From Outbreak/The Hot Zone to I Am Legend to myriad zombie tales, various stories have centered on humanity suffering from a viral outbreak. With Covid-19 pandemic still ongoing, authors and writers who use reality to influence their fiction now have up close knowledge as to how people in the real world would react to a deadly virus spreading across the land.
While this pandemic is far from over, I was curious to know how this global event is already beginning to influence the way creatives tell stories. To satisfy this curiosity I’ve reached out to storytellers who work in various mediums and asked them how they think this pandemic will impact the way stories centered on viruses will be told.
I’ve written dozens of novels, comics, and short stories about zombies and until Covid-19 and social isolation they were always an entertaining abstraction. It was all fiction to entertain readers and have some creative fun. The research I did on plagues of the past, and on potential epidemics and pandemics, was just that –source material. Now I put on a mask to go to the pharmacy or post office and I see those with, and those without, masks. It’s like looking at the unbitten and the potentially infected. The folks without masks are the new zombies, or at least the new potential carriers of the zombie plague. I feel very much like I’ve stepped into one of my own stories…and I don’t feel entertained by it. Not one little bit. I’m even a bit weirded out by the fact that my zombie stories and graphic novels have all had a dramatic sales spike recently. Are people now reading them as ‘current events’?
Jonathan Maberry – Extinction Machine: A Joe Ledger Novel, Rot & Ruin, Marvel Universe vs. Wolverine, Black Panther: DoomWar, V Wars
There are two parts of this, the utopian and dystopian, or the part that fills me with hope and the part that fills me with dread. The part that fills me with hope is that we are a society, as a world society, shut down capitalism to protect the weakest among us. We were really ready to go to the mattresses to protect them…for a while.
The dystopian part of this is the pendulum swung back quickly and it made people do things I thought I would NEVER see, like following Trump into Hell with this “masks don’t work” stuff, and forcing us to open schools when we had 52,000 new cases just YESTERDAY. Other countries have handled this much better, so I will look to those for hope, and the USA as a dire warning when I’m writing anything in the future. Mostly, though, I’m just sick of reality, which is nice, because I write mostly fantasy which allows me to escape into my own universe.
Russell Nohelty – And Demons Followed Behind Her, Pixie Dust, The Vessel
The funniest thing about the reality of humanity facing an apocalyptic situation is the craze for toilet paper. Who could’ve seen that coming? I guess the closest tie in would be the great search for Twinkies in Zombieland. But seriously, I think going through an event like this gives me a clearer perspective of crafting the character as they navigate through their new norm, you know? Like Katniss Everdeen, after surviving the games, never truly returns to her old life. Humanity is there. Our post-COVID19 existence will never return to normal. Our ground zero has been moved and so will it be in the world of our books. But man, someone needs to remember to include the hunt for TP in their next novel!
Jaimie Engle – Metal Mouth: Lightning Can Strike Twice, Dreadlands: Wolf Moon, Write A Book That Doesn’t Suck
I’m currently writing a science fiction/horror story in which imperiled astronauts are completely terrified, yet still competent and ingenious. Though of disparate personalities, they coalesce to battle the otherworldly menace hunting them all. Seeing how Americans have reacted to simple requests like social distancing and mask wearing in the face of a lethal pandemic, I now realize the behavior of my characters is the most fantastic element of my science fiction plot.
Phil Hester – Firebreather, The Coffin, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman
The Guardian Maia story speaks of how the world ended up how it is. That was through a man-made plague or virus that didn’t make people zombies but it did kill and those that survived can only survive with it – like a symbiotic relationship. The question is ‘why’? This is revealed through the story and touches upon what’s happening in the world today with climate change, impending water wars etc. If we don’t want to end up in a dystopian future then we better start looking at what we can do now to help heal our environment and ourselves. We need to look at living with nature instead of against it.
