You’ve done everything possible to remain safe. You’ve stayed away from people, you’ve washed your hands compulsively, you’ve sealed your house from the outside elements. But then you feel it. You feel the tickle in the back of your throat and the tingle in your nose. You sneeze and in that moment you know. You’re infected.
That’s such a terrifying scenario. The world around you collapsing because of plague and knowing that in a short amount of time, you’ll be just as sick as the others. It’s a trope that has been examined countless times in pop culture. Guess what? It’s still absolutely paralyzing.
The CW is exploring these fears with their limited series Containment. Despite its low key marketing and network (known more for teen dramas and superheroes than viral terror) Containment has proven itself as an engaging, creepy and well-made thriller. Like multiple disease dramas before it, the show is dealing with some phobias that’ll make your skin crawl.
Containment takes place in Atlanta in the midst of a shocking viral epidemic. The disease is nasty and quick, gruesomely taking people down within hours. In order to prevent its spread, the CDC decides to literally lock things down. They construct a wall that quarantines a portion of the city. No one gets in and no one gets out until the outbreak is under control. I don’t have to tell you that things don’t go well. Things get bad. Really bad.
Indeed, something that Containment captures so well is just how quickly things can go south. That’s one of the most terrifying aspects of disease and has been touched upon in films such as Outbreak and Contagion. A virus knows no time limit and no bounds. It works over time 24/7, finding countless avenues to infect as many people as possible. Before you know it, it’s all around and everything is falling apart. The spread of a disease is quick and spooky. In shows and movies, the telltale cough is just as scary as a masked killer or musical sting. It’s effective horror that can make you shiver.
Part of the reason why a cough or sneeze grips you with fear is because it’s all so possible. That’s what much of viral horror captures so well: this is all very believable. While much of the plot in Containment might be a bit far-fetched, the core of the story is far too plausible. We live in a modern age where a sick person can board a plane and go absolutely anywhere. Plagues have easy access to the entire globe, no longer stuck to the hull of a ship or hair of a rat. That’s one of the reasons why so many people are drawn to disease horror. It scares us more than a slasher film or a ghost story because the truth is we are all more likely to experience something like Containment than something like Scream. A zombie outbreak is highly, highly unlikely. A pandemic like what we see in movies and TV? That’s not just possible, it’s probable.
Viral drama is also compelling because it usually includes so many characters. You are typically following many different people in many walks of life. Our example, Containment, includes a school teacher with a bus full of children, a cop caught on the inside of the outbreak, a pregnant teen caring for her unborn child and a police sergeant making the difficult decisions from the outside looking in. And that’s not everyone, the show is stuffed with more characters. Each role shows you various sides of the epidemic. You’re able to see how everyone reacts to the crisis in their own ways. It’s interesting, of course, but it also allows us to reflect on what we would do in the same situation. Would you be one of the people trying to scale the walls and escape? Would you help your fellow man despite the danger? Or would you just hide away and pray that everyone stays far, far away from you. With a large ensemble cast of characters, we are able to see many different approaches to such an awful disaster.
While much of the horror in Containment and other viral thrillers is incredibly psychological, there is a physical terror that is unparalleled. Watching someone get sick and die is traumatizing and petrifying. Say what you want about Containment’s script but it certainly delivers in the gore department. The virus in the show is brutal and shockingly gory for network TV. An infected patient will bleed from the eyes and mouth ( and surely other orifices…) as they hack up their insides and cry out in pain. It’s ghastly. That’s another element of the viral horror genre, perhaps its most effective one. This stuff is scary because of what a virus can do to you. It tears you up from the inside while making you a biohazard to all others around you. Once it starts, it doesn’t stop. In all of the movies and shows that explore disease, a cure is just out of reach. So once you start bleeding, you certainly don’t stop. Seeing someone come down with a virus is awful and is only made worse because you know you could be next. Containment knows that and plays this aspect up with supremely unsettling results.
Containment has its issues but it also achieves an awful lot, playing with fears that lurk deep inside all of us. It’s the same fear you feel when you see a headline about a new virus emerging in a different part of the world. It’s the same fear you feel when the person at the front of your plane coughs into the recycled air. It’s the same fear you feel when you think about just how fragile the human body is and how clever mother nature can be. Containment is an impressive show because of its story, its performance and its direction. But it’s also compelling because it’s playing with a elemental horror that unsettles humans unlike anything else.
The show has been cancelled after one season, but it doesn’t make it any less compelling.