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Infectious Disease Outbreaks, Pandemics, and Hollywood – Hope and Fear Across a Century of Cinema

Published time: 24 April 2020

Authors: Walter Dehority

Keywords: Pandemics, cinema, outbreak


Movies are a shared cultural experience that has historically depicted infectious disease outbreaks and pandemics and reflected accompanying hopes, fears, and at times, uncomfortable realism about contagion. To better characterize this phenomenon, a search of (Internet Movie Database, an online database of film and TV information) was conducted in February and March 2020 to update a 2017 search1 using 163 infection-related search terms (eBox in Supplement 1) to identify films with a major focus on infectious diseases (as assessed by review of plot synopses on IMDb, the American Film Institute database, or Wikipedia) through December 31, 2019. The search yielded 373 films released in US theaters (eFigure in Supplement 1). Of these, 142 (38.1%) featured a human infectious disease outbreak (increase in expected cases of an infectious disease in a population) or pandemic (outbreak over multiple countries or continents), as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,2 with the outbreak/pandemic (or the threat or aftermath of one) as an important component of the story (eTable in Supplement 2). Eighty films were selected as culturally relevant, defined as having box office earnings of at least $10 million (adjusted to 2019 dollars using a Bureau of Labor Statistics online tool, equating to ≥1 million tickets sold); winning an Academy Award; or having 1 or more long-gap connections, defined as cultural reference to a film (eg, in television or another movie) at least 25 years after release3 (eTable in Supplement 2). All 80 culturally relevant films were viewed and thematically analyzed, and a subset is reviewed here for thematic illustration.

Infectious Disease Outbreaks, Pandemics, and Hollywood—Hope and Fear Across a Century of Cinema



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