Monster of the Week: Plague

These plague doctors have great bedside manner with their creepy hoods and long-nosed bird masks

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happy November, everybod—


So, uh, I did technically survive Halloween (and most of the World Series while adjacent to the Cubs storm — if you never hear from me again, game seven is probably what did me in). But it’s gonna be a short one this week, because I’m a little worse for wear.

So. Plague.

Not the Bubonic plague, though that is a dramatic example of a disease’s destructive potential. No, I’m talking about plague more generally — any contagious, life-threatening illness that spreads quickly and widely enough to become an epidemic.

Why does plague deserve monster status?

Well, it’s one of our oldest and most enduring fears, as well it should be. Long before scientific standards and modern medicine, most cultures had some role for a healer, whether that meant herbal, spiritual, shamanistic, or anything that they hoped might protect them from the threat of disease. In a sense, sickness is responsible for many rich cultural traditions around the world.

Of course, it’s also responsible for a lot of death.

Asking why we, as a species, are afraid of plague seems like a stupid question, doesn’t it? It’s just a short step away from why do we fear death? For all our philosophizing, and boy am I not going to get into that here, the answer basically boils down to because it’s scary or it’s inevitable or we don’t understand it or duh, it’s DEATH.

Fear of plague is a little bit broader than the fear of death, though. There is certainly a potential for death — a very high potential, depending on what specific disease we’re talking about — though there’s usually still a possibility of survival. Most people would take “possibility of death” over “just straight up death” any day. On the flip side, though, death by disease is rarely pleasant. Many people would prefer a short, clean death to a long and drawn-out struggle.

Beyond the fear of death, though, epidemics have a way of lurking in the shadows that really gets under our skin.

Think about the SARS epidemic, for example. At its height, newspapers overflowed with images of huge crowds of people wearing surgical masks. These photos terrified Western audiences — partially for cultural reasons, because it’s not uncommon in Asia to wear a mask even during a normal flu season, but this is a rare sight in Western nations. Still, a real widespread fear translated across those cultural lines. The rarity of these masks may have exacerbated Westerners’ fears, but the fundamental issue remained at its core.

Who is already sick? Where is this illness lurking, hidden, just waiting to reach out and strike?

Am I already carrying it, and I just don’t know it yet?

It’s a primal feeling, that sense of being hunted. Even when our hunter doesn’t have a will of its own — a tiger will maul you because it’s hungry and it wants to eat. We may not like that! But we understand it. Fair enough, jerk. But an epidemic isn’t a single being. There is no why, at least not on an intuitive level that we can understand. A bacterium or virus operates in a way that’s completely alien to us.

That just adds to our fear. We don’t understand, and it’s in our animal nature to fear that which we don’t understand.

Even with all of our modernization and scientific advancements, plague remains one of our chief boogeymen. Zombie stories are as popular now as they ever were — the only thing that’s changed is the way we describe them. Now it’s the Z-virus, or a freak bacterial infection. We wrap up our oldest fears in pseudo-scientific packaging and market them to a new age.

Science fiction and dystopian stories don’t just stick to zombies, though. Many of them use garden-variety epidemics, a more realistic poison that’s so easily relatable to us, and more relatable means more frightening.

Some of these stories even cast medical science as the villain — what happens when our own achievements in antibiotics breed stronger diseases? In these stories, our own hubris inevitably comes back to destroy us.

Cautionary tales of the scientist-playing-god or a scientific veneer over a zombie hack-and-slash, these stories that incorporate modern medicine all get at an enduring truth. Disease is still a real threat in spite of our many modern safeguards — less of one, with effective treatment, but a threat all the same. These themes endure because they have been coded deep into the human core, a reminder of our need to survive and our inevitable mortality.

*blows nose*



stay healthy this winter

I’ll be in the comments section

don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe in there


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