Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

Epidemics / Health emergencies

Epidemics in media narratives are not confined to a state of emergency like the current one relating to the Sars Cov-2 pandemic. The topos of the fear of contagion has been with mankind since ancient times (it is present in the form of a plague in Sophocles’ Oedipus King) and then throughout the centuries (the 1348 plague in Boccaccio’s Decameron and the 1630 one narrated by Alessandro Manzoni in The Betrhoted), finding new sources and elements in the discoveries of microbiology that took place in the 19th century, when medical treatments for ills once believed to be caused by unknown and immaterial (when not evil) forces were established. The rationalization brought about by the new discoveries and empirical evidence, however, did not prevent man from imagining apocalyptic scenarios linked to the spread of viruses capable of exterminating humanity as a whole, fears already exorcised at the time in novels such as The Masque of the Red Death (1842) by Edgar Allan Poe and The Scarlet Plague (1912) by Jack London. A Victorian declination of the idea of contagion is the one described in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1912), an allegory of the most horrifying consequences of the spread of diseases (Stoker probably drew inspirations from the syphilis epidemic that was raging at the time), a theme also explored in films (such as Nosferatu. Eine Symphonie des Grauens by F.W. Murnau, 1921). Widespread terms in today’s media discourse such as “isolation”, “quarantine”, “red zone” or “curfew” evoke scenarios shaped by media narratives that, in the last century, have helped to show the effects of the pandemic on society. Novels such as I am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954) and Cassandra Crossing by Robert Katz (1976) have had a lasting influence on cinema, where this theme has been further elaborated by films such as 12 Monkeys by Terry Gilliam (1995) or Outbreak (1995) by Wolfgang Petersen. In the last twenty years, the figure of the zombie embodies the consequences of contagion: starting from the early films of George A. Romero, a new wave of comics, TV series (The Walking Dead, Z Nation) and videogames (the Japanese Resident Evil saga) has developed around the figure of the undead. Finally, it is worth mentioning the original theme of a society affected by blindness, addressed by José Saramago’s novel Ensaio sobre a cegueira (Blindness, 1995), and by the TV series See, where blindness spread like a disease and drives back Earth to a tribal and primitive state.