We've been telling stories about pandemics for a very long time. From an eighth century BCE poem about a Babylonian plague god to the Old Testament's ten plagues of Egypt to, well, the AMC megahit zombie show The Walking Dead, now in its tenth season.
Long ago, we understood mass outbreaks as divine punishment for human transgressions — but our stories about disease have changed over time. Although still fantastic, modern stories about disease tend to be rooted in political and social realities. Last year, the 800-page novel Wanderers combined science fiction and horror with a techno-thriller focus on the rise of artificial intelligence and white nationalism in the aftermath of a pandemic. Author Chuck Wendig explains the appeal of writing a story where entire populations get sick and die: "Bringing these things into a book is like, you know, an ancient summoning. Summoning a demon into a summoning circle. Because that's how you fight it."
But how does fiction fight something like disease? In its own way, says writer and filmmaker Jeff Barnaby, by helping us make sense of the real world. Barnaby says today's books, TV shows and movies based on pandemics explore how people live upon and move around a planet defined by compromised ecosystems, borders and barricades.
"You're dealing with the aftermath of globalism," he points out. "And I think you're starting to see people make the link between how you treat the environment and the way the environment treats you."
Barnaby's new movie, Blood Quantum, is about a fast-spreading virus that turns people into zombies, but those with a certain amount of Native American heritage are immune. Barnaby, who belongs to the Mi'kmaq tribe in Canada, says indigenous people have been telling stories about pandemics for generations. "And they've been dealing with disease since first contact, so they're well versed in catastrophes," he says dryly.
Blood Quantum hasn't been released quite yet — it's currently screening in festivals and it'll be on the horror movie channel Shudder later this year. Barnaby sees stories about pandemics almost inevitably as about scapegoating and cultural anxieties. Discrimination and racism against Asians has intensified globally since the spread of coronavirus, as has been widely reported. On Netflix right now, a pandemic drama called Containment plays into stereotypes of Middle Eastern people as dangerous infiltrators — a Syrian refugee in Atlanta is patient zero, essentially a terrorist whose body is a weapon, a vector of disease.
In works by writers of color, pandemics sometimes serve as a metaphor for colonialism, says Maxine Montgomery, an English professor at Florida State University. In her writing on apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature by black women writers such as Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison, the human cost of pandemics, and the disproportionate suffering of vulnerable populations, are frequently invoked.
"Smallpox, other viruses as well, that are linked inextricably to slavery and colonialization," Montgomery says. "In ways that suggest that slavery has residual consequences that we've not fully recognized or acknowledged."
Something's missing from mainstream pandemic thrillers, she says, including Contagion, the 2011 film that saw a spike on iTunes right about when the World Heath organization declared coronavirus a global emergency. And that's a hard look at the issue of who gets treated when an epidemic breaks out, and who's excluded from institutional safety nets.
In the fiction Montgomery studies, rescue rarely comes from the scientists at the Center for Disease Control or from research hospitals. "It's always a matter of characters reaching back," she says, to mend a deeper malady. Reconnecting with folk traditions isn't likely to be adopted as a public policy recommendation, but Montgomery suggests the questions provoked by these stories are essential ones: "How we see people who are afflicted by disease. How we respond to them in terms of human empathy."
Author Chuck Wendig says he hopes his novel Wanderers does the same thing. "You know, I didn't want to write a book that was fatalistic or nihilistic in how it dealt with people," he says. There's darkness and death in the stories we tell about pandemics, he adds, but that's not what these stories are really about. They're really about how we survive.
This story was produced for radio by Petra Mayer and Kelli Wessinger, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
People have written stories about pandemics at least as far back as the Bible. Back then, mass outbreaks were understood as divine punishment for human transgressions. Our stories about disease have changed over time. Given the current threat of the coronavirus, we asked NPR's Neda Ulaby to find out what lessons can be learned from literature and film.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: To be honest, when I first got this assignment, I thought, I don't get what the Bible, "The Walking Dead" or Stephen King can contribute to this discussion.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE STAND")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Reports of the supposedly lethal flu epidemic continue to spread.
