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Fact/Fiction: Were zombie film fans better prepared for Covid-19?

Old news, truthfully retold: This week we ask if tuning into zombie movies like 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead proved to be advantage in the pandemic

Were zombie films helpful to fans before Covid-19

Credit: Miles Cole

Every week in Fact/Fiction, The Big Issue examines spurious claims, questionable studies or debatable stories from the press to determine whether they are fact or fiction. This week we focus on the claim that zombie film fans were ready for the global Covid-19 pandemic thanks to the movies they love.

How it was told

2020 may have brought the unexpected with a global pandemic that transformed life as we know it – but even the troubled year didn’t bring zombies.

Sure, there were many parallels between the zombie apocalypses so popular in fiction, such as the discussion of whether Covid-19 developed naturally or was leaked from a lab, but the impact of the virus has been very much felt in reality. We’re yet to see a zombie flick that involves the best part of 10 months spent indoors watching Netflix.

But, according to some reports last week, time spent watching horror films and television shows in the past proved to be an advantage for some during the pandemic. Who knew 10 seasons of The Walking Dead would prove so useful?

The stories were based on a report from Pennsylvania State University in the United States and began to spread across the globe at the end of last week.

After some local coverage Stateside, the story was reported in India’s Free Press Journal under the headline: “Why you should watch zombie movies amid a pandemic”.

It soon reached British shores, with The Telegraph covering the academic study. They opted for: “Zombie film fans were better prepared for coronavirus, says study” and cited films like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and the George Romero classic Dawn of the Dead as examples.

But is it true that the gory fiction proves to be an advantage?

Facts. Checked

If it is true, this study does little to prove it.

Participants were asked a series of questions in an online survey to determine their taste in films, with ‘prepper films’, where the imagined world is illustrative of real-life chaos, and horror films of particular interest.

They were then asked pandemic-specific questions to determine how their attitudes had changed during the uncertain period, as well as being quizzed on their psychological resilience and their preparedness for the global crisis.

In the results, researchers reported that fans of horror films exhibited less psychological distress, showed greater positive resilience and reported being more prepared  during Covid-19, while morbidly curious people were more interested in pandemic films.

The problem here is that this study is a small one, with just 310 replies to the online survey used to determine its data. A tiny sample size when you consider, for example, that Netflix has a reported 195 million global subscribers who have been consuming films throughout the pandemic. The study is also a correlational one so can show a link between two factors, but cannot offer any conclusive proof.

This is acknowledged within the study. The authors said: “While we control for several individual differences in our models to try to target the effect of horror or prepper genre fandom, further research is needed to determine the exact nature of the causality. It is unclear that simply watching more horror or prepper genre films would increase psychological resilience across the board.”

And, in fact, the academics are also open to the idea that some viewers may find the films to be less useful, even leading to “increased anxiety and psychological distress”.

As a result, the headlines here are too certain about the findings of the study. It could also be argued the study’s focus on the mental side of viewing the films does not come across in the headlines.

Survival in horror or prepper films often requires more than just mental preparation, and the headlines may conjure up images of scavenging for resources or surviving in unfamiliar groups of people without making the distinction. Arguably, these skills have not proven to be useful in the current lockdown conditions.

Still, this study into morbid curiosity is undoubtedly an intriguing one and, as the researchers admit themselves, “the underlying benefits (or detriments) of frightening entertainment on psychological resilience is a promising avenue for future research”.

Perhaps, unlike a zombie, this study can be revived in a more conclusive form to prove its point once and for all.

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