Cinematic Prophylaxis

Globalization and Contagion in the Discourse of World Health

Cinematic Prophylaxis

Book Pages: 288 Illustrations: 98 b&w photos Published: November 2005

Author: Kirsten Ostherr

American Studies, Media Studies > Film, Medicine and Health > Global Health

A timely contribution to the fields of film history, visual cultures, and globalization studies, Cinematic Prophylaxis provides essential historical information about how the representation of biological contagion has affected understandings of the origins and vectors of disease. Kirsten Ostherr tracks visual representations of the contamination of bodies across a range of media, including 1940s public health films; entertainment films such as 1950s alien invasion movies and the 1995 blockbuster Outbreak; television programs in the 1980s, during the early years of the aids epidemic; and the cyber-virus plagued Internet. In so doing, she charts the changes—and the alarming continuities—in popular understandings of the connection between pathologized bodies and the global spread of disease.

Ostherr presents the first in-depth analysis of the public health films produced between World War II and the 1960s that popularized the ideals of world health and taught viewers to imagine the presence of invisible contaminants all around them. She considers not only the content of specific films but also their techniques for making invisible contaminants visible. By identifying the central aesthetic strategies in films produced by the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and other institutions, she reveals how ideas about racial impurity and sexual degeneracy underlay messages ostensibly about world health. Situating these films in relation to those that preceded and followed them, Ostherr shows how, during the postwar era, ideas about contagion were explicitly connected to the global circulation of bodies. While postwar public health films embraced the ideals of world health, they invoked a distinct and deeply anxious mode of representing the spread of disease across national borders.


Cinematic Prophylaxis is a powerful and very timely exploration of new and familiar forms of media. . . .[A]n exciting and useful addition to syllabi in a variety of advanced undergraduate and graduate courses including those in medical anthropology, visual anthropology, film studies, history of medicine, science and technology studies, and critical public health.” — Summer Wood, Visual Anthropology Review

“[A]n extensive and original research of the cinematic representations of contagion in both educational and commercial movies. This book is very relevant for artists, academics, or readers interested in cinema, contagion, history, race, sexuality, and globalization.” — Martha Patricia Niño M., Leonardo Reviews

“[A]n interesting and unusual examination of the intersection of the histories of movies and public health. The text blends material in such a way that film history, visual culture, and globalization scholars will find this a valuable text.” — Bruce A. Austin, Communication Booknotes Quarterly

“Highly recommended! Read it at once! It might save your life.” — Priscilla Robinson, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health

Cinematic Prophylaxis offers a very sophisticated and original interpretation of a fascinating topic: the emergence of the logic of contagion in world health ‘education’ practices and in U. S. mainstream cinema. Kirsten Ostherr links the discourse of contagion and public health with the development of cinema and the rise of visuality, problems of modernity, and the logic of conspiracy, ultimately tying all of these to the problem of globalization. Her argument is utterly original; I haven’t seen anything else like it.” — Melani McAlister, author of Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U. S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945

“My copy of Cinematic Prophylaxis will quickly be well worn with use in teaching and research consultation. It is a valuable and much-needed contribution to the intersecting histories of U.S. cinema and public health.” — Lisa Cartwright, author of Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture


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Price: $26.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Kirsten Ostherr is Assistant Professor of English at Rice University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Cinema and Hygiene 1

1. Public Sphere as Petri Dish; or, “Special Case Studies of Motion Picture Theaters which are Known or Suspected to be Foci of Moral Infection” 18

2. “Noninfected but Infectible”: Contagion and the Boundaries of the Visible 47

3. From Inner to Outer Space: World Health and the Postwar Alien Invasion Film 79

4. Conspiracy and Cartography: Mapping Globalization though Epidemiology

5. Indexical Digital: Representing Contagion in the Postphotographic Era 155

Conclusion 192

Notes 197

Bibliography 225

Filmography 249

Index 259
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3648-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3635-8
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