The Personification of Ebola - Fighting the True Infection

Don't let the person become the disease

Posted Oct 03, 2014

When it comes to nightmares, it's always the same.

The Ebola Virus

Monsters live in our closets, or under our beds, or somewhere within the mistaken safety of our sealed up houses.

Germs live on our doors, or on our windows, or somewhere within the mistaken safety of our sealed up houses.

The bogeyman is impressively patient. He didn’t get you tonight, but there’s no assurance, as any good campfire story will tell you, that he won’t get you tomorrow.

Likewise, you can go all summer without catching West Nile Virus, but then there’s always next summer or the one after that.

A monster wants to hurt you.

Germs "want" to hurt you.

We could go on.

In fact, we could on for so long, with so many analogies, that we're likely to forget the most important and obvious difference.

The bogeyman is all about intentionality. He’s sentient and enjoys the experience of scaring you.

But germs? They really don’t care.  That's why I wrote quotation marks around the word "want" in the sentence above.

Germs don’t care if you kill them or if you catch them. Or, if you want to be really literal, we could say that germs don’t care the way we care. They don’t even care the way a shrew or a turtle or a lowly lizard cares.

Germs are just germs.

They’re interpersonally boring.

Catching a cold is in some ways worse than getting punched in a bar. At least in the bar there’s a story to tell. You shouldn’t have said what you said to that biker dude, but you said it anyhow, and you therefore sort of had it coming.

But you didn’t mouth off to a germ. It just happened to wander your way and make itself comfortably at home in your lungs or your throat or your brain.

That’s really the crux of why we so viscerally fear germs in the first place . We absolutely cannot relate to a germ, which seems pretty darn obvious to the higher regions of our brains, but you wouldn’t know it from the way we write about pandemics and new viruses or any microbial bug that see’s intentionally fit to make us miserable.

Instead, we personify the germ.

We make the immensely primitive microbe impossibly sentient. Germs, in popular culture, are laden with imagined personality in virtually all of our discussions. This I think has to do with the existential ravages that occur when we confront the unsettling fact that to be infected by a germ is often sheer, dumb, crappy, bad luck.

Every news story I’ve seen about Ebola has a picture of Ebola. It’s like a mug shot. But why? It’s not as if I can be on the lookout for Ebola by scrutinizing its electron micrograph. Slowly, seamlessly, driven by the atonal orchestra of existential dread, we start to think of germs as maniacal villains.

Ebola is long and stringy. It is red-tinted and snake-like, just as it is portrayed in the electron micrographs that pepper the homepage of CNN. It looks as if it is waiting to worm its way in.

As it turns out, there is probably some utility to this strategic if intellectually suspect slight of hand that we perform when we confront a scary microbe. Studies have suggested that the personification of a germ has allowed better acceptance of quarantine throughout the ages. If the threat is portrayed as sentient, historians have noted that those who are threatened will more willingly comply with suggested, sometimes even draconian precautions. More recently, investigations into the growing awarenss of the HIV crisis in Africa have noted that writing about the AIDS virus as if it is itself deliberartely murderous significantly though not necessarily positively affected public health awareness and action. It looks like we might just need to think of our germs as ferociously plotting enemies in order that we might tolerate their insolence in daring to make us sick in the first place.

Hollywood knows this story well. We can rattle off the relevant films without even thinking. Three versions of I Am Legend (The Last Man on Earth, The Omega Man, and I am Legend), two versions of The Crazies, two versions of Dawn of the Dead, two versions of The Andromeda Strain, Outbreak, Carriers, Quarantine I and Quarantine II, Contagion, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, World War Z, and so on.

Even Ridley Scott’s Alien is a contagion movie. The extraterrestrial actually lays it eggs in the poor guy’s mouth. It infects him. What makes Alien work, however, is the tingling combination of the infection theme mixed with the clear and not-imagined motivation of the alien itself. Ripley calls the alien a bitch in Aliens. Without an awful lot of metaphorical liberty, that terminology just doesn’t quite work when we find ourselves discussing a virus.

Some readers may know that I’ve written a horror novel that is predicated on a viral pandemic. The story is of course outlandish. There is not now nor will there ever be a germ that turns us all, as happened in my novel, into flesh eating ghouls.

The "Rage" virus from "28 Days Later"

But, there is now and there will likely always be this: the natural psychological response to germs themselves. This is indeed the truly insidious danger of infection. We personify an illness and then we attribute the “personality” of the illness to those who are unlucky enough to have the disease. The infected individuals go from being unique persons to simply persons with Ebola. In essence, in order to tolerate the awfulness of the story, the infected person starts to become that red-tinted electron micrograph that we keep seeing in the news. I will submit that fictional stories about infection are part of the horror cannon precisely because these stories are really about stolen or at least misattributed identities. The disease, which we have personified, becomes the person himself, and the person therefore loses his personhood.

We all know what happens when we allow ourselves to rob people of their identities. Really bad things happen. That’s why it is now more important than ever tht we actively remember exactly what it is that we’re fighting:

Fear and imaginative ignorance.

Those, it seems, are our two biggest public health challenges now.

Steven Schlozman, MD. is an assitant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.  He is also the author of the novel The Zombie Autopsies.