Movie Disease Vectors: Pass It on

I mentioned in an earlier post that one  of the primary staples of the Horror genre is the fear of disease, or loss of bodily autonomy. The Fly is a perfect encapsulation of this theme. The Horror genre also likes to combine the two fears, as in the movie, Slither, and part of the fun of watching such films is figuring out how you would, or could, survive the fate of the film’s characters.

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I was revisiting some commentary I’d left on another website, and  discussing disease vectors. I was specifically discussing zombification, and where and how such a disease would get started. I mentioned a game I was playing called Plague Inc.

I don’t know if any of you have heard of Plague Inc., but it’s a fascinating way of learning how disease works, and the CDC itself approves of the game, and offers suggestions. The objective of the game is to kill  the human race, anything less than that and you lose. You must kill off all humanity. I’ve only won the game once on the easy setting, and trust me, it’s not a triumphant feeling.

Plague Inc. is a strategy title in which you take control of a deadly pathogen and, beginning with patient zero, attempt to spread the plague across the entire world and wipe out the human race — which does its best to adapt and stop you in your tracks at every turn.

You have to factor, not just where the disease begins, but how fast it travels, based on how its victims contract it, how the disease gets spread to different locations, and carefully calculate how fast it works on its victims bodies. You receive points on how effective your disease is, and you can use those points to buy specific attributes it, like new vectors, that can slow it down, or speed it up. If the disease kills its victims too fast, then it dies out before it can infect enough people. If it works on its victims too slowly, then the disease will be cured before it can infect enough people. What you want is a disease that spreads quickly, through as many vectors as possible, while leaving its patients alive just long enough that scientists don’t realize how fatal the disease is.

Horror movies base a lot of their plots off diseases, some of them pretty rare, and some of them entirely  fictional, but they all operate from the same basis. Diseases need to be spread somehow, and just like other living organisms, the virus or bacteria, or whatever the disease is based on, wants to survive and multiply, and can only do that by infecting as many people as possible. Horror movie diseases echo real world versions in that they need to have vectors.

 

28 Days Later (2002)/Train to Busan (2016)/World War Z

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These three movies are too similar in their depictions of zombification not to be compared. The only differences are that in 28 Days Later, the victims are still alive, and slowly starve to death, while in Train to Busan, the victims are the reanimated dead. The diseases are spread very much the same,with humans as the transport vector. and these diseases spread very quickly because the victims are fast, chasing and infecting, more victims.

Much like  Rabies, both diseases are spread through contact with infected saliva, like a bite, or interaction with bodily fluids. The diseases in the movies are spread so fast because the victims are compelled to seek out new hosts, and because it works on the body much faster than any known real life diseases, so its not very realistic in the depictions of the diseases themselves.These diseases work too fast on the bodies of the victims, but the vectors for them are realistic enough.

 

 

World War Z (2013)/The Invasion (2007)

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The vector for the zombification in World War Z is similar to the the one used in The Invasion, which is kind of a slick remake of The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. The vector, in both cases, is humans, but one extra thing these two diseases have in common is how they react to the human body, in that a previous infection of some other disease, can render a person immune to the current one.

I think World War Z got this idea from the science of immunology.h I have it on good authority that that is not how  disease works in real life, and in World War Z,  it is more how predator/prey relationships sometimes work. In the real world, what would happen is one kind of disease suppressing one’s immune system, and  making a person vulnerable to other infections. One of the things that World War Z gets right, however are that boats and planes are two of the vectors for transport of the disease.

In The Invasion, the “disease’, which is really a kind of sentient virus, is passed via bodily fluids. The victims produce a milky saliva that they use to infect more victims, usually by adulterating beverages. This is another disease that spreads quickly, as the first victims are compelled to seek out more.  A person becomes a “podded” after they fall asleep, and a brief period in which the body tries to fight off the infection through other means, like a fever. In 1400’s England, there was a brief epidemic of something called The Sweating Sickness, that could kill a person within hours of infection. The name, and cause, of the diseases is still unknown, but it is similar to The Invasion, in that the victims suffer “night sweats” which coats their body in a gelatinous like “pod”.

Any … form of sensing the presence of infected prey, unless they just kind of know it preternaturally or something, would require methods we’re not currently aware of.

https://www.vulture.com/2013/06/biophysicist-assesses-world-war-z.html

 

The Stand – Stephen King (1978)

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The disease chronicled in The Stand is not fictional. It is very  real. Called the Superflu, it is spread the same way regular colds and flu is spread, with the only difference between it and the regular flu, is  that the Superflu was genetically modified to be a weapon. Scientists hardly needed to make a super version, as there have been several times that the flu has wiped out whole populations of people. There here have been several of these over the past 300 years. The last major Flu pandemic happened in 1918, called the Spanish Flu, it killed some 50 to 100 million people worldwide. Because the flu is easily transmitted,  it is capable of infecting a lot of people, without their knowledge. The description of the Superflu, or as its called in the book, Captain Trips, closely resembles descriptions of The Spanish Flu.

One of the most interesting chapters in King’s novel, chronicles the transmission of the disease from patient zero, to the rest of the population, illustrating the futility in trying to contain it. The disease travels just fast enough, and kills just slow enough, that no one realizes they have been infected, and are able to pass it along to many unknowingly, by touch. Just like the real flu Captain Trips is contagious before they show any symptoms, after which the disease is airborne, in infected droplets from  mucus.The only difference is that Captain Trips had a 100% mortality rate. If you caught it, you died.

