It starts with a cough …

The screen is black and all you hear is the sound of Gwyneth Paltrow gently coughing. That’s how director Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film “Contagion” begins.

Before you know it, a deadly virus is spreading, people all over the world are dying or desperate, society as we know it breaks down, humanity turns selfish and cruel, and the heroes of the virus apocalypse spring into dramatic, adrenaline-inducing action.

That’s essentially the recipe for most pandemic-apocalypse films.

Of course, if it’s a less sophisticated film than “Contagion,” like the 1995 film “Outbreak,” then it starts with a series of very unlikely blunders, bad intentions, a touch of xenophobia and maybe even a government cover-up, before (spoiler alert!) the world is saved by Dustin Hoffman winning a game of chicken between a helicopter and a bomb-wielding plane.

But, you get the idea.

As stocks dive, businesses and schools close, major events are canceled and local governments urge residents to stay at home due to the spread of the new coronavirus, it can start to feel like we’re living in our own pandemic-wrought end of days.

Jude Law as Alan Krumwiede in the thriller “Contagion,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release from 2011. (Claudette Barius / Warner Bros. Pictures / MCT)
Jude Law as Alan Krumwiede in the thriller “Contagion,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release from 2011. (Claudette Barius / Warner Bros. Pictures / MCT)

While I 100% do not recommend watching “Contagion” at a time like this (it strikes way too close to home!), I did.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads in Seattle and everyday slices of life begin to resemble scenes from post-apocalyptic movies, I watched several popular apocalyptic pandemic films to see how the stories we put on screen compare to our real-life fears, hopes and reactions to these kinds of crises.

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Eight movies and more than 16 hours later, here’s what I’ve learned from the experience. … It’s a sunnier picture than you might imagine.

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Our fears

What are we really afraid of?

From a cursory look at pandemic movies like “28 Days Later” or “World War Z,” you’d think the answer is simple — we just really don’t want to be eaten alive by ugly, gnarly fleshed, fast-running zombies.

I mean, yeah, that would suck. Of course, no one realistically believes the dead will rise with a rabid craving for human flesh.

Zombies rant on the set of the horror film “28 Days Later,” in this undated promotional photo. Many movies about zombies also carry social commentary hidden beneath the horror. (Peter Mountain / The Associated Press)
Zombies rant on the set of the horror film “28 Days Later,” in this undated promotional photo. Many movies about zombies also carry social commentary hidden beneath the horror. (Peter Mountain / The Associated Press)

With more realistic pandemic films like “Contagion,” which don’t rely on ugly monsters to scare us, we see how terrifying a virus can be all on its own. Throughout the film, the camera focuses in on all of the mundane, everyday behaviors we engage in that, in the hands of a viral infection, become deadly. These are otherwise harmless actions we all take hundreds or even thousands of times a day: touching our faces, greeting each other with a handshake, taking a credit card from a customer, holding onto the rail on the bus; basically, touching pretty much anything that another human touches without immediately washing our hands afterward.

These are the little things we are all hyperaware of and justly paranoid about right now.

(Illustration by Stephanie Hays/The Seattle Times)
(Illustration by Stephanie Hays/The Seattle Times)

But it’s particularly scary to think this could happen to you. Viruses, like zombies, don’t spare anyone. A single bite from a zombie can infect you. A simple handshake or an uncovered cough on the bus can sicken you.

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It’s what makes viruses and epidemics big enough “monsters” that they’re worth making movies about.

Yet, aside from the “bad touch” that spreads the virus or the bite that spreads the zombification, what virus-focused movies like “Outbreak” and “Contagion” have in common with zombie movies are depictions of total societal breakdown.

In “Blindness,” a 2008 film based on José Saramago’s novel of the same name about an epidemic that causes the infected to go blind, a once-civil quarantine center becomes a hovel where women are raped in exchange for food.

In “Carriers” (a 2009 film in which Chris Pine leads a band of friends through an epidemic-torn country), countless video games or the comic-book and TV phenomenon “The Walking Dead” (in which the world is overrun by zombies), it’s every man or small group of bandits for himself.

Even in “Contagion,” the least dramatic of these films, people are reduced to stealing, looting and killing. The dead are buried in mass graves and civil society as we know it ends.

What apocalyptic films show us is that we’re not just afraid of gruesome death, we’re afraid societal breakdown will reveal that the ugly side of humanity is more grotesque than the necrotic, oozing faces of killer zombies, that if the worst happens — if a pandemic turns us all into potential carriers — the worst of humanity will surface. And then … people will push over a young girl to steal her rations, they’ll kill their neighbors and loot and burn down the neighborhood grocery to save themselves. Another predictable trope: the government ignoring early warnings about the virus (a situation that, unfortunately, also hews a little too close to home) and ultimately deciding to blow up an entire American city to contain its spread.

Matt Damon as Mitch Emhoff in the thriller “Contagion,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Claudette Barius / Warner Bros. Pictures / MCT)
Matt Damon as Mitch Emhoff in the thriller “Contagion,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Claudette Barius / Warner Bros. Pictures / MCT)

This chaos and utter breakdown of normalcy is what we’re afraid of, but is it also, perhaps, what we secretly crave? The answer to the question of who we would become if civilized society came to a grinding halt? A total undoing of society as we know it would force humanity to survive without the comforts and social niceties we’ve cultivated, retreat to our most basic human instincts and create new beginnings or even whole new societies.

