Diseases are our boogeymen. Unlike the things we believed were hiding under our beds when we were young, however, illnesses are quite real and often deadly. Their alien quality, facelessness, and dangerous impact on our lives make them formidable antagonists. More than that, they have left their mark on our species over the millennia, weaving their way not only into our histories, but into our fables—for better or for worse.
In the days of old, sicknesses and disorders were categorized as a loss of humanity to some otherworldly force. Porphyria, a blood disorder that causes an iron deficiency and sensitivity to sunlight in some, served as the inspiration for vampires across Europe. Similarly, illnesses like Wendigo Psychosis, the sudden desire to eat human flesh, have seeded myths of voracious man-eating giants among Algonquin peoples—although the debate over whether or not the disorder exists continues to this day.
Regardless, the advance of science has slain, or at least debunked, the idea of the ill person as someone cursed, and identifies them as someone to be examined and treated. The goblin tap-dancing in your body is actually a kidney stone, and your cousin’s demonic possession is actually schizophrenia at its finest. Explanations that are more definitive make the conditions easy to identify and to solve.
Over the decades, our need to make sense of the fantastic has married yesterday’s folklore with today’s science, and has left a lasting impression on our media. This particularly became the case with the spread of diseases like HIV, SARS, and bird flu over the past thirty years, and the ensuing panic that swept across the world in their wakes.
The zombie virus phenomenon in particular holds strong in today’s germ-phobic society. Max Brooks’s popular novel World War Z went into the logistics of a zombie outbreak, while the rage virus of 28 Days Later added an extra level of terror to the trope by replacing the rigor mortis-riddled shamblers with faster and more feral infected. Building real-world parallels between the mindless meandering of the rotting undead and the prevalence of illnesses like rabies and leprosy appeals not only to the fantastically minded, but also to those mad souls who regularly envision the plausibility of doomsday scenarios.
Adding scientific logic can create an interesting layer to the myths we have built around these creatures. Truth is stranger than fiction, after all, and adapting the bizarre side of reality to our favorite kinds of tales can play to our fears on a deeper level.
On the other hand, the dark side of this development is the possibility of demonizing the sick. Facing a global pandemic is frightening, to be sure, but there’s an underlying pro-euthanasia message in the “Us versus The Infected” stories that is quite loud, and quite unnerving given the current climate.
Consider our view of victims of HIV. There are many among us who still fear such people, afraid they’ll bleed on us by accident and send us on the same death-march they’re on. Regrettably, our views have not changed much since the disease began spreading in the 1980s. Following the news, and consulting the web, does little to alleviate such concerns, if at all.
In fact, many use fear to their advantage. Internet crackpots insist chronic illnesses can be cured through kale and lentils. The rumor mill in rural parts of the world insist that deflowering a virgin will cure AIDS. Religious fundamentalists are paid ludicrous amounts of money to pray away cancers. Disinformation spreads with surprising ease, providing destructive and tragic ends for those who listen to it.
Yet, who can blame people for wanting a quick fix? Life, for some, is a never-ending horror movie. Many seek the convenience of a deus ex machina to save them, putting little faith in cures for their ailments being found in their lifetimes. Plus, whatever stories we weave that do tackle such topics tell audiences that the easiest way to deal with our troubles is to hit them as hard as we can.
This is where shows like the BBC’s In The Flesh give me hope. The series follows a survivor of a zombie virus whose symptoms are relieved through medication, and who deals with the stigma against sufferers of his condition. Unlike The Walking Dead, which promotes murdering infected people for the sake of stability, In The Flesh tells us cures are possible, to be sympathetic toward the ill, and to work toward bettering their lives rather than ending them. If anything, Flesh is a strong case for funding the HAART treatment.
One is free to lament the lack of the fantastic element in stories like those listed above; zombie fiction in particular is extremely lacking in necromancers lately. Whether real or imagined, however, stories about diseases and disorders are effective. They appeal to our collective hypochondria. The illness is nigh-invisible. It hides in the darker corners of the world, creeping across doorknobs and toilet seats, oozing across a stranger’s pores on the subway to fester inside their bodies.
Worst of all, unlike creatures of lore, viruses are ever-changing. New strains of Ebola and gonorrhea have been discovered recently, ones that are extremely aggressive and resistant to old treatments. When have there ever been vampires that are resistant to garlic? Evolution is lost on the vampire, the zombie, and the wendigo. Folklore beasts are bound by stringent laws. Illnesses have a constant unpredictability that forces us to change our tactics along with theirs.
And just as viruses change, so must we. Media reflects the values of our generation, but should also challenge them and encourage the cultivation of fresher ideologies. We need to embrace the idea of the infected as tragic figures who want to function normally again. Progress is not found through relying on old standards. If we’re ever to move forward, we need to disinfect ourselves of our old beliefs and develop new ones.
ROBERT WILLIAM IVENIUK is an author and columnist from Toronto, Canada. His short fiction has been featured in Schlock Magazine, The Alchemy Press, and Crossed Genres Publications’ Long Hidden anthology. He has also written articles for BlogTO and Archenemy Magazine on arts and culture.