What is it about outbreak stories that capture the popular imagination?
Beyond the respawn of zombies in pop culture, with infectious videogames like "Resident Evil" and undying TV shows like "The Walking Dead," writers have long been fascinated by contagion.
To explore that idea, media scholar Rachel Miller crafted her own “Outbreak Narratives” course at The Ohio State University using an assortment of different texts, including fiction, graphic novels and scholarly studies.
Miller said she can't help but wonder how her students are reflecting on their coursework in light of the current coronavirus pandemic.
“Are the students that were in my class now thinking about these issues? Cracking open their Journal of a Plague Year, revisiting it?” Miller said.
One thing is for sure: The next time Miller teaches this course, students will have their own first-hand experience to lend to the readings.
Here are some of books on Miller's "Outbreak Narratives" reading list:
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
This zombie novel reads like a first-person video game. We join our zombie hunting narrator months following a zombie pandemic that has left Manhattan a husk of its former self.
Miller said there’s something about zombie texts that really resonate in pop culture,and she had to throw in a zombie plague for all the zombie enthusiasts in her class.
Zombies shape much of what we think about when we think about pandemics, mass infection, and disease. The CDC has even used zombies as a way to promote emergency preparedness.
Miller said that because zombies are such a big part of the popular consciousness, students had the easiest time making sense of this outbreak narrative.
Purchase Zone One here.
Black Hole by Charles Burns
Miller said she added a graphic novel to her syllabus because comics can represent taboo issues in unique ways.
Black Hole is a compilation of serialized comics from respected graphic artist Charles Burns.
The novel reimagines a version of 1970s Pacific Northwest, where an STD known as “The Bug” plagues teenagers, transforming their bodies into monstrously mutated versions of themselves. Some teens grow antlers, others sprout tails, but all the protagonists are young, white and attractive.
“Black Hole reverses the imagery surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” Miller said, where sickness was often seen as only infecting marginalized communites: drug users or queer men suffering from AIDs.
This is an intense visual text that brings the fear of pandemic to a “normal” community and shows again, viruses don’t care about race, gender, wealth, or age.
Purchase Black Hole here.
A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
In this historical novel, the narrator drops us in London, 1665, a city ravaged by the Bubonic Plague, where “plays are cancelled, feasting is prohibited.”
The author, Defoe, grew up during the plague, and wrote this fictional account both from his memory and extensive research. The resulting book is an odd autopsy of the plague that reads like a diary.
Plague Year depicts Londoners looking to tonics and the stars for plague remedies, defying quarantines to surreptitiously visit lovers, and has visions of disturbing death carts pulled through the city streets.
Miller said this book challenges each of us to think of the ways we are documenting, recording, or narrating what’s happening in our current moment. How will this moment be remembered?
Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative by Priscilla Wald
This book is a scholarly analysis of movies, novels, and government documents and their treatment of “communicable disease” as a concept. Miller said this book is essential to the teaching of her course.
The big takeaway from Wald’s text is the concept of "imagined immunity," which is the false idea that developed countries are immune to epidemics because they live safely within the borders of a "healthy" nation state. This concept is playing out in our current crisis.
Miller said when COVID-19 was initially reported, it was as a concern for China, but it's important to remember that our world is a global community.
“We’re interconnected,” she said. “It’s not just something that’s ‘happening over there.’”
The Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
This isn’t technically an outbreak narrative, but it does have all the key elements of a good pandemic story. There’s an unborn child at the plot’s center and a dystopian setting where the earth is slowly becoming uninhabitable (think "Children of Men" or Stephen King’s The Stand).
Miller assigned this as part of her outbreak class because it deals with ecological issues, namely climate change.
“Climate change is a slower companion to outbreak,” Miller said. “As our planet changes, we will deal with a new hue of communicable diseases.”
Miller said this story is meant to remind us all that there’s no forgetting that all things are connected, and how individuals, businesses, and corporations all have a part in caring for the planet.
Purchase The Future Home of the Living God here.