A History of Our Obsession with the Disease Apocalypse

The "plague plot" is a subgenre of horror that's become as common as zombie movies. But over half a century ago, Hollywood wasn't churning out tales of the disease apocalypse and deadly black goo viruses. Where did our love for pandemic panic come from? A look back at the history of the subgenre provides some clues.

In the 1950s, disease epidemics like the 1919 Spanish Flu seemed to be a thing of the past. Penicillin was being described as "yellow magic" and "the most glamorous drug ever invented." Plus, polio vaccines seemed to herald the end of the viral epidemics that had haunted every U.S. summer since 1916. Medical students were even being encouraged to give up studying infectious diseases.

Yet even as the age of infectious disease seemed to be waning, stories about devastating infections proliferated. The 1950s saw the beginning of the plague genre we know so well today in stories from Walking Dead to Contagion. These are stories about killer microbes, but they're also about social panic and the collapse of civilization. It's often hard to say which is worse: dying from a horrific plague, or being murdered by a gang of lawless humans, roaming the disease-ravaged countryside.

A History of Our Obsession with the Disease Apocalypse

I Am Legend 1954

Richard Matheson's novella is usually hailed as the first of these stories. It's extraordinarily prescient, featuring a microbe that causes vampirism, and so explains vampires in history even as it realizes the first contemporary plague plot. Although protagonist Robert Neville initially speculates that the vampirism that infects every human on earth except him is a virus, he eventually concludes that it's bacteria.

"It's a bacillus," Neville tells Ruth, the woman who appears to be another plague survivor, "a cylindrical bacterium. It creates an isotonic solution in the blood, circulates the blood slower than normal, activates all bodily functions, lives on fresh blood, and provides energy. Deprived of blood, it makes self-killing bacteriophages or else sporulates." I Am Legend associates the epidemic spread of the vampirism microbe with apocalyptic violence, another hallmark of the subgenre. Plus, it hints at a new microbial threat that comes from cutting-edge molecular biology: genetically-engineered superbugs.

The Satan Bug 1962

This Ian Stuart/Alistair MacLean novel, made into a 1965 film by James Clavell and John Sturges (with a bonus appearance by James Doohan), pioneered the genetically-engineered-killer-virus-lands-in-the-wrong-hands plot that is so familiar now. A top-secret lab (in England in the book, in California in the movie), has its samples of super-polio and botulinum toxin stolen. Not, it turns out, to actually use, however. In the book it's all a plot to evacuate London so that the Bank of England can be robbed. In the movie, the virus is stolen by a power-mad millionaire, mostly out of power-madness.

A History of Our Obsession with the Disease Apocalypse

The Andromeda Strain 1969

From biological warfare to extraterrestrial biology: Michael Crichton's novel capitalized on anxieties that arrived with the 1960s satellite boom. Often praised for its scientific accuracy, this novel's premise was a stretch even for the 1960s. A special team of scientists gets mobilized by the U.S. because a satellite has brought a dangerous microbe, neither bacteria nor virus, back from space. Indeed, the novel is premised on the idea that space might be full of simple organisms like the one in the book.

A History of Our Obsession with the Disease Apocalypse

It's also possible that The Andromeda Strain was influenced by the 1961 BBC teleplay A for Andromeda,* written by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, in which an observatory receives instructions, first for creating simple organisms, and then for more complex ones, from an unknown extraterrestrial source.

*Remade in 2006 with Tom Hardy.

The Stand 1978

Based on Stephen King's 1969 short story titled "Night Surf," The Stand transformed the fear of biological warfare into a post-apocalyptic narrative. While rebuilding society after nuclear apocalypse was a mainstay of cold-war era science fiction, the possibility of biological apocalypse hadn't received as much narrative attention, maybe since Mary Shelley's The Last Man. Perhaps that's because, when the U.S. and Soviet Union signed the U.N. Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, the prospect of apocalypse by disease receded in favor of what seemed more likely: nuclear destruction.

Outbreak 1987

"Night Surf" (unlike its later revision) inaugurated a new version of the killer virus. Instead of being the product of experiments in biological warfare, killer viruses came out of jungles and rain forests in Southeast Asia, South America and, increasingly, Africa. Outbreak signaled an outbreak of killer virus novels that capitalized on anxieties about AIDS and Ebola, and lesser-known related viruses like Marburg.

Stephen Dougherty, who coined the term "killer virus" to describe the genre, writes that narratives such as this one; The Hot Zone (1994) by Richard Preston, a fact/fiction "hybrid"; and The Blood Artists (1998), by Strain collaborator Chuck Hogan, depend on "colonial- racist logic: the white West affirms its humanity by denying the full humanity of the nonwhites who most viscerally embody the threat of viral contagion." The threat of disease, whether Ebola or AIDS, represented a new heart of darkness in this period, associated with, as historian Nancy Tomes writes, "virulent forms of prejudice."

A History of Our Obsession with the Disease Apocalypse

28 Days Later (2002)

This film not only revived the zombie genre, it also steered the plague plot away from the killer viruses of the Ebola era and toward a new/old strain of microbial threat. The film was promoted with the biohazard symbol, suggesting to many, before its release, a warning against bioterror, especially given its UK premier in November 2002. 28 Days Later returned to earlier fears about chemical warfare, but its successors have mined the connection between the viral and the supernatural.

While 28 Days Later steered the genre away from the most virulent forms of prejudice, more recent plague plots, like Justin Cronin's The Passage, continue to situate the "hot zone" of infection in a tropical heart of darkness. Others, like The Strain, recall I Am Legend and locate the plague's geographic origins in the same places as the vampire myths. Like its real-life sources, the plague plot continues to spread and multiply, even though the zombie and vampire virus versions must be nearly exhausted. There are, however, plenty of opportunities for infection in other corners of culture.

A History of Our Obsession with the Disease Apocalypse