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

“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” 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.

Fear of Contagion Emerges from the Dark Heart of Paranoia… the Bible’s Book of Revelation

Though dominating 21st century culture, fear of contagion emerges from the dark heart of paranoia: in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, Pestilence is the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse bringing plague and death. In the opening of the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead, swirling malignant microbes reproduce wildly as Johnny Cash sings of the devil’s return and the world succumbs to an apocalyptic zombie pestilence: “And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts and I looked, and beheld a pale horse! And his name that set on him was death and hell followed with him.”

Worse than famine or war, a biological threat rips apart society. War, for all its horror, galvanizes a nation and pulls it together against a common enemy. A contagious disease is a different kind of enemy. It strikes from within, driving everyone into paranoid isolation, afraid of touching anyone. There’s no honor, just suffering. Courage is useless against a bacterium, a fungal spore, a virus that slipped into you by water, by touch, or by breath.


Horror’s Dark Lord is Contagion: the history of contagious disease is recreated in the history of vampires, zombies, and viral horror. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula associated vampirism with the blood-borne disease syphilis as well as with homosexuality, foreigners, and the sexually promiscuous. The first adaptation of Dracula, Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) emphasized the vampire’s association with the plague. The vampire as the agent of corruption, contagion, and contamination reverberates into the present time.

AIDS eerily echoes the classic motifs of vampire mythology. Vampirism, like the AIDS virus, infects its victims through sexualized penetration and diseased blood. Fundamentalist moral authorities, brandishing crucifixes, blame the scourge on the devil. Yet, the plague is unstoppable. The film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) draws attention to the vampire’s connection to syphilis and AIDS.

The literal fusion of vampires, viruses and zombies originated in Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. The last disease-free man on earth battles isolation while defending humanity in an evolutionary struggle against a man-made virus that reanimates corpses into blood thirsty ghouls.

I Am Legend created the modern zombie, launching the contagious undead as the most significant monsters of the 21st century. Matheson inspired a revolution in American science fiction horror, twisting it away from the nuclear-mutated insects of the 1950s and toward vast armies of mindless, microbe-infected zombies, driven by the need to consume warm flesh and spread their disease. The monsters of I Am Legend are us — slow, dim-witted citizens, barely holding our decomposed flesh together, returned from the dead to devour the living. Usually confused and inept, these monsters threaten, not because of strength or cunning, but because of their persistence and numbers.

I Am Legend

I Am Legend warned of a future when a virulent germ overwhelmed humanity and a new mutated species took over. “It’s not just a bunch of vampires who become this way in the usual fashion — it’s a disease, a plague,” said Matheson. They spread and killed like a contagious infection, mocking the vulnerability of our flesh. Linking vampirism to infection-by-blood, Matheson presciently anticipated the plague of AIDS as well as the rise of frightening new real-world viral horrors — from Ebola and Bird Flu to SARS and Mad Cow Disease.

Adapted for film three times, I Am Legend directly inspired George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, the Citizen Kane of zombie movies. Romero expanded Matheson’s epidemic ideas and transformed the genre with his film’s gruesome cannibalism, nihilistic ending, anti-Vietnam War social comment, and surprise commercial success. Igniting a zombie contagion in popular culture, Night of the Living Dead built on I Am Legend’s concept of the contagious suburban undead as a vile threat while suggesting that humanity and, specifically America, had doomed itself through racism, violent aggressiveness, arrogance, lack of cooperation, and complacency.

The fusion of vampires, viruses and zombies was also reflected in Richard Preston’s 1994 non-fiction book The Hot Zone. Preston raised bone-chilling fears of bizarre, highly contagious viruses such as Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa. A science journalist who writes like a horror novelist, Preston focused on the microbes’ insidious technique and deadly power. In descriptions that evoke John Carpenter’s alien virus in The Thing as well as vampire and zombie movies, Preston writes, “During the process of infection, the body is partly transformed into virus particles. In other words, the host is possessed by a life form that is attempting to convert the host into itself. The host’s personality is wiped away by brain damage. This is called depersonalization, in which the liveliness and details of character seem to vanish. He is becoming an automaton, a zombie” (Preston,18-19).

