Groundhog Day Was a Horror Movie All Along

The 1993 existential comedy has become a meme and a metaphor for this moment. But that’s only partly because of its exploration of monotony.

Everett Collection / Alamy / The Atlantic

In February, during the Super Bowl, Jeep ran an ad doing what Super Bowl ads so often will: It converted a beloved cultural product into a marketing message. This time around, the alchemy on offer involved the 1993 film Groundhog Day. Cheerfully soundtracked with the film’s most memorable song, Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” the spot featured Bill Murray reprising the role of Phil Connors, the misanthropic weatherman who relives the same day (and relives it, and relives it, and relives it). Instead of the existential agony posited in the original film, however, the commercial Murray delighted in the repetition. Because this time around, he faced his monotonous eternity as the owner of a Jeep.

A lot has changed since February. This month, acknowledging the shift, Jeep came out with another edit of its ad. In place of scenes of Murray joyfully navigating Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, in a candy-colored four-wheel drive, this version begins with a black screen and sober text: “We understand that every day is starting to seem the same,” it reads, flashing briefly to Murray waking—again—at 6 a.m. The text shifts, abruptly, to the imperative: “Stay home. Stay healthy. When this is all over, the trails will be waiting. Jeep: #StayOffTheRoad.”

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the movies that were most resonant for many people were ones that directly confronted the calamity: Contagion. The Thing. Safe. Outbreak, for a time, was one of the most popular movies on Netflix. But Jeep understood, with the canny intuition of the advertiser, that as the emergency became more permanent, viewers might be seeking a different kind of catharsis. As the days blend and blur—as the weeks become months and the tidy boxes of the calendar melt into formless liquidityGroundhog Day, now more than 25 years old, has adopted a new kind of urgency. Earlier this month, the Today show featured a video essay explaining “Why Every Day Feels Like Groundhog Day Lately.” Esquire offered tips on “How to Avoid Groundhog Day During Social Distancing.” On Facebook and Twitter, a meme has been proliferating: an image of Murray, as Phil, announcing, “It’s quarantine day … again.”

The comparisons are signs of privilege; they are typically made by and for the people who have the luxury of doing their jobs remotely, of schooling their children from home, of counting boredom as a hardship. But the comparisons are reminders, too, of how easily quarantine, that act of physical separation, can also cause people to feel distanced from time itself. I’d remembered Groundhog Day, hazily, as a comedy above all, its profundities packaged as a love story, its message hopeful about the giddy possibilities of self-improvement. Watching it again, though—watching it now, in the interstitial space between the Before Times and the After—I was struck by how dark the film is before it gets light again. And I was struck most of all by the film’s suggestion that the true source of Phil’s agonies isn’t repetition alone; it’s the fact that Phil endures the endless days not knowing how, or whether, the repetition will end.

Here is the basic premise of Groundhog Day: Phil, a Pittsburgh-based weatherman, is assigned for the fourth year in a row to report on the Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney. He is extremely indignant about the assignment. And so Phil spends his day in Punxsutawney doing a version, the film implies, of what he does pretty much every year: mocking the festivities, belittling the people who partake in them, generally assuming that the celebrations—and their adherents—are beneath him. (Phil refers to himself, at one point, to his cameraman, Larry, and his producer, Rita, as “the talent.”) The pique continues apace, until: A blizzard blows in. Phil, Rita, and Larry have to spend another night in Punxsutawney. And for reasons that Groundhog Day, in a twist of filmmaking genius, leaves unexplained, Phil wakes up the next morning … to realize, slowly, that it is February 2 once more. He is doomed to repeat the day, caught in a loop of unknown origin or duration, until, finally, he is able to live a day of selflessness, of joy, of love—and, therefore, to break through to February 3.

Groundhog Day’s action is structured according to a classic redemptive arc: This is the hero’s journey, set in the small-town wilds of Punxsutawney. But as Phil moves from confusion to resignation to despair, the movie grows darker in tone. Trapped, panicked, desperate, he tries to escape the time loop by alternately jumping from a building, plunging a toaster into his bathwater, and driving himself and the groundhog, Thelma & Louise–style, off a cliff. He uses his compounding knowledge of the people around him to manipulate them. (“I’m a god,” he tells Rita at one point, wearily.) He experiments with consequence-free living: driving on train tracks, mocking a policeman, insulting people so insolently that they slap him. But he never gets any bruises. And so Phil, at once invincible and confined, comes to ask questions such as this one: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”

Mary Evans / Ronald Grant / Everett Collection

This is comedy that operates, at its edges, as horror. It understands what Phil comes to realize: how easily time itself, when it refuses to move forward, can become monstrous. Groundhog Day has been interpreted as an allegory for ethics, for religion, for psychoanalysis, for self-help, for economic theory; it is also, however, widely recognized as an analogy for the dread of unchanging circumstances. The Oxford Handbook of Military Psychology offers a chapter on the psychic effects of contemporary modes of warfare. It is titled “Boredom: Groundhog Day as Metaphor for Iraq.”

