Suspension of disbelief in Pontypool

by Coulter Johnston

Suspension of disbelief is an aspect present in many horror films, as the production may require the viewer to accept the existence of the supernatural, whether it be through demons, zombies, or even humans that seem to have supernatural powers. In Pontypool, however, the use of suspension of disbelief by the audience is seemingly unique. Here, the viewer must accept a novel form of viral transmission: through the English language. For someone with a scientific background, this may appear difficult as spontaneous generation has been disproven, and therefore the idea that a virus would be able to spontaneously infect someone merely through spoken word even transmitted through radio waves would be impossible. While the existence of zombies or demons would similarly be impossible, these acts seem more plausible to believe and thus the act of suspension of disbelief seems easier to accept. I believe this is in part due to the vast exposure in popular horror media of such supernatural phenomena, where the idea of viral transmission through audio is relatively unique to Pontypool. For me, this detracts from the plausible reality of the story of Pontypool, particularly through the speed at which the doctor is able to identify the causal relationship between the English language and the spread of the virus. The idea that this doctor can identify 1. That the transmission is viral without reference to any tests performed and 2. Describe a novel form of transmission that would disprove many fundamental scientific theorems that would have been significant parts of his training all within the afternoon of the disease coming to be seems excessively quick, and may have served more as the provision of any somewhat plausible storyline for the audience to be able to follow more easily. However, I believe that an alternate approach may have better fit the requirements of a story such as Pontypool. Like in many other horror films, much of the terrifying aspects of the movie seem to come from the unknown: whether it be where the location of the killer/monster is, or what the killer/monster is, or even whether they exist, this sense of the unknown shared between the protagonists and the audience is what builds the necessary tension and suspense. Similarly in Pontypool, throughout a large portion of the film, this sense of the unknown is strongly manifested through the radio crew who, while picking up aspects of the story through their field reporter Ken, are unable to confirm any of the facts or even begin to understand the cause of the disease, with the only hint coming from the message they translated from French, recommending to not use the English language. I believe that this sense of the unknown could have been further developed throughout the film if the doctor were less certain of his diagnosis of the cause of this disease, as well as held up a greater aspect of realism throughout this story. While this may have detracted from the ability of Mazzy to attempt to save people from transmission through sheer confusion, I believe this would have made an ultimately more terrifying story. Additionally, this part of Mazzy understanding how to overcome the disease and attempting to share this knowledge is portrayed much more in the film than in the radio drama, which opens a question as to whether this was truly necessary or not to the overall plot of the story.

            I also wanted to touch on some of the stylistic choices of the movie, particularly in their choice to remain inside the radio studio for all shots, never showing the outside world apart from seeing the hands of many infected individuals banging on the windows as they attempt to enter the studio. While this is in part due to the adaptation of a radio drama as a film, and therefore by default the majority of dialogue coming from radio segments, I believe this was also a stylistic choice to develop this sense of the unknown, as we as viewers maintain the same level of knowledge of the outside world as the protagonists stuck inside the studio. Additionally, as this is a horror film that tunes us as the viewer to audio cues of a potentially infected person, the fact that our vision is so limited to exclusively inside the studio helps in strengthening this fear of the English language; if this is all the virus requires to infect someone, then even blockading all infected from coming into the studio is insufficient in preventing the spread of the virus. Ultimately I felt that this choice helped in portraying a sense of helplessness, as whether the protagonists try to run or stay and protect themselves, these attempts are relatively useless, elucidating this horrifying concept of an infected language.

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