It’s a safe assumption that most Westerners are first exposed to plague—the concept, not the contagion—by an elder’s recounting of the most gruesome of bedtime stories: namely, the Ten Plagues of Egypt. Although only the fifth and sixth Exodusian calamities were plagues in the modern sense of the word—diseased livestock and boils, respectively—all 10 curses are credited to the machinations of a divine tormentor.
Whether the plague was one of locusts, fire, or infanticide, its appearance always meant two things in the Bible: that the Lord Our God was capable of feats both great and terrible; and that He was very, very wroth.
Although the Old Testament theory of epidemiology has weakened as humanity’s understanding of disease has grown, the species-wide fear of plague hasn’t, as the present public disquiet over the Ebola virus—now ratcheted up with the U.S. patients being brought to these shores—demonstrates.
No matter the reassurances of medical professionals, the public, who have seen movies like Outbreak and Contagion, fear the introduction of Ebola to America; of something disastrous happening; of it getting out.
Contrary to the axiomatic syllogism that familiarity with the unknown vanquishes the fear of it, increased knowledge of the mechanics of pestilence hasn’t eliminated our dread—it has only transmuted it. At least when God was besetting us with leprosy and boils and locusts as a form of extortionary persuasion—“That’s a nice first-born child you’ve got there; it’d be a shame if something…happened to it”—there was a rationale behind them. Displease God? Prepare for frogs.
The story of Egypt’s tribulations is best understood as a rudimentary attempt to give the terrors of pandemic some semblance of logic. In the thousands of years that have followed, afflicted artisans and poets and novelists and filmmakers have attempted to dramatize, romanticize, and philosophize the most universal, marketable fear: that of plague. The resultant pop culture is as morbid and contagious as the epidemics they depict.
As campy as Exodus and the Old Testament are, the explicitly religious and establishment nature of the text prevents even the most ubiquitous plague stories of the Egyptian saga from being labeled as pop culture—an art form that springs not from religious origins or a lucrative commission, but from the zeitgeist itself. At the moment when humanity was driven almost to the brink of extinction in the Western world, however, a purely pop cultural creation was born that would endure for more than six centuries as a symbol of the ruthlessness of plague.
Conceptually, the “Angel of Death” was a cultural mainstay in continental Europe and the British Isles by the late Middle Ages. But once the Black Plague—thought to be the bubonic form of infection with the Yersinia pestis bacterium—killed at least 25 million people in its initial outbreak, and millions in outbreaks spanning centuries, the people of Europe needed a personification of their fear.
Lacking electron microscopes or even the most basic understanding of how Y. pestis worked, painters and artists fed off the climate of morbidity to anthropomorphize the continent’s anxiety. From this mood came the Grim Reaper.
Unsurprisingly, Death was first depicted as a skeleton, holding a crossbow or some other weapon possessing a terrifying accuracy—like the Black Plague, the Reaper never missed its mark. In later depictions, however, this precision instrument of death would be replaced with a scythe, a mowing tool composed of a long curving blade fastened at an angle to a long handle. With this tool, Death is illustrated in many a 15th-century woodcut mowing down souls as if they were grain.
It was around this time that the allegorical artistic genre of the Danse Macabre, or “Dance of the Death,” became popular. Depicting people from all walks of life—often a serf, a lord, a king, a child, and a Pope—surrendering to the hypnotic rhythm of Death. (Sidenote: Although it’s tempting to believe that this “dance” occurred to the tune of “Ring Around the Rosie,” a nursery rhyme whose dark lyrics have been described as a plague narrative in urban legend, there is no evidence to suggest that it had any historical connection to the Black Death or any epidemic.)
The Dance of Death served one artistic purpose: To remind its viewers that in the face of an unstoppable plague, none of us are safe.
This notion of pestilence as a “great equalizer” has remained in vogue ever since plague pop culture began. If you were poor—and, statistically, you were—your life expectancy in early modern Europe was frequently shortened by war, poverty, and famine as your liege lords and religious leaders cloistered themselves in hiding from whatever fresh Hell was currently being unleashed upon you.
Logically, the universality of a plague’s destruction held a bittersweet promise to address socioeconomic inequality: We may not win, but Death will make sure that you’re the loser. For the wealthy, the Black Death was able to invoke a terror unknown until the rattle of the guillotine.
No work of plague culture more completely embodies the idea of disease as social leveler than Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” which tells the tale of the sagacious Prince Prospero and his nobles, who have ensconced themselves in a castle to avoid a terrible plague—the titular Red Death.
On the night of a great masquerade, a night of frivolity that highlights the indifference the princely class maintains toward those suffering outside the holdfast’s walls, a mysterious reveler dressed as the Red Death is confronted by Prospero, who quickly dies. Horrified guests seize upon the figure, only to discover that behind the mask is no tangible person, but the incorporeal Red Death itself. No nobleman is spared.