That interpretation does a lot to explain why the film has become a meme in this moment. For those fortunate enough to live a life of easy monotony, time looms. Monday becomes Wednesday becomes Sunday; the activities that differentiated them have largely fallen away. What day is it? has been spiking as a search term on Google. Todd Meany, an anchor at Fox 8 News in Cleveland, has begun hosting a regular “What Day Is It?” reminder during the station’s broadcasts. The segments, which Meany said arose from the very real recognition that “nobody could remember what day it was,” are only partially a joke. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, while providing sober updates about the state’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, often adds reminders such as this one to his slide decks: “Today is Saturday.”

But also: “There’s no such thing as Saturdays anymore,” Tom Hanks, hosting the first quarantine edition of Saturday Night Live, said earlier this month, noting the new irony of the show’s name. “It’s just, every day is today.” In a subsequent episode that aired over the weekend, Pete Davidson performed a song that contained these lyrics: “For like two months I’ve been on my couch / Runnin’ out of things to talk about / It’s quarantine in my house / I’m going crazy, and crazy, and crazy / I’m going crazy, and crazy, and crazy.”

And so, Groundhog Day. Groundhog Days. “At first I was like, ‘This is great—I get to chill out, be in my pajamas, do breakfast whenever, slow and easy,’” Lisa Devlin, a stay-at-home mother, told The Washington Post recently. “And then I realized very quickly that just turns the day into an amorphous mess.” That stark shift in mindset, experts suggest, is a common experience. “Some psychologists,” The New York Times notes, “have compared the coronavirus’s effects to the aftermath of a natural disaster, except the disaster is moving in slow motion, taking place everywhere and has no end in sight.” In mid-April, CBS 4, a local news station in Miami, aired a segment that began, “It’s not February 2, but it sure does feel like Groundhog Day lately.” The reporter, Lauren Pastrana (“reporting from my garage, again”), remotely interviewed the psychologist Raquel Bild-Libbin, who noted how easily unstructured days can give rise to anxiety and depression. The doctor also noted the irony of that twist: “We have gained something that we have always wanted, which is time.”

This is another way that Groundhog Day speaks to this moment. Unstructured time, initially, might seem like a gift. “Let me ask you guys a question,” Phil says to two Punxsutawney residents he meets in a bowling-alley bar: “What if there were no tomorrow?” They consider the question. “No tomorrow,” one answers. “That would mean there would be no consequences. There’d be no hangovers. We could do whatever we wanted!”

But one of the lessons of Groundhog Day is that accountability is its own kind of asset. Without it, Phil is rudderless, and doomed to repeat his unending day. And one of the things that makes Phil’s predicament so unnerving, to him and to viewers, is that its dynamics are so deeply unclear. What happened to make time—Phil’s unique experience of time, at any rate—repeat itself? Why February 2? Why this particular February 2? The current moment brings similar questions. “We Still Don’t Know How the Coronavirus Is Killing Us,” New York magazine announced this week. On Tuesday, Yascha Mounk wrote a piece for The Atlantic that contained the following line: “After weeks in which it made sense to hope that something would happen to end this nightmare, the prospects for deliverance are more remote than ever.” Yesterday, Ed Yong published a sweeping essay headlined “Why the Coronavirus Is So Confusing.” Its sub-headline: “A guide to making sense of a problem that is now too big for any one person to fully comprehend.”

The unknowns, like the disheveled days, loom. The plot trails off. Groundhog Day is a comedy, ultimately, because of its ending: Phil, finally, uses time to become a better person. He learns from the past. He comes to care about people in the present. He breaks his curse. Imagine what Groundhog Day would be if he didn’t. Imagine where we might be, too, if we fail to find a better way forward. There will be a tomorrow, and a tomorrow, and a tomorrow. But will they bring a happy ending? That is one more thing that, in this moment, is profoundly unclear.