In his Zombie Survival Guide (2003), Max Brooks explicitly names the zombie-causing virus as Solanum and describes its effects as similar to Ebola. Taking off from Preston, Brooks and I Am Legend, recent zombie novels — such as Joe McKinney’s Dead City (2006), Z.A. Recht’s Plague of the Dead (2006) and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead series — focus on the contagious undead and compare the zombie disease to Ebola or influenza. J. L. Bourne’s Day By Day Armageddon (2007) chronicles the emergence of a flu-like virus in China that recalls recent Asian viral outbreaks such as SARS and Bird Flu and suggests that the United States has been invaded and victimized by an external force. Zombie narratives are plague narratives.

Last spring, the CDC (Center for Disease Control), in an effort to increase web traffic, headlined a Web-posting: “What to Do If Zombies Attack.” Assistant Surgeon General Ali Khan included a brief history of zombies that described their creation “by an infectious virus, which is passed on via bites and contact with bodily fluids.” In his recommendations, Kahn compares a zombie apocalypse to a pandemic. The CDC has some experience with zombies, if only in fiction. Its Atlanta headquarters was blown up during an episode of AMC’s hit zombie show The Walking Dead.


As for contemporary vampires, the most popular are the romanticized undead of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series and Charlene Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries (adapted into TV’s True Blood). They inevitably evoke the horror of contagion, but emphasize other aspects of vampire mythology. Contagion is the central horror in the comics-based vampire film 30 Days of Night (2007) and Daybreakers (2009) in which a plague has turned most of the planet’s human population into vampires.

In The Strain, authors Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan evoke Stoker’s Dracula with its king vampire and its jet airliner — instead of a ship — whose passengers are dead on arrival. But Dracula’s fangs are replaced by a fleshy appendage that pops out like that second mouth in the Alien monster and infects others to create an undead army. The Strain literally defines the vampire-as-virus concept with the hero as a Center for Disease Control scientist for whom eliminating the vampires is the same as containing a virulent plague.

Justin Cronin’s 2010 bestseller The Passage chronicles a highly contagious viral plague unleashed by a military experiment gone awry and wipes out almost all of humanity. The virus causes vampirism and results in 40 million undead roaming America. Crossbreeding I Am Legend with Stephen King’s The Stand and Salem’s Lot, The Passage is the first volume in a planned trilogy that’s already been sold to Ridley Scott for a 2013 movie.

Fear of a world-ending plague has become a pervasive cultural metaphor that reflects distress not only about biological disease and terrorism, but also about explosive social changes in the 21st century. Viral vampires, infectious zombies, and apocalyptic plagues dramatize the transformative impact of contagion. While ostensibly pondering the overthrow of the food chain with humans at the bottom, epidemic horror also imagines the overthrow of the social, economic, and political order.

More than ever, epidemic forces shape our lives in a mostly negative way. Our drastic fear of these epidemics reflects a terrified response to the possibility of such status-reducing change.

As director George Romero said about his Night of the Living Dead, “This was a story about revolution in a horror context and I wanted to show the disintegration of the old guard.” The proliferation of popular culture epidemic horror testifies to the fears associated with the rise of contagion, exponential change, and globalization.

While exploiting these contagious fears, vampire-virus-zombie plague stories — like The Passage, The Strain, The Walking Dead, Stake Land (2011) and the BBC television series Survivors (2010) — also focus on the remnants of a surviving humanity. An apocalyptic plague of dramatizes the compelling story of the necessity and perils of community. The struggling survivors gain courage via their social connections and occasionally demonstrate the triumph of human love and cooperation in the face of extinction. Finding temporary affirmation in the enduring foundations of community, the apocalyptic survivors offer positive myths for surviving the contagious age.

The Walking Dead