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The Birth of Super Plagues

It doesn’t take long playing Resident Evil 2 to know that things in Raccoon City have gone very, very wrong.

Originally released on the PlayStation, Resident Evil 2 (known as Biohazard 2 in Japan) pits police officer Leon Kennedy and college student Claire Redfield against a horde of zombies and other mutants affected by the man-made T-virus. The T-virus, developed by the Umbrella Corporation, mutates living organisms into violent, bloodthirsty monsters. Within moments of turning on the game, Leon is assaulted by a T-virus zombie, letting players know this will be a difficult, scary ride.

Plagues have been striking fear into the hearts of humans since around the time we started developing language, tools, and societies, so it’s no surprise that they frequently show up in popular culture. This month’s big game release, Tom Clancy’s The Division, is based on the idea of a superplague spreading at a rapid rate and wiping out Manhattan.

In many video games, a slew of enemies are needed for the player to defeat and destroy in order to survive until the next level. Plagues provide a way for these enemies to be horrific, and because of the very nature of them, for there to be a large number of adversaries if necessary. They also help create a terrifying setting at least partially based in reality, preying upon fears of real-life plagues.

Mysterious, fast-spreading illnesses caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, or even magic allow writers to create unique and dynamic worlds like the post-apocalyptic wasteland in The Last of Usthe zombie-filled ruins of a corporate empire in the Resident Evil franchise, and the gritty noir dystopia of Deus Ex.

Just as plagues have been a constant source of death and suffering in history, they have also been a constant source of inspiration for the creators of novels, television shows, movies, video games, comic books, and more.

The History of Plagues

Carting the Dead by Moynet

Plagues have been giving humanity a hard time for millennia, with one of the earliest being the typhoid-like Plague of Athens in 430 BCE. Tens of thousands perished, though plagues are known for causing incredible death tolls.

Usually caused by overcrowding and poor sanitation, plagues have cut populations down to size on a regular basis over the course of history. In 541 CE, the “plague of Justinian” decimated nearly 40% of the European population. The “plague of Justinian” was caused by bubonic plague, known colloquially as “the Black Death” because victims sometimes suffer from necrosis, causing the body’s extremities to turn black and rot away.

The Black Death initially causes flu-like symptoms and swollen lymph nodes. Transmitted primarily by flea bites, the disease can be controlled with modern medicine and sanitation practices.

The second Black Death outbreak in the 1340s killed millions and would lead to small recurrences of bubonic plague throughout Europe in the years to come. The Great Plague of London would kill nearly a quarter of that city’s population, only ended by the great fire of 1666. (That’s right, you can kill plague with fire.)

In addition to bubonic plague, which is caused by bacteria, other plagues like viral hemorrhagic fever, yellow fever, ebola, smallpox, measles, and influenza have also decimated populations throughout the centuries.

Playing with Plagues

Left 4 Dead

Plagues are most often utilized in video games to create a fan-favorite enemy: zombies. Whether it’s “the virus” from the Left 4 Dead franchise, the T-virus from Resident Evil, or the fungus from The Last of Us, plagues that cause mutated zombies for players to shoot, stab, and dismember are a video game trope that’s not going anywhere soon.

In addition to these survival horror titles, there are a handful of other video games that take advantage of the plague trope in unique ways. In the first Deus Ex, originally released on PC, a nano-machine based plague called the Gray Death is a major plot-point. In Pandemic and Plague, Inc.both originally PC games with a number of ports, the player actually takes control of a plague and attempts to wipe out humanity. Pandemic is notorious for being difficult to get 100% completion on, as Madagascar doesn’t hesitate to close its ports the second someone sneezes, but the games provide an  insight into how diseases spread while also being entertaining.

How realistic a plague is in a game is often dependent upon the title. The T-virus (and subsequent G-virus) in Resident Evil is the stuff of fantasy, while The Last of Us‘s Cordyceps fungus is based on real-life fungi that take over host organisms and control them. The fungus in the game wipes out 60% of the human population, but real-life cordyceps has only taken over insects and arachnids (so far).

Plagues in Pop Culture

28 Days Later

Just as plagues provide video games with enemies, plot points, and settings, they are also prevalent in other pop culture offerings.

One of the first written references to plague is in the Bible’s Old Testament, when God besets the pharaoh of Egypt with 10 plagues due to his refusal to release Moses and the Jewish people from slavery. Plagues pop up in literature across the centuries as well. Some of the damned in Dante’s Inferno arrived in Hell courtesy of plague, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales mention plague and its impact upon medieval Europe, and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death has its protagonist on the run from the personification of plague itself.

Science fiction and horror authors use plague frequently — some examples include Michael Crichton’s Andromeda StrainRichard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Max Brooks’ World War Z, and Stephen King’s The Stand. In The Stand, the super-flu “Captain Trips” wipes out more than 99% of the world’s population in order for the antichrist to rise and take control of the survivors.

Bubonic plague makes its appearance in films ranging from Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘s infamous “bring out yer dead” scene to the Sean Bean-driven horror-drama Black Death. A variety of viruses wiped out the planet in the Resident Evil films (based loosely on the video game series), Danny Boyle’s zombie genre-changing 28 Days LaterMad Max in Scotland-clone Doomsday, and the 1971  disaster classic Omega Man. Realistic plagues and their consequences are also examined in films like 1995’s Outbreak and 2011’s Contagion. 

On television, plague has created the zombie virus of The Walking Dead and its spin-off, Fear the Walking DeadPlague is also taken a little less seriously in Fox’s The Last Man on Earth, in which Will Forte spends the apocalypse travelling the country in his RV while looking for other survivors.

Plagues are terrifying. They have tremendous death tolls, create horrifying human suffering, and can be entirely unpredictable. It’s no surprise that they continue to serve as pop culture touchstones, reminding us of our own mortality and how scary nature can be. Whether on television, in movies, video games, or books, plagues will continue to scare people sick for years to come.


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