Film

The Contagious Age: Overwhelmed by Vampires, Viruses, and Zombies in the 21st Century

Dan Dinello
Jude Law in Contagion.

Contagion is the dominant horror of the 21st century, an era marked by epidemics of terror, war, and economic crisis.

"When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out/Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood."

-- Shakespeare, Hamlet

"Terrorism is a disease. Last night we cured one disease, but we have not gotten rid of the threat of germs or viruses or diseases all together."

-- Former State Dept. Official Richard Haas, speaking after the killing of Osama Bin Laden

"These vampires are viruses incarnate. We are on the verge of a world wide pandemic, an extinction event."

-- Guillermo Del Toro in his novel The Strain

Pop culture runs rampant with vampires, viruses, and zombies. As the central monsters of the 21st century, they reflect our culture's nightmares in such recent work as Steven Soderbergh's new movie Contagion, The Walking Dead, True Blood, [Rec], Daybreakers, Stake Land, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Left 4 Dead, The Strain, Justin Cronin's novel The Passage and even the apocalyptic ending of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

But why do we respond to these specific monsters now? What do they have in common? Most people look at vampires, viruses and zombies as separate entities, but in fact they are linked as contagious fiends that use the living to reproduce themselves.

Contagion is the dominant horror of the 21st century, an era marked by epidemics of terror, war, and economic crisis. Just as atomic anxiety infused Cold War-era pop culture, fear of contagion dominates recent pop culture in the form of apocalyptic zombie plagues, viral pandemics, infectious vampires, parasitized bodies, and microbe-caused mutations.

Our cultural obsession with contagion is inspired by viral disease and infectious dangers: AIDS, bio-terrorism, West Nile virus, SARS, Bird Flu, Swine Flu, and most recently an E. coli outbreak. Contagious disease regularly dominates the news, sometimes suggesting a world on the brink of apocalyptic crisis. A new or mutated epidemic threatens each year, one that might be "the coming plague": the species-threatening event forecast by scientists and journalists and dramatized in fiction, games, and film. "The single biggest threat to man's continued dominance on the planet is the virus," said Nobel Laureate geneticist Joshua Lederberg.

In our age of global networking and circulation of people and goods, contagion threatens to violate secure borders, invade our society, and proliferate out of control. It corrodes our sense of individual, national and global security as suggested in Soderbergh's 2011 film Contagion. His viral thriller demonstrates the ways in which a tiny action can have enormous repercussions across the world. But our biological viral fears have been amplified and transferred to many other maladies that are explained and understood through contagion -- a powerful force that is not only biological, but is also financial, emotional, technological, and political.

Contagion

"Contagion" is both flesh and metaphor. Prior to the 19th century discovery that microbes cause and spread disease, people accounted for biological contagion by turning to occult and spiritual forces. Witches and demons were blamed for the Black Death. The mystery of contagion made it useful in describing inexplicable, unexpected chains of epidemic transmission, such as the hysteria of crowds, the corruption of sin, or the wildfire spread of religious or political ideology. The capacity of "contagion" to function simultaneously as a visceral infection and as a deeply resonant metaphor for the circulation of social, moral, or political dangers helps explain its cultural resonance.

While contagious forces have a long history, the shocking attacks of 9/11 followed by the anthrax scare terrorized Americans and cast an infectious shadow over the entire decade. Revealing breaches in our security, a suddenly powerful anti-American force -- bringing death, destruction and apocalyptic imagery -- penetrated our defenses. Terrorism replaced dead-for-a-decade communism as the focus of our political hatred, fear, defense resources, and propaganda.

Like a contagious disease that lurked secretly in our midst, terrorism spread imperceptibly, took control of the complacent, and then exploded in our face. Political propaganda recreated centuries-old links between evil and disease. "International terrorism is analogous to a terrible, lethal virus. Sometimes dormant, sometimes virulent, it is always present in some form," said State Department official Richard Haas in 2001. "Like a virus, international terrorism respects no boundaries -- moving from country to country, exploiting globalized commerce and communication to spread."

In the immediate years following 9/11, epidemic entertainment broke out in such works as Margaret Atwood's end-of-humanity, plague novel Oryx and Crake and Peter Clement's Mutant, films like 28 Days Later, Cabin Fever, Dawn of Dead and even Shaun of the Dead, made-for-TV movies like World War III, and games like Resident Evil -- all reflected the fear of more terrorist attacks with threats of contagion, images of deserted streets, piles of human corpses, and gangs of lawless soldiers.

28 Days Later

Emerging as dangerous invaders that want to penetrate physical borders, contagious monsters transform and mutate the body's genetic material to serve their own needs. In the battle between the living and the infected, terror results from the uncontrollable, exponential proliferation of these hungry, demanding predators that want to subvert civilization, turning us into them. Virulent contagion, like terrorism, suggests a subversive order of infiltration, takeover, and spread. A plague disregards the borders of an established system upending the status quo. Viruses, vampires, and zombies dominate this new social order with their infectious power and imperviousness to cure.

The government response to 9/11 and the viral threat of terrorism ignited a counter-contagion. In an effort to mobilize a shell-shocked nation, the Bush administration and its neo-conservative allies promoted the "war on terror" and a pre-emptive war in Iraq as a patriotic prophylactic to the terrorism disease. A persistent drumbeat of fear mongering aroused anxiety about a potential nuclear or bio-weapons attack and dominated the decade. Horror movies exploited that fear and anxiety in the form of contagious monsters as the Zero Years wore on: Resident Evil Apocalypse, Land of the Dead, 30 Days of Night, Planet Terror, Dead Rising, World War Z, I Am Legend, The Walking Dead comic book and Stephen King's technology-caused zombies in Cell among many others.

28 Weeks Later (2007), for example, links the occupation of Iraq and the war on terror with the horror of contagion when the United States Army, occupying London, slaughters both the innocent and the infected because they can't distinguish them. Children of Men (2006) connects a plague of infertility to both the Iraq War and anti-immigration phobia.

Simultaneously with the spread of terrorism, globalization kicked into high gear at the beginning of the Zero decade: technology's contagious momentum produced a high level of global interactivity with personal computers, fiber-optic cable, rapid international travel, and the Internet. In the past few years, the globe became hyperconnected with smart phones, wireless bandwidth and social networks. We now live in a contagious world: a revolt, virus, bank meltdown, internet worm, or tsunami will not stay isolated; rather, its effects ripple outward to impact others, near and far.

28 Weeks Later

Joining terrorism as contagious threats, the world economic crisis arose in 2008 and now looms as a constant anxiety. Referring to an age of financial contagion Binyamin Appelbaum writes pessimistically in the New York Times that the future looks increasingly grim for both Europe and the United States. In his book Contagion, best selling author John Talbott describes the world economy as a contagious epidemic of virulent greed combined with a deregulated immune system, rabid debt-creating consumerism and zombie banks. Spreading exponentially through a global, electronic spider web of interconnecting financial relationships, substantial losses to any large financial player will be felt by all: "Euro Credit Market Succumbs to Contagion" is a recent headline.

A world swallowed up by contagions differs from the controlled worldview we perceive and prefer. We like gradual change -- a slow steady shift that gives us time to adjust our expectations: it's more understandable and comforting than rapid unexpected change. The contagious world shifts under our feet and erupts at unpredictable moments. Exploiting our fear, pop culture epidemic stories featuring vampires, viruses, or zombies confront us with a world gone crazy, a contagious world without rational explanations.

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