Book Review: The Things That Keep Us Up at Night: Reel Bio-Horror

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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.

                Victoria 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.

                Her 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. 

                The 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 outbreak. 

                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.   

Louis Rosen is a Reference Librarian and Assistant Professor of Law Library at Barry University School of Law in Orlando, Florida.

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