ULABY: King's longest novel, "The Stand," was filmed for TV two decades after it came out in 1978. Parts don't feel like fantasy today. It's about a weaponized biological agent that escapes from a U.S. military lab.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE STAND")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He says it'll probably mutate, but that's not going to help the people that catch it.
ULABY: "The Stand" influenced a generation of writers, including Chuck Wendig. His pandemic novel "Wanderers" came out last year. Wendig combines social commentary with science fiction and horror. I asked him, what's the appeal of a story where nearly everyone gets sick and dies?
CHUCK WENDIG: Bringing these things into a book is like, you know, an ancient - summoning a demon into a summoning circle because that's where you fight it.
ULABY: But how does fiction fight something like disease? By helping us make sense of the world, says Jeff Barnaby. He's among many writers and filmmakers whose work looks at our compromised ecosystems, borders and barricades.
JEFF BARNABY: You're dealing with the aftermath of globalism, and I think you're starting to see people make the link between the way you treat your environment and the way the environment treats you.
ULABY: Which helps explain the enduring power of zombies.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLOOD QUANTUM")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, vocalizing).
ULABY: In Barnaby's new movie "Blood Quantum," zombies are part of a world where humans might be the real virus, but people with a certain amount of Native American heritage are immune from the zombie plague. It starts with reservation cops dealing with a messed-up white guy. He's been brought in drunk and scabrous, shaking and barfing.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLOOD QUANTUM")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) What's with the blood? Was this guy beat up when he came in?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) He's been clutching his guts all night, and then he just started...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character, retching).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Come on.
ULABY: Director Jeff Barnaby belongs to the Mi'kmaq tribe. He points out that Indigenous people have been telling stories about pandemics for generations.
BARNABY: And they've been dealing with disease since first contact, so they're well-versed in catastrophes.
ULABY: "Blood Quantum" is screening in festivals, and it'll be on the horror movie channel Shudder later this year. Barnaby says stories about pandemics are almost inevitably about scapegoating and cultural anxieties. On Netflix right now there's a pandemic drama called "Containment," where a Syrian refugee in Atlanta is patient zero.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONTAINMENT")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Hey. Tell her she can't touch him. He's infectious.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character, speaking Arabic).
BARNABY: I think that's true in life and true in fiction. These pandemic films are showcases for xenophobia - you know, fear of outsiders.
ULABY: Writers of color often turn to pandemics to explore historical injustice, says Maxine Montgomery, an English professor at Florida State University. She works on literature by Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison and other black women in which pandemics are a theme.
MAXINE MONTGOMERY: Smallpox - other viruses as well - that are linked inextricably to issues of slavery and colonization in ways that suggest that slavery has residual consequences that we've not fully recognized or acknowledged.
ULABY: In these works, you see something missing from mainstream pandemic fiction and movies like "Contagion," and that's the issue of who gets treated and who's excluded from institutional safety nets. In the work she looks at, Montgomery says, the rescue never comes from a scientist, say, at the Center for Disease Control or a university.
MONTGOMERY: Or from modern medicine. It's always a matter of the characters reaching back.
ULABY: And fixing a deeper malady. That obviously exceeds public policy, but Montgomery says fiction can provoke questions that should guide us all.
MONTGOMERY: How we see people who are afflicted by disease, how we respond to them in terms of human empathy.
ULABY: Here's the thing about most pandemic stories like "The Walking Dead"...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character, vocalizing).
ULABY: ...Or the novel "Wanderers" by author Chuck Wendig.
WENDIG: You know, I didn't want to write a book that was fatalistic or nihilistic in how it dealt with people.
ULABY: The stories we tell about pandemics, he says, do not shy from darkness and death. But that's not what these stories are really about. They're about how best to survive.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEF VAN WISSEM AND SQURL'S "ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.