Horror has a way of affecting those who indulge in its sensitive genre, be it through literature, poetry, movies, and even T.V. shows. It affects its readers and viewers by agitating the emotion humans tend to be most sensitive to: fear. It does this in many different ways by exploring the different kinds of things that evoke fear. A fear of a man-made monster, a seductive vampire that goes against all morally righteous boundaries, or maybe a fear of a serial killer who could be anyone, maybe even your neighbor.
But the fear that that stands out uniquely amongst the typical ones is the fear of disease. Diseases such as cancer, influenza, and AIDS are universally feared diseases. It’s quite possible for anyone to be inflicted with one of these. A close loved one to you can be caught by one of these infections and rapidly begin deteriorating. It’s a terrible thought, but that is why it makes a perfect basis for a terrifying horror story. Gruesome situations and intense underlying themes are prevalent when exploring the epidemic topic in horror stories. The elements in these stories capture the reality of societies’ fear of epidemics today, explaining and describing just why they are so terrifying.
One of the prominent factors in an epidemic horror story is the ever-lingering sense of doom. In Danny Boyle’s movie 28 Days Later, the main character Jim, played by Cillian Murphy, wakes up in a hospital from a coma to discover that not only is the hospital completely empty, so is the entire city of London, due to an infection that causes infinite rage in human beings, compelling them to infect others or eat them.
It’s immediately noticed that Jim appears to be completely alone, whilst he walks around the city in his hospital gown, searching for some sort of life. But the doom sets in as soon as he walks up to a wall that is covered with photos of people who’ve gone missing and letters of those asking for help and declaring utmost panic.
It’s then recognized just how incredibly vulnerable Jim is. His hospital gown and lack of knowledge of the exact cause of what has happened to London doesn’t provide him with any protection for what he is going to encounter. These factors combined create a perfect wave of doom that washes over the viewer. He/she doesn’t know what is going to happen next just like Jim, but the fact that he is vulnerable and ignorant is enough for the viewer to begin feeling very uncomfortable. Something bad is bound to happen, but it’s not known. Therefore, nothing but that dreaded feeling of doom is on the viewers’ mind, waiting and watching for those first signs of the horror that we’re supposed to encounter. The viewer may think he/she is then ready for the inevitable shocking moment, but the doom that has been established makes the coming climactic moment all that much worse. Nothing can be done to prepare the viewer for what’s going to happen: Jim encounters a rage-infected priest who unfortunately isn’t looking for any confessions to feed on but a body to feast upon.
Although one may not compare in one’s head the similarities of this situation to that of a real life problem, the relations to real world diseases is overwhelmingly present with regards to this aspect of the movie.
When an individual has been diagnosed with a treatable but incurable disease such as cancer, the patient and the patients’ loved ones become increasingly afraid. No one knows what will happen, all you can do is treat the problem and hope that it gets better. But, you can’t help but ask yourself some haunting questions. What if it gets worse? What if the patient is overcome by the disease overnight? What if you never get the chance to say goodbye before they’ve completely succumbed to the disease?
This is what makes 28 Days Later a very effective epidemic horror movie. It pushes you to ask yourself these kinds of questions and it brings on that terrible feeling: doom.
Another characteristic that is perfect for an epidemic horror film is the eerie feeling of complete isolation.
Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, is a perfect example of the resulting consequences of being isolated, and even for just a short period of time.
Matheson’s character, Robert Neville, begins facing the reality that he may or may not becoming slightly insane just in the first couple of months without normal human interaction. His mind begins to challenge his moral boundaries, in the subtlest of ways,
He took the woman from her bed, pretending not to notice the question posed in his mind. Why do you always experiment on women? He didn’t care to admit that the inference had any validity. She just happened to be the first one he’d come across, that was all. What about the man in the living room, though? For God’s sake! He flared back. I’m not going to rape the woman! Crossing your fingers, Neville? Knocking on wood? He ignored that, beginning to suspect his mind of harboring an alien. Once he might have termed it conscience. Now it was only an annoyance. Morality, after all, had fallen with society. He was his own ethic. Makes a good excuse, doesn’t it, Neville? Oh, shut up (Matheson).
This situation was resolved quickly, but Neville’s questioning of the validity of mankind’s morals was a result of his isolation from the human race. The longer Neville went without any human contact, the more he questioned his morals.
One aspect of epidemic horror stories branches off into it’s own kind of epidemic horror story. This is the aspect of containment. Containment of disease in horror movies focuses on a larger group of people, unlike I Am Legend and 28 Weeks Later, which is centered on either one person or a very small group of people.
The idea of containment can be more haunting and frightening than an actual battle with individuals who are currently infected with some sort of zombie like disease. Tensions are heightened and individuals feel and become more vulnerable because their primary goal is to keep something out of their group: the disease.
One of the first examples of containment in a horror story would be Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.
The attendees of Prince Prospero and himself have locked themselves in a lavish Abbey to keep themselves from coming in contact with the Red Death. In this way, the Red Death is being treated as if it’s a disease and it’s shown by precautions the Prince has taken to make sure his Abbey is secure (Poe).
Another bit of evidence that shows the Red Death could be a disease is that it is referred to as an ‘it’ rather than a he or she. Meaning, that whatever the Red Death is, it’s not human, making it that much more scary.
Like previous examples, this story also plays off the feeling of doom to convey the seriousness and the haunting idea of the Red Death entering into the Abbey.
This feeling is found most disturbing when the musicians stop playing suddenly when the bell strikes,
…there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to harken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; an, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation (Poe).
Soon, the dreaded feeling of doom and paranoia becomes more than a feeling and the Prince, despite his efforts, ultimately fails at keeping the Red Death out, and when the Red Death takes over there is nothing left and “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” (Poe)