Valerie Pavilonis

Plagues present a unique kind of antagonist in fictional narratives: They cannot be fought through conventional means such as weapons or words, they cannot express through dialogue their worldview or motives and although they manifest themselves within people, plagues are fundamentally a part of nature. As microbes, plagues are a much lower life form than humans. And yet, they wreak just as much — if not more — destruction and death as human-made forces like war or taxes. It’s no surprise, then, that many writers are drawn to creating works about plagues, whether they intend to make a statement about the insignificance of humanity in the face of the Earth’s scorn or the resilience and ingenuity of human collective effort.

After COVID-19, we are bound to have new media depictions of plagues and pandemics, which will reflect our lived experience under the current crisis. Creators will find it difficult to continue seeing plagues as foreign, distant, fascinating yet removed from day-to-day living. Therefore, I’ve found it valuable, for cultural-historical purposes, to chart and rank plague media from more than a decade ago to last year.

The metric I will be using for rating these pieces includes measures of similarity or applicability to our current 2020 coronavirus situation, the “scariness” of the plague itself, and finally, how sensible the responses to the plague in these media works are. My goal is not to say which media I think are the “best” or my favorites but to evaluate which pieces are superior or inferior plague media: how well they perform as pieces explicitly about disease, pandemics and the effects they have on people.

Corrupted Blood Plague (2005)

Summary: 

The “Corrupted Blood Plague” is not itself a creative work (I’m cheating just a bit). Rather, it was a virtual pandemic, part of a special event for this MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) called World of Warcraft. In 2005, the game developers introduced Corrupted Blood, a “disease” which threatened the lives of player characters and spread from player-to-player contact. It was intended to remain within the confines of a specific in-game area, but the programmers were unaware that non-player characters, especially summonable pets (players looking to actively spread the disease used this mechanic to circumvent in-game security measures), could act as asymptomatic carriers. Thus, they spread Corrupted Blood all throughout the game world. Hundreds of dead player characters filled the in-game cities and urban areas. Many players fled to the countryside to avoid infection, though some player characters with healing abilities tried to “cure” or mitigate Corrupted Blood. Players had a surprising range of reactions to the outbreak: Some directed weaker low-level players away from infected areas, while others flouted in-game quarantines to bring the disease to new areas and further the pandemonium.

Rating: 4+2+2 = 8/15

Rationale:

Applicability to Present: 4 out of 5

This event has been studied by researchers like Ran D. Balicer (from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) and Nina Fefferman (University of Tennessee at Knoxville) who view it as an effective model for disease outbreaks and subsequent attempts to control them. Our present situation involves real people dying, not virtual characters, so I can’t give this an applicability score of 5 out of 5 despite expert recommendations and research.

“Scariness”: 2 out of 5

World of Warcraft, honestly, is not a scary game. The plague itself isn’t frightening — it only “hurts” the pixels on your screen — but the fact that some players went out of their way to spread it does lower your faith in humanity.

Quality of Response: 2 out of 5

Eventually, the developers implemented hard resets to the game servers, and fixed the bug that allowed non-player characters to carry Corrupted Blood. Nothing special, just practical problem-solving. Points removed for a lack of elegance, and because so many players were plague-spreading assholes who ignored the voluntary quarantine procedures.

Ulysses Dies at Dawn (2013)

Summary:

This album from the musical cabaret The Mechanisms tells the story of Ulysses, reimagined for a dystopian sci-fi setting. The “plague,” the Sphinx virus, does not play a major role in the story, but it makes up the key portion of a main character’s backstory. It causes rapid aging; babies mature into adults and then die of old age in the space of a single day.

Rating: 3+2+1 = 6/15

Rationale:

Applicability to Present: 3/5

The disease explicitly disproportionately affects poor families who cannot afford Oedipus’ cure, which is a chilling reminder of how today’s coronavirus has devastated low-income neighborhoods much more than middle-class and upper-class boroughs. The class analysis is spot on, though it doesn’t explore the issue with much complexity. Points taken off since the Sphinx virus has little similarity with COVID-19, and the spread of the virus is not explained.

“Scariness”: 2/5

Rapid aging is terrifying, but the album doesn’t delve deeply into the psychological horror experienced by its victims and the victims’ families, or even the physical pain this accelerated growth must entail. Much wasted potential on this front.

Quality of Response: 1/5 

Oedipus’ discovery of the virus’s origins and cure is not explored in depth at all. All the audience knows is that the virus has something to do with the Olympians’ (think corrupt 1 percenters) immortality. One point given for bare minimum effort, and interesting class analysis.

