Guys, Ebola is terrifying. Like, super duper 100% incredibly terrifying. Like, every time I hear about it on the news I think about every scene in every horror movie ever where everyone is hanging out minding their own business and in the background the news is on and it’s like “And today, another reported case of what is being called ‘Simian Flu’ was reported in Paris. It appears to have arrived on a commercial jet from a generic third world country. Officials have implemented a quarantine and assure us there is no cause for alarm about this mysterious disease. In other news…” and then they go on to like the war that everyone is actually worried about or some mindless fluff about how Kim Kardashian lost her Skechers endorsement deal after she had her kid or something, and the audience is like “OMG they only gave it three sentences in that news report like it wasn’t important at all BUT I BET SIMIAN FLU IS THE ZOMBIE VIRUS WHICH I KNOW BECAUSE I JUST PAID MONEY TO WATCH A ZOMBIE MOVIE,” and then the main title credits roll, and in the background it’s like headlines about Simian Flu cases reaching 1 x 10^X or something and diagrams of transmission vectors and a globe with a big, growing red spot labeled “INFECTED ZONE” or whatever, and then, before you know it, 28 Days Later the world is a mass of shambling animated corpses, and there’s like 3 people left on earth, and one of them has an axe for some reason. And that’s exactly what’s happening right now — we’re so preoccupied with the brewing Cold War II and the ongoing Middle Eastern War Part CXII that when we hear about Ebola in west Africa we’re like, “Eh, we’ve got bigger fish to fry” and then we move on with our lives to worry about other things. And as cool as it sounds to be the one dude with the axe, remember that when this whole Ebola thing / zombie movie plays out, the odds of you being that dude are about 1 in 7.2 billion; the odds of you being a corpse are … considerably better.
Of course there are cultural factors in play, and although there are many instances of possible Ebola patients in the US, it turns out that the US is actually probably well prepared to stop any further outbreaks due to higher levels of education, materiel, and preparedness than the countries in which it usually breaks out (as shown by the fact that only one of the possible Ebola patients actually had Ebola (although he was admittedly discharged from the hospital… again, terrifying)). We’re also aided by the fact that patients are not contagious during the incubation period, which means we don’t have to worry about tracking down all contacts in a 3-week window prior to hospitalization or death.
So, all-in-all, this probably won’t be the end of the world — at least, not the developed world — but it still has many parallels to the classic horror movie virus transmission trope, which got me thinking about the fact that most of those movie ghouls and monsters are ancient abstractions of fears that were poorly understood — including diseases. Here are some of the real-world explanations for classic mythical monsters, in no particular order:
According to David Jones in “An Instinct for Dragons” (as summarized here), the dragon is likely an ancient abstraction of the three most common predators of our tree-dwelling ancestors: the cat, the snake, and the raptor (and I would argue that you could add fire to the list). This is supported by the dragon’s universal cultural significance (from the far East to Europe to the Americas), which belies an origin far older than any specific culture, and indeed older than the diaspora of early man from eastern Africa across the globe. The dragon’s flying nature and sharp claws (representing the raptor) may suggest even older roots; it’s easy to imagine a time when large cats or poisonous snakes (or even just very large ones) posed a valid threat to wild Man, but no predatory bird could successfully hunt a human after it was even a few years old. However, evidence suggests that raptors probably fed on the young of our australopithecine forebears 3 million years ago (with the most famous example being the Taung Child). It is also hypothesized that this may be the reason for genetically inherited fear reactions to objects flying overhead. The more you know!
Although there is much debate over the source of werewolf mythology, it seems to have arisen from any number of diseases that parallel the symptoms, from excessive hair growth to the more likely Rabies, which, like Werewolfism, causes aggression, frothing at the mouth, and is spread through biting. Since Rabies is objectively more terrifying than Ebola (~100% fatality rate after symptoms appear), and since Medieval Europeans didn’t have access to Rabies vaccines, it seems likely that this monster may actually be a manifestation of our fear of the disease. Additionally, the prevalent theory that various psychoses were tied to the phases of the moon (hence, “lunatic“) ties in nicely with Werewolf mythology.
Zombies come from Caribbean tradition (particularly Haitian voodoo), which in turn draws its roots from west African traditions (where can be found the etymological roots of zombie (nzambi, e.g.), principally carrying spiritual connotations), and seems to be an allegory for slavery, due to a zombie’s brain-dead submission to an evil authority. However, the modern concept of the zombie as a shambling, undead corpse actually finds its roots as recently as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. A more general treatment of these creatures as among the undead is probably more fitting, as various forms of corporeal undead mythology exist across many cultures, including the draugr of northern Europe, the revenant of western Europe, and the vampire of Eastern Europe, which typically feature malevolent dead returning to take care of unfinished business, and many of which serve as vectors for spreading disease and destruction. The modern zombie (and the associated zombie apocalypse) actually stems from a more modern fear — the fear of societal collapse at the hands of an ineffective, bureaucratic government and the selfishness of the individual outweighing the greater good. Over the last few decades, zombies have also come to represent a fear of over-reliance on technology and the inability to deal with new information that fundamentally breaks our worldview; the Max Brooks novel World War Z in particular mentions the struggle of coming to terms with something that is, at its face, scientifically impossible, and how that effects the initial understanding of the threat it poses.
As previously mentioned, vampires share a common ancestry with many other corporeal undead monster myths, and in fact almost all cultures have some form of vampiric undead, suggesting that they represent some ancient, deep-seated fears — in particular, the fear of death and the process of decay (given the illusion of continued hair and fingernail growth immediately after death, or various swellings that may be interpreted as signs of life after death, plus natural bleeding from the mouth and receding gums giving the illusion of long teeth used to suck blood). Additionally, vampires and other undead are often associated with the spread of contagion, which may symbolize the poorly-understood mechanism by which victims of disease might spread the disease after death to those who interacted with the corpse; by implying that the corpse could come back to life and spread evil, the myth helped to promote safe practices like burning corpses or avoiding them altogether. Finally, many of these undead monsters display cannibalism in some form, either hungering for human flesh (as in modern zombies) or drinking human blood; these practices are known mechanisms for spreading diseases, and associating these practices with evil spirits may have performed a vital role in discouraging them among society.
I hope you enjoyed this brief look at the roots of the monsters we hold so dear. I certainly look forward to 2016’s Ebola-inspired release of the next big blockbuster horror film, Evening of the Monsters that Bleed A Lot.