Train to Busan (2016) is a South Korean movie which depicts how a group of passengers from different socioeconomic backgrounds on a bullet train fight for their lives when a zombie apocalypse suddenly breaks out in the country. In a disastrous event where people’s lives are deeply threatened, it is expected that they will fight for self-preservation and survival. Since personal survival becomes the overriding concern, selfish and competitive behaviour may be observed in emergency situations. Indeed, it is observed that when the passengers in the train find out the existence of zombie virus, they flee from the zombie zone in an extreme panic and fear. The main antagonist Yong-suk subsequently manifests individualistic and selfish behavior. In order to protect himself, he throws the school girl and the train attendant to zombies and sacrifices the train captain who tries to save him. However, it is interesting to see that there are people who respond to disasters differently from what we expect. Instead of prioritizing their own survival and escape from the danger, they are willing to offer help to those in need, sometimes even at the price of risking their own lives. For example, the main character Seok-woo, the husband and the high school boy help and support one another when they pass through the zombie carriages. When one of them is attacked and trapped by zombies, the others come into rescue immediately. It shows that cooperation and helping behavior do exist even at the most dangerous time.
However, it is noticeable that the group of people who demonstrate mutual help are not alone on the train. There are people in the train that they are acquainted with or they care about. For example, Seok-woo, the husband and the high-school boy risk their lives to pass the zombie zone in order to save their loved ones who are stuck in the other train carriage. While they have friends or family whom they need to care about, Yong-suk is a representation of a single passenger in the train. This makes his motive of getting out of this mass confined into saving himself only, which in the end results in selfish and irrational behavior. It seems that people with companions in disastrous situation are more likely to exhibit rational and supporting social behaviour. Hence, I argue that the presence of familiar persons influences people’s perception of and response to danger, in that fear and irrational behaviour are diminished by the proximity to attachment figure.
To examine the relationship between social attachment and how people respond to a disaster, Mawson’s attachment theory will be used as an overarching framework. Mawson suggests that “while mass panic (and/or violence) and self-preservation are often assumed to be the natural response to physical danger and perceived entrapment. . . the typical response to a variety of threats and disasters is not to simply find the exit but to seek the proximity of familiar persons and places” (233). Building upon this overshadowing concept, this paper will justify how the existence of social bond in an apocalyptic event plays a pivotal role in people’s defensive behavior.
“… just a zombie is caught between the living and the dead, there is also an ambiguity of sorts in the opposition between selfishness and sacrifice.”
The companion of the familiar
Firstly, people who endure the suffering with their acquaintance or their loved ones are more easily to find emotional support. In other words, there is someone that they feel responsible for in the disastrous situation, thus they are more likely to offer help. According to Mawson, the presence of familiar others (affiliates) has a calming effect, working against the ‘fight or flight’ reaction (4). What this suggests is that instead of instinctively fighting against the danger or flee from it, people will first ensure that their familiar ones are in the close proximity. The physical existence and companion of their loved ones are what they are determined to fight for and give them a sense of comfort and security. For example, when Seok-woo spots the unusual zombie behavior in the train, his first reaction is not to run away but to find his daughter, Su-an, who is in the toilet and is potentially in danger. It is observed that when he finds his daughter uninfected, there is a tint of relief from the close shot of his facial expression. However, when he fights against the infected Yon-suk, he eventually gets bitten. In order to send Su-an to Busan, he chooses to jump off the train and uses his sacrifice in exchange for the survival for his daughter. Similarly, the husband also protects his pregnant wife until the last moment when he sacrifices himself to win more escape time for his wife. Hence, people are observed to be altruistic when the ones that they care about are in need of their help.
However, altruistic behavior or even self-sacrifice are also observed among total strangers. As previously mentioned, Seok-woo, the husband and the high-school boy are bonded together and determined to help each other in the rescue of their loved ones. Though they want to save different people, they identify themselves as a team and are closely attached to each other due to their common goal of passing through the zombie crowd and reaching the other carriage. According to Drury and Cocking, social attachment not merely comes from the pre-existing relationship but also from interaction in the small group and interpersonal ties (10). In this case, their shared goal, identity and experience bond them together and stimulate the mutual helping behavior that is commonly observed in social attachment theory. This concept can also be applied to explain the contradiction in the homeless man’s behavior. Though he is apparently not attached to anyone, he interacts with Seok-woo through overhearing where is the safe place and Su-an through her defense for him against Yon-suk’s distain. Their intentional and unintentional help make him feel attached and identify himself as part of their existence. As a result, when Su-an is in danger later on, his sense of team identity makes him willing to sacrifice for her.
The separation of the familiar
On the other hand, people who lose their familiar ones may experience high anxiety level and low morale to overcome the situation, thus adopting irrational behavior. According to Janis and Leventhal, physical danger, as a whole, appears to be far less disturbing or stressful than the separation from familiar figures and surroundings (1061). Being a greater stressor than the physical danger, separation or the loss of familiar persons has profoundly adverse effects on one’s mental and physical health. This deterioration in one’s mental state may be externalized as irrational or even suicidal behavior. For example, when Jong-gil witnesses how her sister is infected, she deliberately opens the door to the zombies to be with her zombified sister. This, however, endangers almost all the passengers alive in the train. It is not surprising that when the only person that she is familiar with gets killed by the zombies, she loses her mental and emotional support all together. Irrational thoughts may therefore take over her consciousness when she sees no hope in fighting, resulting in irrational or even suicidal behavior.
“…the separation of the absence of the familiar is a greater stressor than the physical danger itself.”
The absence of the familiar
The opposite case to what has been discussed is the absence of social attachment as exemplified by Yon-suk. In situations where an individual is alone or with strangers, even mild threats may cause excessive reaction and mental breakdown. This is because the immense sense of fear and danger in an apocalyptic event motivate the individual to be self-centric and in this case, his isolation from others makes him feel responsible only for himself. This well explains his decision to keep the group of passengers (Seok-woo and his daughter, the husband and his wife, etc.) from entering the train carriage. The uncertainty that they might have already been infected as they fight their way out could potentially endanger his own life. Hence, the stress for combat and self-preservation spurs highly individualistic and competitive behavior. However, Mawson suggests that such behavior can be viewed as an attempt to seek proximity and contact with distant attachment objects (10). It means that without the companion of any familiar one, people want to flee to familiar locations or persons at a distance. This is evident when Yon-suk is about to become a zombie. He kneels down on the ground and expresses his genuine hope of seeing his mother again at home. Being alive is the only way for him to reunite with his mother. Hence, his immense sense of desire and distress are fully manifested through selfish behavior in an apocalyptic event in an unfamiliar place with a group of unfamiliar people.
In conclusion, under a stressful situation such as a disaster, individuals approach familiar persons and are calmed by their presence. The absence or the separation of their familiar ones may spur irrational response and the feeling of fear. The primacy of attachment and fundamentally social nature of human being explains the collective social behavior in an event of a disaster.
Mawson, A. R. (1978). Panic behavior: a review and a new hypothesis. Paper Presented at the 9th World Congress of Sociology, Uppsala, Sweden.
Mawson, A. R. (2012). Mass Panic and Social Attachment: The Dynamics of Human Behavior. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
Drury, J & Cocking, C. (2007)The mass psychology of disasters and emergency evacuations: A research report and implications for practice. Brighton, UK.