Social Distancing: Why It Feels Like a Zombie Invasion Movie
COVID-19 is a lot scarier than any monster movie.
Posted March 26, 2020
We all know the basic plot. Some terrible event, maybe post-war radiation or a mutant virus, has turned most of the human population into crazed killers, intent on destroying the rest of us. Whether they’re starving zombies after our flesh or mutant vampires after our blood, they’re coming to get us in hordes. It’s unsafe to be out among them. Contact with them will infect or kill us. They’re banging on our front doors or scraping at our windows. They mean business. Day by day, hour by hour, there are more of them. They seem unstoppable. Whatever defenses we develop or new weapons we throw at them, they manage to get around. Every day their numbers grow and the situation seems more hopeless. What will we do?
This is a powerful and terrifying plot. Back in the days of classic horror movies, the villains were usually evil individuals like Dr. Frankenstein or Count Dracula. Now all that has changed. Bad things come at us in big numbers. Every decade has its share of movies like this. The ‘50s had Invasion of the Body Snatchers . The ‘60s had Night of the Living Dead . The 21st century brought us a big-budget menace called I Am Legend (2007) starring Will Smith. And for every major studio, superstar version of this threat, there are a half-dozen cheap indie productions to take advantage of our voracious appetite for the “we’re out-numbered” zombie apocalypse theme. [Clarens, 1967; Frank, 1977]
Suddenly we no longer need the movies. We don’t have to sit in a theater or stream a video. This version stars us and there is no “pause” button to hit. As of this afternoon, there are over 400,000 cases of COVID-19 reported worldwide with 50,000 of them in the U.S. On Monday of this week alone, there were over 100 U.S. deaths, bringing the national total to 600. By the time you read this, whether it’s hours, days or weeks later, those numbers will have gone way up.
Let's look at some reasons that make this experience particularly scary.
Killing the Undead. The villain of this story, COVID-19, isn't really alive. And yet to defend ourselves we have to kill it. How do you kill something that isn't alive? It’s more chemistry than biology, as one expert put it. It isn't simply a question of loading up the AK-47s or other cartoon-like hardware and blasting away at this monster, like some video game gone wild. This time it's going to take more than brute force. Sorry, folks, but Rambo will be of absolutely no use. This one is going to take brains. We're going to need plenty of scientists, working together, to figure it out before we can disable this not-really-alive but deadly adversary.
Size Matters . This menace is microscopic. We can’t even see it, and what's really scary is that viruses constantly mutate and evolve to the shifting demands for their success. If we discover a vaccine for COVID-19 tomorrow, a newer version may already be in the pipeline. It’s kind of a thumb in the eye to those people who argue that “evolution is just a theory.” [Dawkins, 2009]
The more you examine what COVID-19 does to humans, the more you wonder if we’re dealing with one of those intelligent, relentless aliens that science fiction movies love to throw at us. This technically-not-living pile of chemicals that is menacing us right now acts like a highly intelligent foe who manages to stay one step ahead of us. But it can’t be doing that because it’s not alive, right? Wrong.
It’s sneaky, or whatever the non-living version of “clever” is. COVID-19 infects us in such a way that our symptoms can appear minimal, thus allowing us to interact freely with others, spreading the infection to friends, loved ones and strangers. That symptom-free, highly contagious period works to the benefit of the virus and all but guarantees spread of the infection. Once we realize we are sick and our infection has been officially confirmed, it's too late to do anything about all the innocent people we have taken down with us. Early social distancing is a highly effective tool, but isolation is so disturbing to most people that they resist it and break the rules. They find ways to argue that self-quarantining is excessive and alarmist. You might think this virus had studied Human Nature and come up with a strategy guaranteed to find our weak points emotionally and cognitively.
Unlike most movie versions of this story, we don't get to see a slobbering, evil, reptilian, creature stalking us through the narrow corridors of a spaceship. This adversary is so tiny we need an electron microscope to see it. We can’t depend on our senses to avoid it. It’s hard to dodge what you can’t see or hear. And when we do see pictures of the enemy, they've been color enhanced and don’t look particularly menacing. In fact, they look like creative drawings that might appear in a gallery or on the cover of a microbiology textbook [e.g. Madigan & Martinko, 2006]. This real-life version of a horror movie would probably be a lot more effective if the enemy were half-snake, half-werewolf. But it isn’t. So we can't tap into an easy source of innate disgust or fear to motivate ourselves into action. [Davis & Javor, 2004]
“Hoaxers” are dangerous idiots. It’s understandable that when you can't see the enemy, it’s easy to discount or deny. None of us lived through the history of Germ Theory 150 years ago. Try to imagine a world with no knowledge of microorganisms and the danger some of them posed. Sure, everyone back then knew that people were getting sick and dying. But when scientists, such as Louis Pasteur, suggested that the disease was caused by tiny creatures, invisible to the naked eye, there was plenty of resistance [Cowan & Talaro, 2009]. When Pasteur suggested that good hygiene, like washing one's hands with soap and water, was a way to defeat this invisible enemy, people scoffed.
Finally, some Psych 101. Hoaxing is borne of ignorance and fear. “Maybe this whole thing is made up. After all, nobody you know has died.” It’s hard to believe that some of our fellow Americans actually think like this. Like COVID-19 itself, Hoaxing is highly contagious. Effective memes spread like wildfire. They’re even more dangerous when they come from our elected leaders and our official news sources, whose words we value. Rumors and memes spread like viruses [Blackmore, 1999]. Just as we seek to control the spread of COVID-19 with social distancing, America would be a lot safer if we could quarantine the highly contagious disease of ignorance.
Blackmore, S. (1999). The Meme Machine. New York: Oxford University Press.
Clarens, C. (1967). An Illustrated History of the Horror Film. New York: Putnam.
Cowan, M.K. & Talaro, K.P. (2009). Microbiology: A Systems Approach. New York: McGraw Hill.
Davis, H. & Javor, A. (2004). Religion, Death & Horror Movies: Some Striking Evolutionary Parallels. Evolution and Cognition. 10, 11-18.
Dawkins, R. (2001). The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. New York: Free Press.
Frank, A. (1977). Horror Films. London: Hamlyn Press.
Madigan, M. & Martinko, J. (2006). Brock Biology of Microorganisms. New York: Pearson Prentice Hall.