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Inevitably, in the post-apocalypse film, those who rise to fill the voids of leadership and rebuild society are either the worst humanity has to offer, or the very best.

Because the other thing that post-apocalyptic films have in common is heroes.

Our hopes

Films like “Outbreak” or “12 Monkeys”  break out the big guns — Dustin Hoffman and Bruce Willis, respectively — to swoop in and save the day with macho-style heroics featuring helicopter fights and time travel.

Yet, heroes in apocalypse movies don’t have to wear capes or possess superhuman abilities. Instead, apocalyptic heroism often comes in the form of a kind gesture, like sharing food with a hungry family, or an act of self-sacrifice — like in “Contagion,” when a doctor tests a possible vaccine on herself.

We’re starting to see this happen in real life, too. Such kindness has been reflected in Seattle amidst the coronavirus outbreak. Many readers responded to my story about those at highest risk of getting COVID-19 by asking how they could help these people in self-isolation. As more schools and businesses are asked to cease operations, the community has come together to provide supplies and aid to those in need.

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These moments of human connection and empathy are playing out in real life as reliably as they play out in most post-apocalyptic movies. It’s proof that as long as we retain kindness and empathy for others, we can maintain our humanity even in the most horrific circumstances.

While our fears in times of pandemic may drive us to push our way through or avoid crowds and side-eye the woman with the mask coughing her way through the aisles, when it comes down to it, even if selfishness and criminality reign, basic human kindness still peeks through.

Hollywood depictions of post-apocalyptic cruelty and kindness may be more dramatic, but they’re not wrong in the notion that crisis brings out both in our society.

Our choice

Ultimately, it comes down to one thing: We all have choices to make. And these movies seem to show that the measure of your humanity is how you react in a crisis when faced with tough decisions.

“Blindness” starts off with what appears to be an act of kindness — a stranger offers to help a man stranded due to a sudden onset of blindness, only to steal his car later. It’s not long before the epidemic of blindness spreads and people are quarantined and a fight breaks out between the car thief, now blind as well, and patient zero, whose car he stole.

“If you want to make this place a hell, you’re absolutely going about it the right way,” Mark Ruffalo’s character warns as he breaks up the fight.

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His warning echoes throughout the film as quarantine numbers grow, rations deplete and desperation and cruelty spike. All it takes is a single man with a gun and bad intentions to thoroughly break down the flimsy social structure that once held the overcrowded quarantine together.

They’re not zombies, but from the way “Blindness” depicts people behaving in this quarantine, they might as well be mindless monsters. They made their own world into a hell, just as Ruffalo’s character forewarned.

In the world outside the quarantine, infected people shuffle around blind and attack each other over the slightest scraps of food, sex or anything that’s worth anything, very much like zombies.

But the original cast bonds as they guide each other through the post-apocalyptic world, telling stories to stay sane and taking pleasure in simple things like laughing in the rain after so long in a disgusting quarantine.

When they find a safe haven and try to carve out a bit of normalcy together, sitting around a fire, dining and laughing together, their humanity is restored. They’ve become a family and found their own little refuge amid the terror. Cosmically, patient zero’s sight is restored around the same time, and it’s as if he wakes up from a bad nightmare, awaking to a new family and a new world.

Human nature is not inherently cruel and selfish or good and kind, they seem to say. It’s up to us.

Cuba Gooding Jr., Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman star in 1995’s “Outbreak.” (Warner Bros. / TNS)
Cuba Gooding Jr., Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman star in 1995’s “Outbreak.” (Warner Bros. / TNS)

Fact or fiction, zombie apocalypse or coronavirus pandemic, it’s up to us to either “make this place a hell” or remember we’re in this together and can wake up in a better reality if we take care of each other.

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So far, even as we find ourselves in a radically new situation across the globe, with travel bans and schools and businesses shuttering, people in Seattle and elsewhere are stepping up to help the most vulnerable, and the most vulnerable are looking out for each other.

A pregnant friend who works with incarcerated people told me her clients worry about her getting sick. One even told the deputy on staff not to let her into the holding cell because they don’t have soap, windows or proper ventilation in there and he didn’t want her to get sick.

“Funny how people society treats with so little humanity (can) still show so much compassion,” she told me.

I think (I hope) we’re more likely to keep supporting each other than we are to start attacking each other in the streets over scraps of food (or, in our case, apparently toilet paper). But there’s still much more we can do.

We haven’t devolved into lawlessness here in King County, but we have seen xenophobia and racism arise as people avoid the Chinatown International District and treat Asian Americans with wariness. There’s apparently also been a surge in gun and ammunition purchases. However, we’ve also seen people rally around injured communities in various ways.

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With schools closed, students and their parents need child care and internet access. We still don’t have solutions for our overworked health care workers, people who are incarcerated, struggling small-business owners or Seattleites without homes, whose situations put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

More needs and vulnerabilities will reveal themselves as we continue to deal with this virus.

You don’t have to survive a helicopter fight, be a time-traveling Bruce Willis, or run from sprinting zombies to be a hero in this time of fear and need. Small acts of kindness can go a long way in our communities. #WeGotThisSeattle