As science revealed the true nature of plague, its face was rendered less literally. The life’s work of Agostino Bassi on muscardine disease in silkworms, John Snow on London’s Broad Street cholera outbreak, Louis Pasteur on puerperal fever and vaccinations, and Robert Koch on anthrax and Koch’s Postulates—the criteria for attributing a specific illness to a specific organism—have revealed that diseases aren’t rooted in the displeasure of an angry tormenter in the sky or some faceless malevolent force, but in the proteins and RNA of minute semi-life whose biological needs happen to overlap and clash with our own.
The resultant death and suffering holds no more moral connotations or meaning than potato blight—well, unless you’re Reaganite domestic policy adviser and failed presidential candidate Gary Bauer. Though less obviously rendered as a skeleton or a masked miasma, plague holds a unique place of terror in our collective cultural memory.
As a tool of social activism, plague functions as a double-edged sword. Although diseases and epidemics are classless and indiscriminate, they are still a useful example when slandering politically or socially unpopular groups. The cholera epidemics of the 19th century typically affected the urban poor, who were blamed for their presumed squalid lifestyles.
It’s the fear of kissing an ill loved one goodnight after bringing home chicken soup; it’s the fear of shaking hands with a gay person in the 1980s; it’s the fear of something both invisible and known.
Doctors at the beginning of the 20th century shamed sexually active women by postulating that gonorrhea cases arose “from the continual irritation and excitement of the generative organs” of economically disadvantaged prostitutes. Smallpox and leprosy, both endemic in the Chinese immigrant populations on the West Coast of the United States through the 1940s, were both blamed on the “unclean practices” of the community.
During the rise of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, the initial pop cultural ramifications were aimed at shaming the “perverts” whose actions had brought the virus on themselves. At Dartmouth College, for example, conservative students celebrated Rock Hudson’s death with a sorority party, while at the University of Kansas “Fagbusters” T-shirts were proving popular.
As the AIDS epidemic burned through America’s cities, depictions of viral villains began to focus on the grotesque effects of a plague, rather than its form. The highly visual, even pornographic, nature of watching the grotesqueries of another person’s suffering onscreen is a logical response to the first pandemic to be properly televised: After all, if Americans truly wanted to see the blood-and-guts aftermath of infection with a deadly African virus, they had only to turn on their televisions.
In 1993, Philadelphia, the first cinematic depiction of AIDS focused not on its transmission but on the red-wine Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions on Tom Hanks’ chest. In 1995’s Outbreak, the fictional Motaba virus (the threadlike form and hemorrhagic nature of which makes it Ebola by another name) leaves Patrick Dempsey and Kevin Spacey as bloodied, gelatinous sweatmonsters. Only Rene Russo, clearly infected with a rare strain of Motaba that induces an attractive glistening rather than vomiting blood, escapes the grotesque consequences of its infection.
With the rise of social media came the depictions of the social ramifications of plague, most obviously in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Unlike AIDS or Ebola or “Motaba,” the virus’s symptoms of a fever, headache, and seizures are almost tediously unsexy—even its name, “MEV-1,” lacks the exoticized punch of Lhassa fever or the Nipah virus.
The true horror in Contagion is in the ease of its spread. In an expository meeting, Dr. Kate Winslet discusses the transmission of the virus via transmission from fomites—door knobs, water fountains, elevator buttons. When she drops the bombshell that the average person touches their face three to five times every waking minute, the viewer immediately becomes incredibly aware of their hands, and everything that they have touched since they were last washed (admit it—you did too).
Here lies the heart of the undying fear of plague: The fact that the social nature of our species is what puts us most at risk of contracting a deadly disease. When the Black Death first struck Southern Europe, peasants and country dwellers fled to the cities, unintentionally putting themselves even more directly in harm’s way.
It’s the fear of kissing an ill loved one goodnight after bringing chicken soup home; it’s the fear of shaking hands with a gay person in the 1980s, or of an immigrant in the 1920s. The idea that the very structure of humanity’s social fabric is what facilitates the spread of our most deadly foes is more terrifying than any knife-wielding maniac.
Perhaps it’s because the scientific explanation of a pandemic is just as disquieting as the time-old religious explanation. Invisible, unthinking bugs from the jungle primeval which enter our bodies through every orifice (when they don’t create their own) in order to wreak havoc and multiply is more horrifying and more savage than anything that beleaguered Pharaoh.
With the power of a microscope, we can see every structural protein of these organisms, but their facelessness doesn’t lessen our terror. We imbue smallpox’s dumbbell, HIV’s lenticular nodules, and the shepherd’s crook of Ebola with all of the horror that the pustules, the bleeding, and the death we know lingers within them.