The death cult is here in America. It is not “coming,” it is not a what-if trope in pop culture; I live in it. Six months ago, it was our status quo to hear weekly (sometimes daily) reports of mass shootings. Murder—not the intimate narrative of murder among friends and families, but a sort of performative, public murder—was already a meme in America. But whereas other destructive memes such as the cinnamon challenge or Momo the Bird Woman came and went quickly and without significant casualties, the mass shooting meme came to stay.
In such a death culture, why is anything shocking? I’m unsurprised as so many cavalier Americans ignore risks, prevention, and impact. Something deep in the spoiled, fragile, entitled American psyche enjoys this pandemic. There’s a gratification in the denial and an ego-stroke to the rebellion. People dare Death and Illness to come and get them in the way they dare the “Establishment” to come and take their guns.
The death cult, one of my favorite horror tropes, will no longer be a bit of scenery for apocalypse and disaster fiction. The death cult is the story, as everyone from Huysmans to Lovecraft to King and Carpenter have known all along. Just as the “real walking dead” are the survivors, and the “real monsters” are the human beings. What a God-damned revelation.
We write from our reality. The fiction I create today cannot be the same as that of yesterday as the world has changed. Much of our post-9/11 fiction was likely distinguished. Earth-shattering events inspire new worlds and those new worlds inspire new tales. Now, amidst another foundation collapse, we all looking forward to one day rebuilding. My new fiction will be impacted by that rebuilding and our new normal, whatever that may be.
Joel Eisenberg – The Chronicles of Ara, Out of the Black, 7 Hills
Medium: Writing For Your Life
Right now, hundreds of writers are out there furiously plotting their prescient apocalyptic plague epics. Drawing a comparison between the Covid-19 pandemic and a Romero scenario feels like low hanging fruit, but you can’t help but do it. My two zombie excursions have taken place in the past, and mainly address issues of social caste and wealth inequality, but were I to take a stab at doing a modern version, I think my jumping off point would be the little cartoon of the dog sitting at the table in the burning room saying ‘This Is Fine.’ The most dangerous plague affecting humanity right now isn’t airborne, it’s the ideological transference of stubborn, willful ignorance, and an inability to admit personal wrongdoing, even in the face of impending catastrophe.
I think of those unwilling to burn the bodies of the dead in stories like The Last Man On Earth, or the people in the tenement in Dawn Of The Dead. Of course, in those examples, the motivation was solely a sentimental attachment to the deceased. But in a post-Covid reality, I could see it being a stubborn denial of practicality based on some misguided political or theological adherence. “My kid ain’t comin’ back as one of them things. He’s sanctified/American. Now GIT!” (OK fine. There’s MY story.)
I like to think even the most unscrupulous of leaders, faced with hordes of ravenous undead, might take a step back and tell his or her followers to listen to the CDC this time, but maybe not. Ten years ago such a villain might seem cartoonish, but that’s another trope that needs retooling. And what about us? We were a country that united to sacrifice a big portion of our daily bread to stop fascism. Now we are willing to skip over the common courtesy of protecting each other with a simple face covering, not because it’s an inconvenience, let’s be real, but because it identifies us as adherents to a political ‘ism.’ We would rather start an argument with a stranger than protect ourselves, our children, and each other. If zombies were battering at our doors but our leader told us, like the dog, everything is fine, would we get that post-apocalypse Shaun of The Dead world, or based on the urging of a politician, trust God to intercede? God will watch over us, sure, but you can’t blame expect Him to stop the bullet once you’ve got the gun in your mouth.
Edward M. Erdelac – Merkabah Rider: High Planes Drifter, Andersonville: A Novel, The Knight with Two Swords
While I’ve touched on the subject of disease in a couple of my previous films, it’s never been at the heart of the plot or otherwise emphasized in my work. Whether I’ll make a film which is centered on an outbreak I’m not sure, but I do like to include topical elements in my movies – and there are few topics going right now which are as persistent and present in our lives than this pandemic.