The flu is transmitted through droplet, so if you catch it it’s because you have someone else’s spit in you. So if you do think you have the flu, you should wear a mask when you go outside. And if you refuse to get your flu shot, you should also wear a mask. Droplet range is about three feet. People can sneeze as far as 20 feet but about 3 feet is the contagious range.

That’s what made The Stand so scary. People would go through their days coughing and sneezing, thinking they were just suffering from a light head cold. But as they were going throughout their day, they were infecting everyone they had come across. And then a week later they were dead.

https://factandsciencefiction.com/the-flu-stephen-king-the-stand/

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The Black Death (2010)

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The tile of this movie is a reference to the  Bubonic Plague, AKA The Black Plague. In the mid 1300s, the Black Death was responsible for killing a third of Europe’s population, and parts of the Mediterranean and Africa. The disease still exists today, even here in the US. One of the vectors for Bubonic plague are rats, (and other small rodents), which carry the infected fleas, which can carry the disease quickly and quietly into populated areas. One of the other vectors is humanity. People infected with the plague are highly contagious, and can pass it on, much like the flu.

The bacteria that cause plague, Yersinia pestis, maintain their existence in a cycle involving rodents and their fleas. Plague occurs in rural and semi-rural areas of the western United States, primarily in semi-arid upland forests and grasslands where many types of rodent species can be involved. Many types of animals, such as rock squirrels, wood rats, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, chipmunks, mice, voles, and rabbits can be affected by plague. Wild carnivores can become infected by eating other infected animals.

https://www.cdc.gov/plague/transmission/index.html

 

Cabin Fever (2002)

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Just as in The Invasion , this disease can be passed on by human beings coming into contact with the bodily fluids of the infected.  In the movie, several college students come in contact with  water that’s been contaminated by an infected  body. As the disease progresses they begin to bleed profusely, and the skin begins to slough away. The basis for the disease in the movie is called necrotizing fasciitis,, aka Flesh Eating Bacteria. (I caution you to not Google images of this disease, unless you have a strong stomach. For the record,  it looks exactly like the disease in the movie.)

 If you have necrotizing fasciitis you have a life threatening condition that could spread to kill you within hours. Once you have it you can go from swollen calf to death’s door within a period of days.

https://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2003-09/catching-cabin-fever/

 

Pontypool (2009)

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This is a unique and  interesting movie in that the vector of contamination here is speech. The use of certain words must be said and heard in a specific arrangement in English, which creates an infection that takes over the brain, and turns the victim into a living zombie.

The disease in the movie mimics some actual speech disorders, like “spasmodic dysphonia”, the speech disorder most famous for its use in the movie Us by Lupita Nyongo, who got into  some small  trouble for it.

“There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it’s words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can’t express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.”

https://longsworde.wordpress.com/2011/01/29/the-zombies-of-pontypool-language-as-a-virus/

 

Afflicted (2013)

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The basis for much of the mythology of vampirism is a disease  called Porphyria, a set of several inherited, blood disorders, that result in the body being unable to create hemoglobin. Some of the symptoms of  porphyria are paleness, lethargy, and extreme photsensitivity, all symptoms displayed by the character in the movie. Porphyria, however , is not infectious.

In The Afflicted,  Derek, begins to exhibit all the symptoms of vampirism, after an encounter with a pretty girl at a nightclub. He first exhibits flu like symptoms, before the disease is offset  by the other  symptoms of vamprism,  super strength, and speed. In the movies, vampirism is contagious through contact with saliva, in much the same way as rabies, to which it also bears a similarity. For example, animals with rabies often display “hydrophobia”, an aversion to water, which might have given rise to the belief, that vampires could not abide running water.

The different genetic variations that affect heme production give rise to different clinical presentations of porphyria — including one form that may be responsible for vampire folklore.

https://vector.childrenshospital.org/2017/09/gene-protoporphyria-blood-disorder/

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Rabies is a deadly virus that is transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected animal. Globally, it kills an estimated 59,000 people each year — that equates to almost one death every 9 minutes. Initial symptoms are only flu-like, but once they appear, rabies is almost always fatal.

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321780.php

 

Slither (2006)

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The alien in this movie doesn’t resemble any kind of human disease, but it does resemble the actions of a particular fungus. The cordyceps fungus operates in much the same fashion as the alien in the movie: infect, zombify, repeat. In that way, the creature, also called The Long One,  grows to consume the life of an entire planet. The alien mimics the life cycle of cordyceps by controlling the hosts to infect more hosts, through the use of mobile spores, which look like worms.

The cordyceps fungus also infects an ant or other insect through spores. After the host is infected, it is instructed by the spores to climb to a high point, before more of the spores burst from its body, infecting the rest of the colony. In the movie, after a person is directly infected  by the primary host, their bodies are instructed to feed until they grow to enormous size, after which their bodies burst, releasing the spore-like worms.

After patient zero, Grant Grant, is infected by an initial spore (in the shape of a needle), he is instructed to feed, and impregnate more hosts. The alien takes on the intelligence level of its hosts, although it does have its own  memories, which are shared among its hosts, and  is specifically referenced, in the film, as a “Conscious Disease”.

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