Posted on March 20, 2020

“Just Like the Movies”: The Non-Diegetic Horror of the Coronavirus Outbreak

Guest Post

In one of the most memorably sublime scenes of Danny Boyle’s zombie masterpiece, 28 Days Later (2002), a nonplussed Jim (played by a young Cillian Murphy) wanders the deserted streets of London in scavenged hospital scrubs, having just awoken from a coma. Extreme long shots of Jim on an empty Westminster Bridge, in front of the Household Cavalry Museum, walking past St. Paul’s Cathedral, and alongside the Royal Exchange reveal the sobering extent of his isolation. Like him, we are learning that life has all but stopped in one of the busiest, most populated cities in the world, and, as far as we can tell, Jim may be the only person left alive, a realization that provokes dread for whatever caused society to fall into such a desolate state.

Images from this scene are not unlike what people around the world are experiencing today as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously bustling sites of activity have been transformed into urban wastelands, as recent photographs have shown. In one collection posted by CNN, a Jerusalem train station sits empty, Roman ruins in Italy stand quietly in the absence of tourists, and a lone individual walks the darkened halls of a Beijing shopping mall past dozens of shuttered storefronts. Whereas in 28 Days Later this lack of human activity is the result of an apocalyptic loss of life due to the “rage” virus, the non-diegetic global stasis we are experiencing is the result of mass social distancing and quarantine efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19.

As of this writing, nearly 250,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus have been reported worldwide, and the number of deaths has surpassed 10,000. In the United States alone, 14,000+ cases have been reported, with 204 casualties. The reaction across the globe to such a rapidly spreading virus has been slow, but over the past week and a half it has taken a much more dramatic turn. In the United States, for example, the White House has declared a national emergency, advised groups of more than 10 not to gather, and temporarily banned travel from China and most of Europe; Democratic presidential campaigns have cancelled rallies and transitioned to virtual events; most professional sports leagues have suspended their seasons indefinitely; the NCAA has gone so far as to cancel all of its sports activities for the remainder of this academic year (which begins anew in the fall); Broadway has halted its productions; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and many beaches along the coasts have closed; most governors have ordered public schools to shut their doors; mayors have either recommended or mandated restaurants and bars either close dining services or reduce their capacities by 50%; universities nationwide have transitioned their classes online for the foreseeable future; employers have asked their staff to work remotely from home; and conferences and concerts big and small have cancelled their plans.

Depending on who you talk to, a pervasive sense of unreality and anticipation looms over conversations about the coronavirus and its effects on daily life. Comparisons to 28 Days Later and the more recent thriller Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)—a movie which follows several characters of various professions as they find themselves in a viral outbreak—are inevitable and, for horror fans such as myself, instant. Both resonate with today’s anxieties, as 28 Days Later was released during the same month as the first patient was diagnosed with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in late 2002, and Contagion was inspired by the social responses to the 2009 flu pandemic (the last declared pandemic before COVID-19). It is no surprise, then, that both have seen a present resurgence in popularity.

In thinking about the clear parallels between these films and the real-world effects of the COVID-19 outbreak, I am reminded of a colleague who once explained to his class that one aim of the horror film is to show its audience the ways in which our most trusted social institutions fail us in times of need. So often, for example, it is the government and its leaders who are unable to protect their citizens from harm, frequently as a result of arrogance, denial, or incompetence.

The coronavirus crisis has certainly tested the abilities of elected officials in the U.S. to handle an effective response to a pandemic, and up until very recently Congressional leaders and the White House had failed. Yet, while this is cause for serious concern, we can look to state and local leaders for signs of hope. Returning to the examples listed earlier, business executives and university boards have not waited for a coordinated government response to tell employees to work remotely or to move face-to-face classes online. Collegiate and professional sports leagues suspended their seasons indefinitely despite the enormous loss of profits they will endure. Before Pres. Trump declared a national emergency, governors declared states of emergencies to gain access to more funding to combat COVID-19 and have made other declarations in order to promote social distancing and protect the health of their residents. One pre-med student in Nevada even founded a “Shopping Angels” volunteer initiative to bring groceries to the sick and elderly. In short, protective measures have been established by others who have risen to lead during this crisis, evincing the same collective resilience that often bears out in the horror genre.

As people worldwide take refuge from the coronavirus in their homes, major Hollywood studios have delayed a growing number of anticipated spring releases to mitigate enormous financial losses. Among these delays are several horror films like A Quiet Place: Part II and Antlers. With the next month seeing a large number of new horror releases scheduled, and the coronavirus projected to continue spreading like the “fast zombies” of 28 Days Later, we are sure to see more studio announcements of delays in the coming weeks. What was supposed to be a month of nonstop horror entertainment will effectively transform into a cinematic wasteland.

Yet, the distinct feeling of horror will be no less felt in the genre’s theatrical absence. The eerie sight of barren streets, masked individuals, and empty shelves in the grocery stores of our own lives will replace those that we would have projected onto the silver screen. People will say this is just like in the movies, and instantly sublime images will replay in their minds, ones of forsaken individuals in hospital scrubs wandering seemingly abandoned urban landscapes.

And we’ll all wait in dreadful anticipation for what comes next.


You can stream 28 Days Later on Hulu and also on Amazon:


You can rent Contagion from Amazon:



“Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at John Hopkins University (JHU).” Coronavirus Resource Center, John Hopkins University, 2020, Accessed 17 Mar. 2020.

“The Coronavirus Is Leaving Empty Spaces Everywhere.” CNN, 15 Mar. 2020, Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.

Lee, Lauren. “This Student Created a Network of ‘Shopping Angels’ to Help the Elderly Get Groceries During the Coronavirus Pandemic.” CNN, 17 Mar. 2020, Accessed 17 Mar. 2020.

Rice, Susan E. “The Government Has Failed on Coronavirus, but There Is Still Time.” The New York Times, 13 Mar. 2020, Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.

Steussy, Lauren, and Eric Hegedus. “All the TV Shows and Movies Delayed or Canceled over Coronavirus.” New York Post, 13 Mar. 2020. 15 Mar. 2020.

Yeung, Jessie, et al. “Coronavirus Pandemic Spreads Around the Globe.” CNN, 17 Mar. 2020, Accessed 17 Mar. 2020.

Young, Shannon, and Anna Gronewold. “Andrew Cuomo Versus the Coronavirus.” Politico, 12 Mar. 2020. Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.

Cody Parish works at the Coordinator for the Redwine Honors Program at Midwestern State University. His research interests revolve around horror media, and he is currently studying the effects of nostalgia in American horror cinema. Cody has written for Horror Homeroom before on the ways we can unpack the meaning of a monster by identifying its trait of excess.

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