Angie Rowntree – Director of Invictus
Homepage: Sssh.com (NSFW)
I try to stick some good lessons for kids in my 12 Minecrafter middle grade novels, but never to the point that it overtakes the story. So the main character, a boy named Stevie who lives in the Minecraft game, spends most of his time adventuring and fighting monsters like zombies and all sorts of Minecraft fun. But then I sneak in stuff like dealing with cyberbullying and fact-checking things online. My cyberbullying angles have gotten more attention in the media, though these days, I wonder if it should be the fact-checking parts. I started writing the Ender Dragon series arc for my books in 2016, and in it the characters struggle with what’s real and what isn’t, because they hear contradictory stories. This was partly based on me watching how much false information filters through the internet, unchecked. The lesson to kids: don’t believe everything you hear, and fact-check things before you jump on-board.
Are we fact-checking now? At times it feels as we’re still seeing shades of humanity as they were when they experienced the Black Death. No, COVID-19 is not anywhere near as bad, but we see the parallels of human reaction: hysteria, an unwillingness to trust science and logic, a need for scapegoats, and a growing antisemitism that I’ve personally been experiencing. My books tell kids that even in bad times we can rise above. But sometimes fighting zombies is easier than dealing with other people.
Danica Davidson – Down into the Nether: An Unofficial Overworld Adventure, Manga Art for Beginners: How to Create Your Own Manga Drawings
Living through a pandemic as a fiction writer is such a surreal experience, understanding that many books are being moved from speculative fiction to non-fiction. At a creative level it means considering what was once far fetched is now seen as insensitive. Personally, in my action comic Razor-Man where characters derive their abilities from their unusual causes of death, I’ve had to deeply consider removing a character whose death was by a respiratory virus.
For the last decade or so, I’ve had a very informal, undisciplined theory that the rise of zombies (and other viral “outbreaks” and apocalyptic scenarios) is an unconscious pre-coping mechanism put forth by our species as a way to prepare for the two-pronged fork of densification and globalization. We’re simultaneously adding humans in smaller spaces and increasing the rate at which they interact on a global scale. Add in the qualified specter of global warming, the thawing of permafrost, rising oceans, etc., and I think our anxiety is likely well placed. Toss in poor leadership and the paradoxical bubbles of social media and you get whole swaths of society that live in fear with very low regard for science or government.
As a storyteller, the aforementioned themes are a fantastically ripe playground to embed narratives. But is that enough? Do we also have a responsibility to help show a way out? That answer certainly comes down to opinion and agenda (and not all stories need to have grand ambitions), but I believe in the simple endeavor of trying to leave the world a little bit better than we found it. And a dread-filled, fear-based, anti-science, authoritarian power structure is certainly not it.
For the last two decades zombies have prevailed media. These zombies were mindless drones driven to one thing: consume flesh.
This was a metaphor for American society, where humans have one purpose to consume. Consume media, junk food, social media, and more.
How has the coronavirus changed this dynamic? In a sense American have “woken up.” They cannot consume anymore as the economy has grinded to a halt. Americans must look up from their smart phones and around at their surroundings, to see that we are living in the apocalypse. It has transferred from our TV to our reality.
It’s frightening to see the world around us burning down both literally and figuratively.
I think the bigger question is: what comes after the zombies?
Ashley Ryan – Producer/Director of documentary The Can’t Stop Us All
Writing about an apocalypse while a real-life apocalypse unfolds outside my window has only confirmed my prejudice that reality never beats fiction. (If you think it does, you need to find better fiction.)
