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Watching 'Outbreak' Actually Made Me Feel Better About Coronavirus

Twenty-five years after it came out, the movie about a deadly, highly contagious virus is—weirdly enough—kind of relaxing.

by Alex Zaragoza
Mar 10 2020, 10:26pm

Credit: Warner Bros. 

We are currently in the throes of a global panic. COVID-19, or coronavirus, is spreading. Millions worldwide are under quarantine; toilet paper is being bought (sometimes by mistake) by the case-load; a shortage of hand sanitizer is causing out-of-control price gouging, with New York State putting prisoners to work to make the germ-killing goop; paranoia is causing racist ideas about Asian-Americans to spread; and grocery store shelves are being depleted of Top Ramen, tuna, and anything else shelf-stable enough to make it through our self-isolation periods.

It's hard not to freak out, and watching a movie about a horrific epidemic taking over a small town and threatening to metastasize in the U.S. might seem like a bad idea to quell your nerves. However, I find that it actually helps to ease the dread and terror around coronavirus.

On March 10, 1995—25 years today— Outbreak hit theaters, earning $189 million during its initial run. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, the thriller centers around Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman), a military doctor working for the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), as he tries to stop the spread of a deadly African virus that's rapidly wiping out a California town. He and his team, which include his ex-wife (Rene Russo) who is a doctor with the Center for Disease Control and two researchers (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Kevin Spacey), rush to identify what caused the outbreak as droves of people have their internal organs turned to liquid by the bug. Turns out, the source was a monkey (portrayed by Ross' pet monkey from Friends, who clearly had a thriving acting career) that had been stolen from a research lab by an unwitting scumbag (Patrick Dempsey). 1995, baby!

In one particularly upsetting scene, we see a man who was infected by the virus coughing in a packed movie theater. Disgusting specks of cough-droplets fly through the air, landing inside (yes, inside!) people's mouths as they cackle at the movie. The infected man runs out of the theater, spraying virus juice from his gaping pie hole at those at the concession stand. Within hours, everyone in that theater is covered in throbbing pustules, hacking their lungs out, and bleeding from the eyes. The Hollywood Reporter called the film a "plausible, terrifying scenario" in its original review, and considering the devastating Ebola outbreaks that occurred in the 90s, it's not hard to see how the film felt believable then.

Now, it may sound like a true nightmare to watch this movie as we face our current dark nightmares around coronavirus. But as Outbreak played out, my anxiousness actually melted into calm. Coronavirus is certainly a real threat, and thousands have already tragically lost their lives due to the illness. It's hard not to visualize the Big Bad Thing right outside our doors, trying to get in, and the repercussions have been social, too, as the virus has incited racist actions against Asians and left many in self-quarantine or stuck working from home (myself included) as companies cautiously limit the number of people congregating in one space. But Outbreak somehow served as a form of exposure therapy, where watching fictional characters become covered in pustules and die a horrific death actually made me want to panic less.

On NBC's family drama This Is Us, the characters Beth and Randall do an exercise when they're feeling scared and anxious about something: they say out loud their greatest, most unhinged fear about the thing causing them anxiety. That helps them quell their nerves, because saying it out loud allows them to stop internalizing it. I've taken to this exercise when something starts to trigger my anxiety, and it has helped.

Watching Outbreak, I certainly began to feel queasy. But then remembering that this is a film that takes the absolute worst case scenario and gorily plays it out for entertainment value somehow allowed me to breathe. By no means should anyone not take reports and instructions from the World Health Organization seriously, but allowing the panic to take over only harms my mental health, which is already struggling while stuck inside my apartment in pajamas most of the day.

Instead, I'm now grateful that I'm not currently bleeding from the eyes, and that the government isn't ordering the full aerial destruction of my neighborhood to avoid the spread of the disease (as seen in the film)... as far as I know.

What I do know is that I should regularly wash my hands thoroughly, avoid touching my face, see a doctor immediately if I feel ill, and for fuck's sake, not be racist. Those are steps I can handle, and that help keep me calm during an uncertain time. But if a monkey approaches me on the street as I walk to buy the last box of mac 'n' cheese at the bodega, I'm punting that thing far away from me. I don't care if it's a beloved Hollywood star.

Outbreak is available on Netflix.

Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.

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movies
outbreak
Dustin Hoffman