Space & Innovation

Going Viral: Pandemics in Fiction and Fact

With new fears over the emergent MERS-CoV virus, we offer a short history of the viral outbreak in pop culture.

As a species, we tend to tell ourselves stories about what scares us most. In literature, film and television we process our cultural worries and bounce them back in various forms.

With new fears arising over the emergent MERS-CoV virus and the threat of a possible epidemic, we take a selective look at the history of the viral outbreak in literature, TV, film and even video games.

'The Decameron' (1353)

This 14th-century work by Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio compiles 100 stories told by 10 different characters who have retreated from plague-ridden Florence in the time of the Black Death. Boccoccio's stories reflect the vast societal changes in Italy and Europe as a whole, brought about by the pandemic.

'The Masque of the Red Death' (1842)

Edgar Allen Poe's famous short story concerns a masquerade ball held by wealthy nobles during a terrible plague that has swept over the land. The castle abbey of the ball has been secured to keep out the plague, and the wealthy show disdain for those suffering outside the walls. But alas, history's most infamous party-crasher appears, in a blood-stained robe with a cadaverous mask. The party doesn't end well: "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."

'Earth Abides' (1949)

Among the first post-apocalyptic science fiction books, George R. Stewart's "Earth Abides" tells the story of Isherwood "Ish" Williams, an ecology student who returns from a solo trip to the mountains to find mankind wiped out by an airborne disease. "Earth Abides" combines Biblical elements with hard scientific conjecture about the results of overpopulation and the planet's unsparing approach to population control.

'The Seventh Seal' (1957)

Set during the time of the Black Death, Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman's film "The Seventh Seal" concerns a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) and his famous game of chess with Death himself. Bergman's film is a meditation on the theological dilemma of "the silence of God" in the face of evil and tragedy like the Plague.

'The Last Man on Earth' (1964)

The first of several film adaptations of Richard Matheson's seminal sci-fi book "I Am Legend," this Italian horror flick stars Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, last man standing after a worldwide pandemic. The book and the film represent a shift toward horror tropes in viral outbreak stories -- the infected are a kind of feral zombie/vampire hybrid. Matheson's book would later be remade in "The Omega Man" (1971) and "I Am Legend" (2007).

'The Andromeda Strain' (1971)

With the dawning of the Space Age, and our new habit of putting things into space and bringing them back, it was just a matter of time before someone connected the dots. Based on the 1969 book by Michael Crichton, "The Andromeda Strain" concerns an extraterrestrial microorganism brought back by a military satellite. The alien microbe kills by rapidly clotting the blood -- investigators later find out it was part of a government bio-weapons program. With "The Andromeda Strain," mainstream audiences were introduced to a new and abiding phobia -- pandemics caused by engineered biological weapons.

'The Stand' (1978)

Considered to be among Stephen King's best novels, "The Stand" kicks off with a terrifying sequence in which a strain of weaponized influenza is accidentally released from a government lab. The devastating super-flu bug -- dubbed Captain Trips -- eventually causes a worldwide pandemic that wipes out 99 percent of Earth's human population. The book generated a surprisingly good TV miniseries in 1993.

'Outbreak' (1995)

Starring Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Morgan Freeman, "Outbreak" came to theaters a year after the publication of "The Hot Zone," a non-fiction book about the Ebola virus, its variants, and the Reston virus incident outside Washington D.C. The film involves, yes, an outbreak of a fictional Ebola-like virus in the United States and is notable for the relatively big splash it made at the box office and in the media.

'Resident Evil' (1996)

The videogame franchise "Resident Evil" -- known as "Biohazard" in Japan -- began in 1996 with this hugely popular survival horror game for the PlayStation. In the game, players square off against hordes of mutated beasties infected with the T-virus pathogen, developed by the nefarious Umbrella Corporation. The game would eventually spawn, as it were, several novels, comic books, feature films and video game sequels -- including the recently released "Resident Evil: Revelations" for console systems.

'28 Days Later' (2002)

One of many, many zombie movies with distinctly viral overtones, director Danny Boyle's horror "28 Days Later" is notable for several reasons. First, the cause of the zombie infection is mapped directly to the creation of an engineered virus called "Rage." Second, Boyle peppers the movie with squirm-inducing images calculated to prey on contemporary fears of infection and disease. And third, Boyle upends tradition by making the zombies fast and ferocious. Forget those shuffling corpses of movies past -- these zombies can move, baby!

'Contagion' (2011)

Director Steven Soderbergh's thriller "Contagion" is the most recent film about viral fears to hit theaters, and almost surely the most scientifically accurate. The film depicts a virus outbreak and global pandemic, based in part on the 2003 SARS and the 2009 H1N1 crises. Soderbergh worked closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before and during filming to deliver what he called an "ultra-realistic" depiction of what a modern pandemic would look like. The DVD and Blu-ray versions of the film feature a generous assortment of extras on the science behind the movie.