Every fictional plague has an origin story, and an ending — happy or otherwise. We hereby issue a pandemic spoiler alert!
From Homer to Hollywood, plagues make for great plot lines. Of course when it's happening in real life, in real-time, it's not so entertaining. Still, we wonder if there are any lessons we can take from these truer-than-fiction pieces of pandemic storytelling. Particularly for those less interested in the character development and moral takeaways from these fictional plague tales, we offer a quick peek into how the authors' decided it's all going to end. Predictions for the real-life plague?
Contagion, 2011. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Written by Scott Z. Burns
Plot: A virus called MEV-1, originating from Hong Kong and inducing flu-like symptoms starts spreading around the globe at an alarming pace. It has a death rate of 20% to 30%, transmitted mostly through surfaces touched by sick people as well as coughing and sneezing. Health organizations strongly recommend social distancing and frequent hand-washing. Sounds VERY familiar.
How it ends: Officials from the CDC and the WHO are simultaneously and relentlessly working on a cure while trailing back its origin (bats, pigs). One scientist from CDC eventually finds the right formula for a vaccine and gets passed a long human-testing process by inoculating it to herself. It is distributed globally in a few months, but only after the virus has claimed 26 million lives.
Plot: Amid pandemic and American lockdown, the book by Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright offers a fair dose of shivers with its timely publishing date in April 2020, describing the worldwide mayhem caused by an hemorrhagic virus called Kongoli flu. Carried by both humans and birds, it appears in Indonesia, in an isolated refugee camp but is widely spread during the Mecca pilgrimage. What follows is similar though not identical to what we're witnessing today: alarming death rate (the virus has a 45% mortality rate), overwhelmed hospitals, rampaged grocery stores, cyberattacks, inadequate government responses, tensions between Russia, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Iran, fears of World War III, and a collapsing economy. In the middle of this panic, we follow Henry Parsons, one of the world's greatest epidemiologists, and his race against the clock and the second wave predicted by the end of October to identify the virus and find a cure.
How it ends: The real origin of the virus is discovered (and conspiracy theorists will love the twist) and the protagonist eventually is on good tracks to find a vaccine. But the world seems like it will never fully recover.
My Secret Terrius, 2018. Netflix
Plot: In this Korean drama, a widow investigates the mysterious death of her husband and teams up with her neighbor, a former NIS black ops agent. They will unveil a huge conspiracy involving a bio-weapon: a coronavirus (note: this is the actual name given to a family of contagious viruses, including the flu) attacking the respiratory system and artificially transformed to reach a 90% mortality rate. Although the synopsis isn't focused around this man-made virus, one of the main characters' missions is to prevent its release.
How it ends: They succeed. Fortunately, because no vaccine has been found.
The Eyes of Darkness, 1981. Dean Koontz
Plot: After a group of boyhood friends die on a camping trip, the mother of one victim decides to investigate. More recent editions of the novel cite "Wuhan-400" a man-made bio-weapon with a 100% mortality rate, named after the city it originated from, quite a coincidence seeing as the origins of the current real-life coronavirus. However, in the original version of the novel, it was Gorki-400, and it originated on Russian soil. No surprise for a book released during the Cold War.
How it ends: The virus simply disappears without spreading worldwide and without a trace. Yep, just like that!
Le Monde Enfin, 1975-2004. Jean-Pierre Andrevon
Plot: The French science fiction writer has been cited as a visionary who predicted the COVID-19 scenario. Well, let's hope not! In this collection of novellas, we are witness to what the world is like after a lightning deadly virus "PISCRA" that can liquify cells has wiped out most of humankind. The rest of the species remains unaffected, and Nature slowly takes back its rightful place. This idea of humans going extinct is a favorite of writers, mostly using it in a Darwinist metaphor for new species to take over or to convey an ecological message. Both of these echoes have found a place in the current crisis and Andrevon's description of Nature taking back over from humans reminds us of the numerous apparitions of animals in cities and now deserted spots because of lockdowns around the world.
How it ends: Everybody dies.
The Simpsons, "Marge in Chains," 1993.
Plot: The Simpsons have been called the fortune-tellers of pop culture. They were credited with predicting the election of Donald Trump, and more recently with the COVID-19 outbreak. In an episode dating back to 1993, an airborne virus coming from Japan and named the "Osaka Flu", strikes Springfield's residents. The city faces an economic crisis, however not because of the epidemic but because Marge ends up in prison and cannot take part in the bake sale fundraiser.
How it ends: Everyone recovers (+cookies).