Right after receiving her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, my mom made a weird joke. “I don’t know,” she told me over the phone. “I just feel like, now that I’ve had the vaccine, I’ll come back as a zombie when I die.”
It’s a scene straight out The walking dead, an AMC show that I watched with my family. At the end of the first season, the characters learn that they’ve all been infected with… anything that raises the dead. (Supposedly, they were “space spores.”) Long story short, even if a person dies of natural causes, they will revive themselves and become a zombie.
I checked that my mother, an avid science fan, was joking (mostly) and her comment turned into nothing more than a silly anecdote. That is, until I read a story in the Denver Post in which a man who felt uncomfortable getting the COVID-19 vaccine mentioned the apocalyptic film I’m a legend. The 2007 film starring Will Smith also appeared in the New York Times and Washington post articles — each featuring someone blaming their hesitation about the vaccine on the film.
Here is the elevator pitch for I’m a legend: A botched cancer cure turns most of the world’s population into vampire-zombie hybrids. Strange as it may sound, articles about the premise have started circulating on social media asking if we really felt safe taking a rapidly developing COVID-19 “cure”. The messages were widespread enough that Reuters conducted a fact-check, pointing out that it was a genetically engineered virus – not a vaccine – that caused the outbreak in I’m a legend. Akiva Goldsman, the film’s screenwriter, avoided separating these technical details into a Twitter message: “Oh. My.God. It’s a movie. I made that up. Sound. Not. Real.”
But, for some, the film felt real. A piece of pop culture has taken on new life, infecting the minds of the unvaccinated and vaccinated (sorry, mom). So what brought this idea out of the grave?
“There are a lot of good examples across horror and zombie horror,” says Bryan Hall, academic dean of Regis University’s School for Professional Advances and professor of philosophy, “that let you talk about social issues, political and ethical in a way that people are going to be more open. Hall exploited this idea by writing An Ethical Guide To The Zombie Apocalypse: How To Keep Your Brain Without Losing Your Heart, a short story book that introduces theories of moral philosophy.
The rise of slasher films in the 1980s, for example, coincided with Ronald Reagan’s presidency signaling a shift towards conservatism. Offerings like this bloody, like Friday 13 (1980) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), often portray a killer sending sexually exploratory adolescents. Sarah Juliet Lauro, professor of English at the University of Tampa and author of The transatlantic zombie: slavery, rebellion and the living death, offers another example: Invasion of the Body Thieves, in which alien pods mimic and replace real humans to develop a population of emotionless conformers. It came out on the big screen in 1956, after Joseph McCarthy spent years warning that the Communists were infiltrating the United States.
Watching these films is not a simple exercise in masochism. “In this imaginary world, the fear is so exaggerated, so ridiculous, that we can talk about it,” says Lauro. Zombies are used to signify that something is wrong. “What’s the most unnatural thing you can imagine? Lauro asks. “Someone who has come back from the dead.
Early Caribbean zombie tales envisioned a wizard resuscitating corpses to work as laborers, but once the zombie reached the United States, these stories of slavery and control gave way to fears that science had gone bad – and were tinted with a hint of authority common among today’s anti-vaccines. Lauro points to the years 1968 Astro zombies as a revealing, albeit schlocky, illustration of this mistrust. In it, a scientist involved in a CIA mind control project becomes a thug, using technology to control the zombies he has built from the body parts of corpses. Doctors lose control in other movies, like when an experimental skin transplant makes a woman thirsty for blood and zombifies her victims in Enraged (1977).
The government rarely manages these epidemics well. “You often see the military taking over and trying to quarantine people,” says Ashley Knox, a PhD student at the University of Colorado whose love of zombies led her to study microbiology. These control attempts are often violent: a SWAT agent randomly shoots unarmed residents of a low-income apartment in Dawn of the Dead comes to mind. “People really internalize these scenes and think, Alright, our government wants to have us“Knox says.
It doesn’t help that we have concrete examples of scientists and governments mismanaging disease. The Associated press declared the United States Public Health Department in 1972 for deliberately failing to treat black men infected with syphilis during the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Another obvious example is the HIV / AIDS crisis. And in 2003, an outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus began in China and spread to four other countries. Chinese health officials have been accused of withholding information about the disease.
The SARS situation arose a year after the release of 28 days later– a film that begins with animal rights activists breaking into a laboratory, where they find chimpanzees forced to watch footage of violent riots. Chimpanzees, says a scientist, are infected with rabies. A monkey bite triggers a violent epidemic that reaches Britain.
“There is another correlation between fear of science and fear of government there,” says Beth Younger, professor of English and women and gender studies at Drake University, of 28 days later. [Full disclosure: I took Younger’s class on horror and gender while I was a student at Drake.] The fact that the survivors are eventually rescued by a small team of British soldiers – remnants of government control – to learn that the soldiers plan to rape the remaining women further invites the viewer to wince at the remnants of authority.
The zombies’ dragging lack of agency cards on rhetorical anti-vaccine use: that they are free thinkers, and those vaccinated are sheep blindly following authority. “I think part of the fear of the vaccine – and you see it in the idea that the vaccine will magnetize you or put a microchip in you – is that you will stop being human,” Younger says. Pair this with unsubstantiated lab theory claims made by the far right, and the overlap between COVID-19 and zombie movies is increasing.
“The virus seems very apocalyptic to people,” Younger says. Scenes from sterile March 2020 grocery shelves, along with fears that anyone, especially your loved ones, could be infected and give you the disease, are straight out of a zombie movie.
Even the pandemic language sounds familiar. Phrases like “rapid antigen testing” have shifted from lab jargon to fodder for table discussions. “It’s this massive vocabulary entry that people don’t know about,” Knox says. “Or they have Of course, all of these terms are movies where some goofy scientist or an evil society sets off the zombie apocalypse.
“I think that’s why people are confused, because we’ve seen pandemic stories for so long with horror,” Lauro said. ” They wonder, Can my real world look even more like these fantastic horror movies?“
Which brings us back to I’m a legend. Scientists are brazenly experimenting on the human body in an attempt to cure the looming threat of cancer. When the public blindly trusts these intruders, disaster ensues. The rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine may seem similar, and to some, the public debate among healthcare professionals (for example, whether mixing and pairing booster shots is safe; the FDA has just approved the practice) might give the disconcerting impression that the experts don’t agree. Current political divisions compound mistrust, says Hall: “People are reactive instead of thinking. “
contrary to I’m a legend, scientists in our world weren’t playing with something they didn’t understand: they were using familiar technology. Countless studies have determined that serious and life-threatening side effects are extremely rare and that the vaccine significantly reduces the risk of dying from COVID.
And the back and forth between experts? “It’s a normal way to learn something new,” Knox says. “Scientists are doing a lot of different trials, and if we can reliably replicate the results with rigorous studies, we start to move towards stronger conclusions. “
A lack of scientific literacy can prevent the public from seeing the debate in this way. “There is great pressure in our community to better communicate science,” Knox says. “Stopping someone who has doubts about vaccines is not helpful. We need to be prepared to have these conversations.
This is how the man cited in the Denver Post came, a doctor took the time to talk to him. “At one point, I think it’s enough to trust the doctors,” Lauro says. “Because looking for a horror movie as a guide is really not helpful.”
(Read more: Coloradan’s Guide to Surviving the End of the World)