of all the shops in the mall of Dawn of the Dead (1978) where no keyworkers had bothered to stay behind and help lubricate the engines of capitalism. I’m lucky enough to be working from home and I can’t imagine the mortal dread that comes from having to work in a shop and potentially face infection on a daily basis. From the scary stories I’ve heard from friends who work in the service industry, I do suspect that the horror of that reality is far more daunting than anything experienced by watching The Crazies, The Bay or The Cured.


Importantly, I don’t recall any pandemic movie trying to scare its audience with a daily death toll: which is probably one of the most chilling aspects of daily life under the new normal. If such a feature had appeared in any film, I strongly suspect I would have barked sarcastic laughter at the screen and said, “That would never happen.”


Perhaps the film that’s come closest to predicting these events, and our response to these events, was Steve Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011).  Contagion contains a star-studded cast including Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston. This is a film that begins with Gwyneth Paltrow looking a little hungover and, if not for the title of the movie, we’d suspect she had spent the night burning the candle at both ends.


As the New Scientist point out when praising the film: “A series of carefully focused shots and strategically placed scenes emphasise that everything in the world is a potential vector for the fatal virus: doorknobs, credit cards, empty glasses, napkins, a bowl of peanuts at a bar, airplanes, handshakes, sex. As millions become infected worldwide, quarantines are imposed and people grow afraid to go anywhere or interact with anyone.”


This is a feature of reality that few pandemic films have troubled themselves to include: this fear that infection could come from any surface and any interaction. Contagion also explained the R0 figure and its relevance to disease transference in a detail that is made all the more chilling when you watch this film whilst living through a genuine pandemic. There are conspiracy theories in the film where people suggest the virus was a bioweapon; there is rioting and looting; and there are people trying to profit from the chaos with false cures.


Contagion isn’t a 100% accurate reflection of life in lockdown. But it’s certainly one of the most prescient horror films I’ve ever watched, shocking me with truths I didn’t want to learn whilst in quarantine. For those who like subjecting themselves to horror made frightening by verisimilitude, Contagion is currently showing on Netflix.


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