Sunday, December 4, 2011

Horror Plagues

I was watching the Spanish horror film [REC] (2007), and two things occurred to me: 1) how many horror movies I've seen where the story is told with a shaky camera from the point of view of a documentary filmmaker, and 2) how many horror films depend on a plague for the generation of the deformed destructive beings, or DDBs, who are the focus of the story. The shaky camera gambit is almost always annoying to me, but plague stories can be quite effective, and they are my subject today.

[REC] follows in a long tradition of horror plague films, which concern the transformation of people into DDBs as a result of some readily transmissible disease. The disease process is often vague. Vampires and werewolves, whose curse is usually transmitted through bites, appear to have some supernatural element, although their infectiousness might be due to something as a simple as a vampire or werewolf pathogen, such as the microbe that turns people into vampires in The Last Man on Earth. As the horror genre became increasingly informed by medical rather than supernatural explanations, biological accounts for the plagues became more common than spiritual ones. Rabies was the problem in I Drink Your Blood and Rabid; drinking water in The Crazies and Cabin Fever; blood in 28 Days Later; and parasites transmitted through sexual contact in They Came from Within (Shivers). The pathogens involved are often microscopic, although they can be larger. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the body-snatching organisms are large pods from space, causing an epidemic of people who are nice and tranquil but somehow not quite themselves.

Whatever the pathogen or its means of transmission, it spreads rapidly, turning its victims into DDBs who are, in many cases, capable of further spreading the disease. They are either physically deformed, psychologically deformed, or both, and they are destructive, either because they are violent or spread the disease, or both. The chill of the horror plague movie usually comes from the menace of the disease-stricken DDBs preying on a band of normal survivors, threatening to kill them or turn them into copies of themselves.

Plagues have been significant since the days of ancient Greek literature, when people ascribed epidemic disease to the anger of gods (as in The Iliad and Oedipus Rex). In the horror film, plagues often remain significant, pointing to some sort of causative social malaise that results in the breakdown of societyIn The Masque of the Red Death, the red death seems a metaphor for underlying social and moral corruption.  In Night of the Living Dead, the cause of the epidemic of zombieism is unclear, but military and government figures seem to be implicated in it, at least to judge by how quickly they run away from television cameras. In Dawn of the Dead, the zombies become a symbol for consumerism as they stagger around a shopping mall.

Even more profoundly, the horror plague film seems rooted in a deep historical awareness of how fragile society is, how quickly it can succumb to a sickness that comes out of nowhere and spreads everywhere. The Black Death of the Middle Ages is the most famous of these pandemics, but they have happened throughout history. Depending on the symptoms, healthy people can suddenly look like monsters and be avoided, literally, like the plague. Horror plague films are like home movies of episodes our species has lived through before, and will experience again.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

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