Pandemics have an extensive presence throughout literature and human history, with dramatic plagues appearing in the book as old as the Bible’s Exodus, to more contemporary references like “World War Z.” In our current moment, while the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing, it’s hard to imagine what type of literature or fictional works could come out of the tragedy and frenzied upheaval of this time.
Sharon Setzer, a professor of 18th and 19th century British literature, provided a glimpse into the process of writing a pandemic novel and how it can be used to process one’s emotions about it.
“I think one of the works we studied was Catherine Anne Porter's ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider’, and that recounts her experience in the 1918 flu pandemic,” Setzer said. “But she didn't write it until years later, and some scholars have suggested that the traumatic memory of the event was so extreme that it took her years to process it and be able to write about it.”
The world will likely take a long time to recover from the trauma and cultural shift brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, which suggests that the future literary or film work that becomes most associated with the pandemic could be created years or even a decade later. Marsha Gordon, a film studies professor, said it’s hard to predict what the first film depiction of the pandemic will look like.
“I've actually been wondering, you know, who's working on their COVID movie and what is it going to be like,” Gordon said. “Is it going to be a drama or is it going to be a comedy? If you think about the zombie movies, something like ‘Shaun of the Dead’, which is a comic version of the zombie movie. It's really sending up British culture more than anything. It's not impossible that the first fictional COVID movie will try to find some kind of lightness and humor in what has been a very grim and depressing and dark situation.”
While literature may often be a way to process the grief and trauma of a pandemic, film can often serve a very different purpose: being an instructive preventative. Gordon explains this in a brief history of pandemic films.
“Thomas Edison was one of the inventors of cinema, and his company made a series of films in the 1910s that were part of a coordinated public health campaign that was trying to help teach people how to avoid contracting a disease,” Gordon said. “There's one film in particular, ‘The Temple of Moloch.’ It's a silent film, but it is a story film and it's about a factory owner and a laborer, and the way you know someone has tuberculosis in the film is you see them coughing. That is an outward signal of disease, and everyone at the time in 1914 would have known that that cough meant tuberculosis.”
The importance that film places on the outward signs and symptoms of sickness, like coughing, have also made their way into popular culture by way of the paranormal pandemic of zombies. Gordon notes that zombie films and television series, such as “The Walking Dead,” use a similar motif of realistic pandemic films like the Edison film or “Contagion”: They make something visible that is invisible.
“What's cool about zombie movies is that you have the markers externally of an infected person or former person or whatever it is depending upon the zombie movie,” Gordon said. “So they move a certain way or they make certain noises. That moment in ‘Walking Dead’ that you see over and over again, where a healthy person, you know, gets the scratch, and they're waiting for the first sign that somebody is actually infected with the virus. So it also gives people, those of us in the audience, a way to kind of immediately recognize that somebody infected is with me.”
Gordon explains that this outward signaling of illness is an idealized case of a pandemic.
“The most impossible part of the pandemic that we're actually living through is that we don't know, except for extreme cases or symptomatic cases, if somebody is actually sick,” Gordon said.
If zombies provide a paranormal view of how to survive a pandemic and how we anthropomorphize a fear of sickness, what do more conventional tropes like the cliche of a single beautiful woman dying of a mysterious illness say about our views on illness? Nora Haenn, a professor of anthropology, says this trope exploits ingrained societal misogyny to emphasize the purity and innocence of the victims of a pandemic. Haenn explains that this largely stems from our attempt to explain something that doesn’t make sense to us.
“One of the first places people go is, ‘Are the victims of the pandemic innocent or are they somehow culpable?’” Haenn said. “With AIDS, it was ‘Well, those people, you know, were doing something immoral.’ So that's one of the first things where people are trying to kind of shore up them and their own loved ones: ‘We're good people. So this won't get us right?’ The sick woman, I mean, that is...dressed up misogyny. She's helpless.”
It seems like zombies and women provide different ends of the spectrum on how we process our fears of illness and death. Zombies, a staple of the horror genre, are an enemy that must be escaped and avoided at all costs with triumphant survivors to beat back the sickness. Meanwhile, a woman who dies of illness is a singular and tragic face of death and leaves behind survivors who are left in deep grief by her absence. Both of these tropes are repackaged and resurrected throughout fiction to provide new outlets for our grief and horror about the sheer size and incomprehensibility of a pandemic.