Zombies: The Epidemiology Of Fear


This term project aimed to rationale how science fiction content describe and illustrate human fear through zombies, and its equivalency as part of the epidemiology interpretation.

Modern Epidemiology

There was no formal concept of probability in Europe prior to the mid-17th century, despite the idea of randomized objects was already commonly seen. Asides from the first textbook of probability by Huygens in 1657, it was not until the 19th century, that works carrying attributes of epidemiological research came into spotlight. Numerous disciplines, such as demography, biology, sociology, and political economy, are similar to epidemiology - they all rely on the concept of population and its derived data to determine the potential outcome. What differentiates epidemiology from others, is the combination of group comparison and population thinking as a mean to identify the common denominator of regarding the population health, most notably, John Snow’s investigations of the 1854 epidemic of cholera in London and the outbreak around the Broad Street pump.

After two centuries of development and refinement, the methods and concepts that be- come the corner stone of group comparison lead to the emergence of epidemiology. The absence of theoretical background set early-epidemiology and modern epidemiology parts, it took years to identify sources of illegitimate interpretations of group comparisons that were affected by confounding factors, a concept unfamiliar to the 19th century predecessors. After establishing confounding as a non-comparability issue, in collaboration with statis- ticians pushed early epidemiologists to methodologically deal with it in a wide variety of scenarios [6]. These solutions safe guard and guaranteed the rapid growth of epidemiology after World War II, leading to the modern epidemiology we now knows.

What are Zombies

Zombie represents a relentlessly aggressive reanimated corpse driven by a biologic infec- tion. Across all the discovered diseases, descriptions of zombies date back to the 1500s [1], and the English word zombie was first recorded in 1819. Though the word withstands a rather long historical significance, known cases of zombies with Homo sapiens origin are rare, only few scientifically documented medical records to prove their existence.

Connecting the Dots

Evolution of the zombie metaphor

The origin of American zombie film can trace back to Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), which was based on the early Haitian zombies intentionally created insentient beings as factory workers. White Zombie established the zombie genre as a “barometer of cultural anxiety” - fear the loss of autonomy. The earliest zombie films expressed concern of master-slave dichotomy, next come with personified Cold War anxieties in the 1950s and 1960s, and the tensions came with the Vietnam War. As the timeline roll closer toward 21st century, zombie genre movies continue to reflect contemporary societal tensions throughout the structure of the film. T

he cinematic techniques reached a turning point when Night of the Living Dead (1968) was on the screen, George Romero pushed the concept of survival narrative in zombie apocalypse, with slow- moving, flesh-eating rotten monsters that come in packs. Collective fears about terrorism and global pandemics is now the primary source of tension, accompanied with immigration caused by globalization, these factors become the central scheme of zombie genre in recent years. In an era where social media and convenient transportations, push information flow and diseases across boarders much rapidly than before, zombies also become fast-moving creatures, that provides an implicit representation of present day pandemics.

The Zombie as Allegory of Disease Epidemiology

When authors absorb and reanimate narratives from real life epidemiological outbreak, these narratives are called ”outbreak narratives”. They are often flooded with rhetoric of fear portrayed in the media nowadays, to associate the fictional content with actual pandemics, labeling zombies as a pandemic avatar. The invisible pathogen is often the manifestation of the unknown intimate contact, beyond the detection ability of our senses. In the zombie, the microscopic damage of the pathogen becomes externalized, and its effect on infected populations is visualized through the zombie hordes rampage. Interestingly, zombie infection symptoms tend to be consistent, regardless of the carrier, but the incubation period varies widely from different literatures, with time to development of symptoms ranging from seconds to days with no subclinical manifestation. Zombie makes the spread of pandemic visible, enabling one to directly map its progression. Specifically, zombie becomes the metaphor of infectious disease. We can vaguely see the residual effect of the metaphor, as statistical modeling of zombie outbreaks has been explored as an educational tool to study epidemiology strategies.

Linking Zombies With Mortal Fear

In zombie films, the contagion spreads exponentially after the initial source of infection is left unattended for awhile. Night of the Living Dead mentions a radioactive probe; 28 Days Later and Resident Evil reports the release of engineered virus; Shaun of the Dead unrolls the outbreak through channel surfing.

In the next phase, fear spreads throughout the society, causing panic. In virtually every film in this genre, fear dominant the decision makings, inducing fighting, suspicion and preventing cooperation, eventually, the ultimate collapse of the society’s infrastructure. This zombie pandemic process fit a newly emerged form of epidemiological transition theory, which contends that there are patterns of disease, according to demographic pat- terns. Modern scheme highlighted the technological advancement in transportations and civil engineerings that a globalized society requires, and also, the de facto requirement for rapid transmission of the zombie disease. Therefore, concluding the connection as the contempo- rary fear in the society, reflects on the pandemic behavior of portrayed zombie characteristics in the film.


Infectious literatures nowadays are often founded on real world cases. Therefore, zombie narrative not only instantiated as the realization of infectious literatures, but also echoed how infectious diseases are. Zombie, as a contemporary monster, enabled us to explore our behaviors when facing an eminent infection threat. Combining with the apocalyptic setup, zombie cinema is a perfect window into the panic side of human existential crisis, as well as our collective intelligence when facing one. Fear about autonomy and mortality generally manipulate the sociological dynamics, which are often part of the plot in zombie films. ”I think zombies reflect our very real anxieties of these crazy scary times. A zombie story gives people a fictional lens to see the real problems of the world. You can deal with societal breakdown, famine, disease, chaos in the streets, but as long as the catalyst for all of them is zombies, you can still sleep. ” (Max Brooks, Best-selling zombie genre author)


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31 October 2020
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