The problem, I think, lies with mass-psychology. Authors, for practical reasons, conceive the background masses as one large character, a mob, a blob, a wailing Greek chorus. But real-life humans, despite the impression we give while raiding the nearest CVS for toilet paper, are somewhat more complex. We only lose some composure for the preservation of a bigger order. Even when we’re fighting other drones, we hope the hive will hold. We’d never slay the queen. The fact that our drive for self-preservation includes preserving civilization—even at the cost of a few fellow civilians—makes the system much harder to topple. In every eschatological narrative, be it a zombie plague or Godzilla & friends meeting on the San Andreas Fault for a zumba workout, there is an inflection point where people unanimously give up world order, a milestone past which everyone trying to carry on their previous life, watering their plants and working on their thesis, is labeled a madman. In reality, we never reach that point. We lack the synchrony, or the basic empathy. We don’t believe the pandemic’s serious until someone we care for dies; we won’t assume the USA is a fascist dystopia until one of those packs of nazi grunts in camo and no badges driving around Portland kidnaps our kid. There will be no real end of the world, because transitions are always too slow, even in 2020; we’re too fast at adapting, at accepting and embracing a new normal rather than admitting it’s not normal. We’re too good at shrugging and saying, “Well, guess we can’t shake hands anymore,” or “Well, guess we can’t protest/vote/be Jews anymore.” And then we rationalize it: “We were being too Jewish anyway.”
We like disasters in fiction because they’re faster, more dramatic, more cathartic. Also because in fiction the hero is quickly singled out—as opposed to reality, where we just look nervously at the other people in the chorus, wondering if we should step up.
Sometimes art and life align in a scary way—I recently had to rewrite an entire project right before its release. Why? Last fall I had written a gaming adventure about a virus overtaking a colony—where paranoia is built because no one knows who’s sick and no one is quarantining—and it was due to be released right in the middle of Covid. Yeah—that was one of the fastest rewrites I’ve ever had to do. While SciFi needs to tackle current events, you also have to be sensitive to what your audience might be going through. Anyway, the revised adventure is out and well received and definitely better for the change.
Andrew E.C. Gaska – Settings and Adventure writer for the Alien RPG
Having just come off writing a pandemic series, 2020 has felt like weird deja vu. Many of the things I wrote about based on simple research and “if-then” speculation are now a part of this surreal life in which. What I didn’t anticipate, though, was the strange sense of lethargy and general listlessness that can come from being shut in so much—as someone living (with OCD, no less!) through the pandemic, but also as a writer trying to work through it as well. If anything, I would have thought this might have been a really productive time for those of us working from home, but I never anticipated the way time has seemed especially elastic, both slowing and accelerating at once. That said, I still find pandemic stories fascinating even if I’m reading them in a slightly different light.
Here is what COVID taught me as a filmmaker aside from the economic impact of affecting certain projects of mine:
The bad stuff always starts out of nowhere…a small, off the radar place. As it grows it catches the attention of the media, which largely goes ignored by viewers. By the time the state and national officials hit the airwaves with their “keep calm, everything is under control” statements, the situation is irreversible. However, the bottom line is this, every time…every single time…they always ignore the scientists, who invariably turn out to be right.
In Cowboys Vs Zombies, the plot was the zombie plague was created as revenge for the slaughter of native people across the great plains. Custer and his men are resurrected as vengeful beasts to destroy the white man’s encroachment. But, like all things from beyond, you can’t reason with the undead and the horde kills indiscriminately causing both native and white heroes to band together to survive. When I wrote it ten years ago, it came from a place of revenge fantasy like Inglorious Basterds, I couldn’t imagine the current political/pandemic environment we are in now.
I always wonder how society could collapse so quickly in the zombie genre; I feel like I am witnessing the collapse in real time. All it takes is an administration without a plan that pretends the problem is just going to go away by itself. You have citizens trying their best to do the right thing by wearing masks, social distancing and sheltering in place but their efforts are erased and undermined by a vocal group of anti-science, anti-authority “freedom lovers” that call the whole thing a hoax. Their stupidity coupled with a lack of a plan or leadership from the government has led to millions of deaths and the rapid spread of the virus across the country.
Next thing you know, the undead outnumber the living and we’re in a zombie apocalypse.
