Is ‘The Strain’ Winning Our Hearts By Playing to Our Fears?

Source: FX

Guillermo del Toro’s vampire-zombie series, The Strain, has been picked up for a second season by FX. The horror master’s formula for playing with our fear of infectious disease has landed the series excellent ratings for its first 13 episodes.

The renewal doesn’t come as much of a surprise, given that the show is the new No. 1 series on cable for 2014 among the key demographic of adults ages 18 to 49. Deadline reports that the show’s premiere was seen by 12.7 million viewers across a variety of platforms, making The Strain FX’s highest-rated premiere ever. On a weekly basis, the show has averaged 11 million total viewers and is tied for No. 1 among all cables series that debuted in 2014 with adults 18 to 34.

The show has been successful with both viewers and critics due to del Toro’s unparalleled skill at creating horror visuals and the show’s use of similar contagious disease themes that made The Walking Dead so popular. The Strain has apparently hit a scary nerve with viewers at the moment.

Reviews of the show noted that the vampires on The Strain seem more like zombies than they do your typical Hollywood vampire. These vampires are in no way sexy — they actually lose their sexual organs after their transformation — and they drink blood via an appendage that shoots out of their distended jaws. Vampirism is transferred via an infectious disease, a trope used more often in zombie myths. True Blood this is not.

The Strain’s first season has a generally favorable 72 Metascore on review aggregator Metacritic and a comparable 7.6 score from viewers who rated it on that site. The show is created by del Toro and Chuck Hogan, who based it on their own series of novels. It’s a horror drama that doesn’t take itself too seriously, going heavy on the gross visuals that del Toro is good at while not being afraid to go a similarly outrageous route with the storyline. The plot focuses on some employees of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who are racing to figure out how some strange, parasitic worms turned a bunch of passengers aboard an airplane into vampires. There are also Nazis thrown in for good measure.

“[The first episode is] a little dawdling and predictable and unsure of its tone, with cardboard characters and flat dialogue. Things pick up after that, though — once everyone’s been brought onstage and the story set in motion, the episodes have more snap, and the horror scenes go from pedestrian to actually creepy,” said a review from The New York Times.

It’s pretty hokey,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. “That’s in no way a knock on The Strain, which clearly puts entertainment value above gravitas.”

Fear of contagious disease is a worry that’s been around for pretty much all of human existence, and so it has been addressed in horror fiction for some time. Modern methods of travel and globalization have increased anxiety about the transmission of an infectious disease, which it seems could spread all over the world faster than at any other point in history. The recent ebola outbreak in Africa has brought up all these fears recently, making the subject matter of The Strain feel more timely.

Zombies are the classic horror embodiment of humans’ fear of infectious disease, as sick humans go around infecting each other and frequently causing a complete collapse of society. The Walking Dead had success playing off that fear, and now The Strain is scaring us with it, too.

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Follow Jacqueline on Twitter @Jacqui_WSCS

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