From Albert Camus to The Walking Dead: a look at pandemics in culture

Zombie

Pandemics tap right to the id of human response – revulsion, fear and recoil – so it should be no wonder that culture keeps bringing them up.

But only a few movies, books or games are interested in what an illness is about in a literal sense – most fixate on how society breaks down, the creeping nature of evil and mortality, and, well, zombies.

In the past 12 years or so, zombies have starred front and center in the most popular representations of plague: shambling, virulent death that no chainsaw or suspiciously well-loaded gun can stop – but basically the same monster that Florentines feared during the plague of 1348. Recent cultural totems play up the plague: in The Walking Dead, World War Z, I Am Legend and 28 Days Later, zombies are “infected” with illnesses that turn them into physical vessels of death, some with less make-up than others.

Though they all make a nod toward medicine (cameos from the CDC and WHO, a doctor for a hero, etc), each really considers what it takes to survive when your world comes crashing down. The Walking Dead is an endless loop of viciousness; World War Z plots the ways that institutions fail; and I Am Legend makes a half-hearted lunge at the idea that pandemic might just mean the world leaves humanity behind. The best of the lot, 28 Days Later, starts off about the fragility of civilization – with eerie, empty London standing in for Ozymandias’ wreck – and ends as a parable about family versus man’s baser instincts.

Albert Camus’ The Plague, although no character chomps into anyone else’s brain, is in one of the more sophisticated zombie stories of the past century. The usual reading of the book takes the plague as an allegory for life under Nazism (some even think The Walking Dead is about Nazism). On a bigger level, Camus uses the bubonic plague to show the ways people choose to confront unrelenting, indiscriminate evil in the world, whether it be Nazism or not. Some hide (everyone feels hunted), some take advantage of others (collaborators), and some band together to persevere (the resistance).

Occasionally, a movie attempts to portray an actual plague. Outbreak, a 1995 thriller, stars Dustin Hoffman as an action hero, which should attest to its plausibility. In it, a deadly virus reaches the US by way of an ill monkey named Betsy, and this ability to jump across species, as the Aids virus or Ebola do, is more or less the endpoint of the film’s realism. The virus mutates wildly, doctors find a cure incredibly quickly, it’s surprisingly hard to find the smuggled simian, and a helicopter chase precedes the downfall of a military evildoer. When Outbreak’s director said he wanted to make “the Jaws of the 90s”, he probably did not mean to make a movie about as realistic as Steven Spielberg’s maniacal metal shark.

Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which came out in 2011, sets the bar high: the director and cast studied with CDC experts and the film won praise even from doctors critical of the film. A virus, a cross between Nipah and Sars, travels from China to the US and has repercussions on a global level. The scientists describe real science, like the R0 rate of epidemic theory, and take realistic steps to assess and confront the situation, like investigating on the ground to determine the rate of infection. The virus’ spread (through napkins, credit cards, etc) and the unpredictability of human behavior (driven by the usual culprits of fear, greed and genuine care), have a complicated domino effect on society and the race to cure the virus. Depressingly realistic scenes result: desolate towns, isolated families and public services pushed to collapse.

Some aspects of Contagion strain belief: the virus is, in an unlikely twist, both exceedingly infectious and lethal – one doctor noted that “pandemics are never everywhere … life always lurch[es] on”; whole teams would be involved in investigating the virus, and on the frontlines of caring for the sick; officials make some reckless decisions, including one informed by exactly one monkey; and both the virus’ spread and discovery of a vaccine are dramatically quick. But the film’s clinical take on the messy battle between sickness and health, and panic and order, works as an examination of what could ail the world in a worst-case scenario.

Disease isn’t always so messy. In the 2008 board game Pandemic, players must work cooperatively to defeat four diseases that threaten to spread between interconnected cities. To be successful, players must work together to strategize against the diseases’ spread – and ultimately find a cure before the major cities of the world are all overwhelmed. Like Contagion, it’s a refreshingly practical take on what is (naturally) a topic of gloom and fear.

Occasionally, medicine finds more to use in culture than the other way around. In 2005, the online multiplayer game World of Warcraft was hit by a glitch that allowed a spell, “corrupted blood”, to infect players’ pets and spread beyond a small region into cities and the wider world, without cure. Low-level characters died almost instantly, littering streets with bones. Computer-controlled characters spread the disease without showing symptoms, healer characters tried to aid their comrades, and many players fled the cities for more pristine climes. Some even travelled to infected regions to look around, retreating quickly after.

The episode – with a circuitous path of infection, behavior that mirrored real-life reactions, various disease vectors and a clear patient zero (Hakkar the Soulflayer, a god of trolls) – bore “a striking resemblance to a real-world epidemic, according to Ran Balicer, director of the infectious diseases track at Ben Gurion University. Even magical devices in the game had parallels, he noted, such as teleportation and air travel, and the administrator’s eventual cure of a “‘spell’ that was distributed rapidly to players en masse”. (“If only real life were that simple,” he concluded.)

And finally, every so often a work tries to use the horror of pandemic to show something good. Going back to the pop culture of the Renaissance, Boccaccio’s Decameron tells the story of 10 young people who flee the Black Death to the country, where they tell each other funny stories, dirty jokes and the 14th century equivalent of romantic comedies. After a horrifying, surreal introduction that describes the remnants of Florence in the throes of the plague, Boccaccio tells stories of people who, rather than fixate on death or turn on each other, form a little society that celebrates what’s good in life. He reminds us, as do the heroes of The Plague and 28 Days Later, of a lesson that’s too easily forgotten: life lurches on, and we should keep trying to lurch with it.

Nicky Woolf contributed reporting

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Alan Yuhas, for theguardian.com on Friday 10th October 2014 19.34 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010