In many ways COVID has shown the selfishness of humans when faced with a pandemic. The anti-science disbelievers are so absolutely inconvenienced by taking measures to protect themselves and others that they would rather risk everyone’s health by pushing for haircuts and bars to be open.
It amazes me and it throws my whole theory out, that in a zombie apocalypse, people would naturally group together to protect each other because we are social animals. I didn’t take into account the unbelievable selfishness that has taken over a percentage of the country. No empathy, sympathy or sense of duty to each other. Just this sense of entitlement.
I feel that people are bored with the lockdown and that’s dangerous. It’s hard being in a group project with the kid that is eating paste, but that’s the group we have been given. We have to keep going, keep doing the right thing and keeping our distance. It’s rough but until we have a viable vaccine, this is the way. Our other choice is losing millions of people needlessly.
If I was to write another zombie story, I would focus on the selfish and entitled. Following them making one bad choice after another until the end without them once finding redemption or recognizing the choices that got them there.
Ben Acevedo – Game Designer/Writer, Cowboys Vs Zombies, PAC-MAN & Friends, Sherlock Holmes Mysteries
At the time of writing this we’re four months in on this pandemic, and I think that this limbo we’re all living through right now has really thrown our cultural dynamics into sharp relief. It’s done an amazing job of highlighting the vulnerable and the privileged in the U.S., and it’s also shown the self-destructive drive many of us get caught up in the name of preserving some notion of capitalism or “normalcy.” Any time something crazy breaks out in the world, I feel like we can’t help comparing how the movies stacked up to reality. As the days roll on, I just see a growing affirmation that so many horror films, novels, etc, largely got it right. I feel like it’s pretty well established that Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is still the archetype for contemporary zombie films, and for good reason. The microcosm of humanity that plays out in that story contains an element of everything we’ve been seeing these past months: the well-intentioned but misinformed, the selfish / self-entitled, the level-headed who are constantly struggling to deal with the reality of the situation. And all of that is set against a backdrop of the unhealed racial trauma in this country. All of it. It’s all there in NotLD, and we’re still dealing with the exact same social dynamics in a crisis 52 years later.
Patrick Horvath – Die-ner (Get It?), Southbound, Hell Parade
I’ve never written dystopian fiction about outbreaks, but I have eagerly consumed it, and now I’m publishing it. As I write this, I’m fund-raising for a comic book about zombies that my partner wrote. A worldwide pandemic is a hell of a time to be working on a story about an outbreak of zombie-ism. And I’m reconsidering everything I thought I knew about the end of the world.
In outbreak and zombie fiction, the audience often comes in during the beginning of an outbreak or after it’s already wreaked havoc—we see the confusion of the early days or the aftermath and devastation. We don’t watch the world fall apart in slow motion from the dubious comfort of our homes, with news coverage abounding and squabbles breaking out over the nature of reality. To me, that’s where it’s gotten really bizarre.
The human reaction to the end of the world is not what I expected. But here I am, watching in disbelief as the government fumbles and refuses to provide leadership. As factions form and divide and re-form. As people knowingly and willingly risk their own safety and that of others based on their political affiliations. As they claim that it’s all a conspiracy…while people fall ill and die all around them. What we’re seeing is the breakdown of people’s abilities to cope with reality, often along party and demographic lines. And, while part of me isn’t surprised, necessarily, by the pettiness and meanness going on over wearing masks, gathering in crowds, and toting guns to back up one’s beliefs…I am disappointed.
In the (hopefully post-Covid) future, any storytelling I create around outbreaks, zombies, or the apocalypse more generally will take these unexpected developments into account. To me, they are just as bizarre and important as the dead coming back to life and devouring brains.
Lynsey G – Tracy Queen
With that said, how do you think the Covid pandemic will impact the creation of stories? Share your thoughts bellow.
(Feature Image courtesy of Lovecraftian Horror Wallpaper)