Bloodborne (2015)

Summary:

In the city of Yharnam, a mysterious plague spreads through Blood Ministration, an experimental medical treatment involving (spoilers) the blood of eldritch abominations from the outer reaches of the cosmos. This plague turns ordinary humans into bloodthirsty, werewolf-like creatures, who still believe themselves to be healthy hunters containing the spread of beasthood.

 Ranking: 1+1+1=3 (Look, this game is very good. I love it. It has brilliant Lovecraftian themes. But according to my ranking metric, it’s just not successful as plague media.)

Rationale:

Applicability to Present: 1/5

Unfortunately, gods in tentacled form do not share their blood with us, so there is no way we will ever get to experience such magnificent transformations.

“Scariness”: 1/5

I am a highly unbiased ranker. I think, objectively, becoming a werewolf is pretty dang cool. On a more serious note, I think the fear this game inspires doesn’t come from its depiction of the bloodborne plague, but rather its cosmic horror.

Quality of Response: 1/5

The way the plague is “dealt with” in the game involves the player character killing off scores of the infected to become stronger, which is not how I want people to deal with the infected in real life.

MAG #45 Blood Bag (2016)

Summary:

This is an episode from The Magnus Archives, a horror anthology podcast. In it, a researcher is devoured by mosquitoes carrying everything from malaria to yellow fever, and countless other diseases besides.

Ranking: 1+5+1 = 7/15

Rationale:

Applicability to Present: 1/5

Mosquitoes generally only carry one disease at a time, and they do not mob people.

“Scariness”: 5/5

I once had a nightmare about getting yellow fever from an evil mosquito. The thought of having *every single other disease known to man* all at the same time terrifies me, as well as getting drained by a swarm of mosquitoes (which admittedly isn’t really an aspect of a plague, but eh, they’re carriers).

Quality of Response: 1/5

The researcher tried to kill the mosquitoes with a fire extinguisher, which is just not logical, man.

Pathologic 2 (2019)

Summary:

In a rural steppe town, a plague arises from (spoilers) an angry goddess of the earth, killing people in a matter of days and wiping out practically half the population. Plague clouds spread from district to district, blocking paths and chasing down the healthy. Once infected, the voice of the plague speaks directly, whispering about wounds, collective identity and the will of nature. It affects only humans, sparing animals and all those who eschew individuality.

Ranking: 3+5+2 = 10/15

Rationale:

Applicability to Present: 3/5

The game is remarkably realistic in portraying how a panicked and superstitious populace would react to an unprecedented outbreak. Arsonists torch infected districts and infected people alike. Quarantines are imposed, ignored and later become futile. People give up their most valuable possessions for experimental and alternative medicines. However, our current world situation involves global transmission, not a localized threat. Furthermore, diseases are invisible — they do not manifest in literal black clouds of rot and infection.

“Scariness”: 5/5

The symptoms of the plague are not directly shown, but the infected shamble around covered head-to-toe in bandages. They look like mummies. Simply imagining what they look like underneath is enough to scare me — not to mention how they run after and reach out to the healthy (to deliberately infect them? To ask for comfort? Both are horrifying in different ways). And although plague clouds are unrealistic, the idea of being chased by a physical manifestation of disease sends my adrenaline levels spiking. Oh, and did I mention that the plague affects buildings too, covering them in bloody sores and scars?

Quality of Response: 3/5

The player character finds a cure for the plague through (spoilers) the antibodies of the blood of a dormant bull god beneath the town. I feel there are multiple problems with his solution (he has to jump down a bottomless pit into the fleshy tunnels of the Earth’s capillaries, and explode a miraculous tower, which are not things we can feasibly accomplish in real life), but kudos to the game for giving a thorough explanation of antibodies.

***

I’ve noticed some common themes running through these five works of plague-related art. Blood has great power in the containment of disease. Individuals and societies alike respond irresponsibly to outbreaks. Human civilization pits itself directly against nature. I’d theorize that the frequency of plagues in media represents writers’ fascination with whether or not society was a mistake and whether by becoming cut off from nature, we’ve grown weak both physically and morally.

Many of these creators use pandemics to examine the decline of the human race and the destruction we’ve wrought on our environment. Their depictions are often dystopic. The well-off callously leave disenfranchised populations in danger; human beings are powerless to fight diseases on our own due to overreliance on modern medical technologies. Finally, through our exploitation of natural resources, humanity itself acts as an “infection” on the world. Plagues, then, are simply the Earth’s immune response against a cancer that refuses to stop its voracious consumption of other lifeforms.

Claire Fang | claire.fang@yale.edu