IN ITS COVERAGE of the Ebola panic, The Washington Post noted, “We have no cultural memory of what we are supposed to do, or think, or believe, when Ebola is on the loose.” In fact, we suffer from an excess of memory, none of it necessarily accurate or even real. The panic may be rooted in media hype and an ignorance of the particularities of the Ebola virus, but it also flows from our contemporary obsession with the narratives and discourse of viral contagion.
There are the virus-inspired thrillers: I Am Legend, World War Z, Contagion, Quarantine, Carriers, 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead, Resident Evil, even the apocalyptic ending of Rise of the Planet of the Apes: the infected, unwitting pilot, his ominous drop of blood on the airport floor, and the quick cut to the list of flights heading to destinations across the globe. Last year, Dan Brown’s Inferno imagined a new Black Death unleashed as a genetically engineered virus to cull the overpopulated masses: “a hideous panorama of pestilence, misery, and torture.”
Vampire and zombie narratives generally are about the fear of viral spread and the ways in which the dead remain alive in their contagion, acting on the living and infecting healthy bodies. A newspaper in Liberia already reported that two Ebola victims have “resurrected.” Xinhua, China’s official news agency, formally consoled readers that Ebola is not a “zombie disease.” And when Ebola first made headlines, sites like Reddit and 4chan were inundated with Ebola-zombie memes. Far from having “no cultural memory” for comprehending viral outbreak, people found a surfeit of reference points.