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09.19.09

Why You Love Being Scared of Swine Flu

You loved the original Swine Flu—now get ready for Swine Flu 2: The Revenge! This fall, as the media ramps up the influenza hype, you’ll be terrified—and riveted—for the same reason you love horror movies.

With each new wrinkle, the influenza threat appears more like a cheap-thrills summer horror flick and less like a sober public-health predicament. Death! Disfigurement! Panic in the streets! How else to understand the gleeful promises of high-volume death or last month’s tight-lipped dispatch about prioritizing the swine influenza vaccine? You know the plan—doctors have decided that important and necessary people (like doctors) will receive the vaccine while you, a young and unfortunately healthy individual, are out in the cold.

Despite flop after flop, this fall’s version is being launched with the same brisk corporate grimness as the prequels—and is being received with the same anxious shifting of feet.

In countless ways, swine flu (and its predecessor in public-panic promotion, weapons of mass destruction) shares a great deal with horror movies. All promise to scare the shit out of everybody using familiar but irresistible techniques—faintly plausible scenarios perpetrated by evil villains lurking in the shadows, be they human, lizard, or microscopic. Second, no matter how grim the situation seems at first glance, it always gets much worse; there is doom and more doom just around the corner—and this time it’s for keeps. But perhaps most important, all share a common heritage: They’re more about our peculiar love of fear than they are about any true and imminent danger. We’re talking about a pretty wimpy virus here. Sure, lots of people have gotten sick and some, sadly, have died, but from a public-health perspective, this infection is impressive by the number it has affected, not by its severity.

Nevertheless, now it’s Swine Flu 2—the worst disaster ever, for sure. Previously we watched Smallpox (2002), Avian Flu (2004), Avian Flu 2 (2006), Avian Flu 3 (2007), and only a few months ago, Swine Flu (2009). Each frightened people senseless, each turned out to be a dud. Take the original Swine Flu. For a while, it was all anyone could talk about. It was so scary that even I became popular—friends, cousins, friends’ cousins, cousins’ friends, all were calling or emailing me, breathlessly asking what they should do.

But then a strange thing happened: People quit worrying about it (and quit calling me). They quit worrying about it despite the fact that the disease spread and is still spreading. They quit worrying even though the World Health Organization declared it the first pandemic in decades. They quit worrying despite awful stories of seemingly healthy people being swept away. In the face of a certified calamity, people became bored and moved on; they had seen enough. They achieved closure. Plus, Governor Mark Sanford started his heroic marital freedom march along the Appalachian Trail, making Swine a Page 12 story.

Yet despite flop after flop, this fall’s version is being launched with the same brisk corporate grimness as the prequels—and is being received with the same anxious shifting of feet. Because this time they are saying that maybe, just maybe, the virus will be pimped up and really kill people. Millions—maybe more. Maybe a billion. Worst disaster ever! Why, we might not even live past Thanksgiving dinner to see if there will be a Swine Flu 3!

What is it with homo sapiens and horror movies? Why are we so hooked, such gluttons for punishment? Much has been written about the topic, ranging from the gentle musings of the academics (“We demonstrate how a model incorporating coactivation principles and enriched with a protective frame moderator blah blah blah…”) to the those who, more simply, figure being scared shitless then escaping personally unscathed yet again somehow lets off the right type of steam. Not that Hollywood cares of course—it’s nothing if not democratic, allowing citizens to vote early and often with their wallets. This summer, for example, Drag Me to Hell was boffo—a cool $79 million worldwide—while My Life in Ruins about, you know, people who fall in love and neither detonate nor devour each other, made a paltry $14 mil.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to think of the confusing mash-up of pleasure and pain without sinking deep into the swamp inhabited by Freud and his pals. Without their prissy and exacting world view, where oozing disasters are tidied into neat packets of hygienic pathology, how can we explain the weirdest fact of all: that people see the same horror movie again and again—and it’s not because repeat viewers want to know what happened, or because the production values and camera work are exquisite, or even because they like looking at a certain actresses’ tits. No, the only explanation (and I do apologize for bringing this up) is that, at some level, we’re all just a bunch of pervs paying good money for the joys of being whipped—Stephen King and swine flu are the dim country cousins of more traditional sadomasochism. In other words, WMD was pure S&M, nothing more and nothing less.

The extension of the masochism-explains-all theory is that there is joy in all of this (well maybe not for Cubs fans). Horror movies and fake-o killer epidemics like swine flu are tricked out like real trouble with a capital T. Yet the danger is a ruse, and therein lies the fun. In fact, we are not emaciated from disease, radioactive from a nuclear winter, or chopped to bits by Jack Nicholson—nor will we be. So in the weeks ahead, as the days grow colder and shorter, and the flu stories grow darker and longer, relax a little. Or better yet, turn off the tube altogether, rent a copy of The Shining, and have some real fun.

Kent Sepkowitz is an infectious-disease specialist in New York City. He has contributed to The New York Times, Slate, and O Magazine. He also writes academic medical articles.