Book Review: The
Things That Keep Us Up at Night: Reel Bio-Horror. Sutton, Victoria. Vargas Publishing, 2014. Paperback, ISBN: 978-0991420711. $24.99. 366 pages.
Sutton is a professor at Texas Tech University School of Law, where she has
taught a course on Law and Bioterrorism, among others. She is also the Director of the Center for
Biodefense, Law & Public Policy in Lubbock, Texas, and the former Executive
Director of the Ronald Reagan Institute for Emergency Medicine in Washington,
D.C. There, she spearheaded “Disaster
Medicine” research initiatives, including staging bioterrorism scenario
exercises, back in the 1990s.
background as an expert on bioterrorism and the law is unassailable, making her
the perfect authority to write The Things That Keep Us Up at Night: Reel
Bio-Horror, a critical analysis of the subgenre of biohorror and
biothriller movies that deal with plagues and pandemics, contagious disease
outbreaks, the looming threat of biological weapons, and the legal issues that
arise when these all too realistic horrors occur. She considers 1922’s silent film Nosferatu
as the first movie n this subgenre, but it really exploded in popularity
post-9/11, with fears of biological warfare and new infectious diseases spreading
around the world.
early chapters of her book set up what these movies share in common. Professor Sutton discusses the psychology of
fear and how it relates to the rule of law, with these movies’ themes of crime
and punishment, individual needs weighed against the greater good, human rights
and due process, and the threat of corruption.
She discusses the heroes (a refreshing amount of females, and most of
them scientists and doctors), the villains (often corrupt government officials,
the military-industrial complex, and sometimes Mother Nature herself), the biological
agents (which are usually named), the innocent victims, and the constitutional
issues that come with the inevitable question of quarantining the
rest of the book consists of extended analyses of 48 movies Professor Sutton
cited in the earlier chapters: some classics like 1971’s The Andromeda
Strain, based on Michael Crichton’s novel, and the 1995 hit Outbreak,
best remembered for its unnerving scene illustrating how one person coughing in
a movie theater could quickly spread a deadly airborne disease to the entire
audience, and how it would spread exponentially when the audience dispersed. Whenever relevant, she discussed the legal
and constitutional issues these films presented, if any, and speculated on
issues that the movies ignored or left unspoken.
She stuck to her strict definitions of biohorror
and biothrillers for every selection, avoiding movies with a supernatural
origin to the pandemics, eliminating most zombie movies as a result (despite
their extreme recent popularity). She
included the intense British horror film 28 Days Later and its gorier
sequel 28 Weeks Later for analysis due to the fact that the “zombies” in
these movies were living humans infected with a lab-created “rage virus,”
rather than the usual reanimated, rotting, shambling corpses in most zombie films.
Even as a film nerd, I was surprised how many of
Professor Sutton’s movie selections I had never seen or even heard of, but a
large majority of them are low-budget schlocky horror films, and I admit that’s
not my usual genre of choice. She did
not include any television shows, but I would personally recommend she (and any
other fans or students of this subgenre) seek out the brilliant series Fringe,
a science fiction show where the protagonists often dealt with biohorror
elements in their five-season investigation of “fringe” science run amok. Fringe covers some of the same ground
as the ‘90s hit The X-Files (itself no stranger to biohorror scenarios),
but it has more character development, more heart, more much-needed comic
relief, and a better, more ambitious, and ultimately more rewarding mythology.
Unfortunately, I caught several typos and
distracting errors in the book: empty parentheticals, misspellings of names
(“Jody” Foster), and factual inaccuracies (the Joker was the villain in The
Dark Knight from 2008, not The Dark Knight Rises from 2012). Again, as a film nerd, I can’t help but be
drawn to these mistakes, but the book could have been improved by another
editor’s attentive eye.
In the end, I think Professor Sutton’s book would
have a relatively small audience at law school libraries, but any law schools
that offer elective courses on terrorism or bioterrorism in particular, public
health, popular culture, or film would want to order this book and let those
professors know it exists. It would also
find a home in any university libraries where there are critical media departments
or classes, as this academic field of study continues to grow in
popularity. Again, students majoring in
film studies and public health would also find it entertaining and informative.
Rosen is a Reference Librarian and Assistant Professor of Law Library at Barry
University School of Law in Orlando, Florida.