The Distancing Effect

Jack Bell

It was only about a couple of months ago, nobody really remembers when—was it at the end of February or a week or two into March?—that people started to really know what it feels like to be alone. And, unsurprisingly, nobody really likes it.

Before then, there was no “social distancing”. If the phrase existed, it certainly wasn’t used for anything important. As can be expected from such a sudden pandemic, a lot of people have been driven a little stir crazy. Naturally, in times of global paranoia, it seems that the only sense that can be made of senselessness is through fiction—not least because every joke about going crazy while trapped inside has already been milked dry.

But what cannot be discounted is the idea that any number of works of classical storytelling have been informed by whatever state of hysteria has been localised around it. If not for rabid anti-Communist political gesturing, would science fiction have ever gotten the leg-up in credibility that it had in the 1950s with the original cinema-of-paranoia masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Certainly, The Crucible would not have given the lens into the founding puritan colonies that everyone on the other side of a high school English class is aware of.

What is most important to know is how two-fold such things are when thought of today. It seems impossible that either of these works of fiction could be considered without the baggage of their theoretical backing. And, in-turn, neither are their periods of history thought of without the extra dimension brought upon them by their derivative works of fiction.

But where does that leave the idea of COVID-19, and whatever it is we might be feeling on whatever day it is of quarantine? And what could possibly be the first masterpiece of Coronavirus fiction? With a global scene of artistic production at a virtual standstill, these are the kinds of questions that must remain rhetorical for the time being.

However, though we have never gone through a pandemic response quite like this in our lifetime, we should already know of the feeling it’s instilled in us. Isolation narratives have been a staple of fiction for centuries and have already reflected the many facets of our complex relationship with being alone.

Consider: the narrative of Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel The Last Man follows a future world much like our own that has been ravaged by a sudden and deadly plague that wipes out an unprepared society too consumed by their own petty human dilemmas. The narrator discovers by the end of the story that he is literally the last human being left alive on the planet Earth, and must wander alone on a world that has returned to desolation.

Hopefully, the story doesn’t sound as familiar as your worst anxieties. Yet still The Last Man, as prescient as it may seem, was written in response to anxieties two centuries before our own. Historical sects of society have always struggled against the angst of mass disempowerment, and their surviving works of fiction have lasted as such. Tellingly, The Last Man’s pioneering theme of complete isolation is one that has been carried across the ages by further apocalyptic and dystopian works. But while Shelley’s work of the early nineteenth-century was informed by her place in a Romantic society trembling on the verge of unforeseen breakthroughs in new sciences, our modern age of post-war nuclear captivity and environmental catastrophe has seen total apocalyptic-isolation narratives bred in such lasting novels and films as I Am Legend, The Drowned World, Cat’s Cradle, and possibly most despairingly in the underappreciated The Quiet Earth.

It is so-called “dying earth” narratives such as these that are marked by their concept of an almost complete emptiness of life itself. They posit simply that the ruling force of civilisation can in time be conquered by the return of natural forces.

It is in these works that we are forced, then, to consider the concept of isolation as one of nothing more than complete vacancy. What is the Earth without humanity? How can it be governed in a state of naturalism rather than one of human structure? And there would have to be a last survivor of such an event—who would it be, and how would they feel bearing the weight of being the last of the human species?

Of course, isolation is never as simple a feeling as just being the last of anything. As we’ve all been experiencing as of late, it is also something that is borne from being cut away from the ways of living that we have always taken for granted. There is always a sense of otherness in life, and it can be as fundamental as what we feel we are not a part of. When locked inside, it is what or who remains outside. And it is here, when trapped within our own seclusions, that most people have been forced to reckon with the idea of isolation as an internally destructive force rather than one that threatens us from the outside.

Naturally, this is where parallels to The Shining and other isolation-madness narratives occur. Civilisation does still exist, somewhere, yet we are not in reach of it. In The Shining, this idea is taken to its murderous peak when the result of confinement is total mental degradation, but the sense can be simpler than that. In classic Gothic fiction, as in many of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories such as The Fall of the House of Usher, seclusion is as simple as those trapped in the proverbial castle on the hill. They are out of reach from the growth of respectable civilisation and are subject to the invisible menace of being locked within the danger of their own selves.

Humanity in these stories is tied to sanity, and they posit that to be close to the external world is to remember the rules of living that they breed. In a psychoanalytic sense, it could also be that the greater world acts as the mind’s super-ego in these stories. It is the conscious desire to internalise the cultural structures that we abide by and which simply disintegrate when cut off from them.

Unlike its post-apocalyptic relatives, the isolation-madness narrative takes a totally counter-view to the removal of the human entity. Instead of the external world that conquers humankind, it is humankind that, when without stimulant, will be left with no more distractions and thus no more reasons not to destroy ourselves.

There is one more type of isolation narrative that needs to be mentioned, though it might possibly be the broadest of them all since it involves the concept of humanity itself becoming a minority amongst a ruling class of other species. There is no complete lack of life in these narratives, but there is in its place a sense of immense solitude in experiencing first-hand the outnumbering of humankind itself.

In Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Dead, as can also be seen in however many other science fiction and horror examples of the same type, the few human characters are far outnumbered by a non-human majority who represent a complete overthrow and eradication of our existing culture. Apes and zombies are two versions of that which seems human in differing degrees, but which is their ultimate danger. In representing the respective progression and regression of humanity, the remaining human characters in each are forced to witness the end of their social division from a new perspective as outsiders.

It is these two examples, as with many others of the same type, that force us to reflect on the space that our society takes within the framework of the world. There is almost a sheer perversity we may feel in being made to see reality from such a perspective, since it can only be done from being made the lower class of species ourselves and thus forced to look beyond the bounds of our own privilege. The few human survivors of Dawn of the Dead have at their disposal an immense tool of capitalistic structure—theoretically, the means in which to create their own completely new social realm. And yet they fail due to the strain of what they have never been able to confess to themselves, that human beings could simply cease to be the powering force of civilisation.

Obviously, there is no one type of isolation, as much as it may feel like it when isolated ourselves, and there is no one way to feel about not being able to take social contact for granted. These three categories of fiction—apocalyptic isolation, madness isolation, and humanity-as-minority isolation—are of course not meant to represent the whole of human emotion in reaction to confinement. They are fictional, after all. But they are supposed to be minders that all types of storytelling throughout the ages have traversed through almost every conceivable kind of emotion, reaction, stress, anxiety, and fear.

Sometimes stories like these hold mirrors to us, and sometimes we just have to hold them back to keep ourselves from being too scared. We’ve been doing it long enough, and we’ll have a chance to do it again.


Jack Bell is a third-year creative writing student who also has a degree in Film. He’s interested in fiction that explores genre boundaries, as well as literary fiction that explores our current cultural milieu.