Don’t Panic: Why Pop Culture Wants You to Freak Out About Ebola and Pandemics

Since the terrifying pandemic known as Ebola is officially in the United States, the news has gotten more and more insane by the hour. A nurse diagnosed with Ebola took a plane flight, and tried on wedding dresses in Ohio. A health care worker (also related to the Dallas case), is now on a Carnival Cruise Ship, officially quarantined. It’s enough to make the average person hearing about Ebola through 24-hour news stations, blogs, and radio, liable to freak out.

Currently, self-published books about Ebola written by random people — not medical professionals — are at the top of the charts at Amazon, and the problem is that these opportunistic cranks are spreading wild misinformation. There’s a guide to Ebola for preppers, one that suggests loading up on haz-mat suits, one that suggests vitamins. They’re all wrong.

But this hysteria, stoked by the news, preyed upon by opportunists, seems to come in two forms. First: there’s the news, which needs fear-mongering to survive. While clearly our government doesn’t… instill confidence, let’s say, the sheer amount of stories that are coming out just feel like people yelling into the void. Where are the solutions? Where are the experts? How awful was this hospital in Dallas? (Very, clearly.)

Secondly, too, it feels as if we’re primed to respond, narratively, to stories about plague and disease. They’re rampant in pop culture. We’ve been straight into a zombie revival in recent years, led by AMC’s monster hit The Walking Dead. We like the metaphor of zombies, of illness. It works on a day to day level (these guys are all squares, man! going to their houses! I’m special because I don’t buy in!) and it works on a profound level with the idea that illness, death, and the decay of the body is coming, and we will have to deal with it. Eula Biss’ recent book On Immunity is very effective at linking illness, fear, our bodies and metaphor (her story of choice is Dracula). It’s why the news that Ridley Scott is (finally, after twenty years) adapting 1994 bestseller The Hot Zone for TV as a limited series, with an updated hook — ebola — is making headlines. (When, frankly, it seems a bit like an opportunistic lunge for buzz.)

In a recent article for Popular Science, writer Brooke Borel provided a sane perspective. The resident “ebola experts” on news shows hinge further away from legitimate experts and more towards Robin Cook, the author of Outbreak (the pandemic book that became a movie the last time we were dealing with this, in 1994). Borel talked to historian and professor Nancy Tomes from Stonybook about the appeal of plague stories: because we have germ panic, according to Tomes, we seek out catharsis in stories and narratives that make epidemics into scary entertainment. “This outbreak touches on the post-9/11 fear of disintegration of world order,” Tomes said.

Because we treat pandemics as entertainment, in news (with its lack of sourced experts) and fiction (with relevant stories of pestilential doom), we ramp ourselves up with hysteria and paranoia. It’s a natural human reaction. Ebola is terrifying and if you are squeamish, you really shouldn’t read about it. But if you are an American, the truth of it is this: there are 310,000,000 people in the United States, and so far, Ebola has affected 3 people.

A car accident is a more sensible daily fear. Yet there’s not as much news or entertainment about that doomed possibility, is there, made to chew on for hours and hours of agitation? Last time I checked, David Cronenberg’s Crash was still a cult film, and its twin, Paul Haggis’ Crash, is a film we all have sworn to “forget” about in the list of Best Picture Oscar winners. The big budget film adaptation of Max Brooks’ World War Z, on the other hand, cost over $100 million to shoot and it made $500 million worldwide. The zombies are winning.