The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

Clockwise from top left: David Bradley in The Strain, Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead, Kate Winslet in Contagion, and Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey in Outbreak
Clockwise from top left: David Bradley in The Strain, Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead, Kate Winslet in Contagion, and Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey in Outbreak.

Photos courtesy of FX, AMC, Warner Bros.

Fade in on a smiling infant at dusk. His mother, sister, and grandmother bustle around him, chattering happily in a foreign language. [Don’t alienate audiences with subtitles]. An animal, something like a bat, flies out of the trees, and drops a piece of fruit on the ground. [Specific animal subject to change with science.] The child, reaching out a chubby arm, picks the fruit up and puts it to his mouth, slobbering on it, sucking on it, eating some of it. His mother comes over and picks him up. He drops the fruit. In her arms, he begins to cough.

Are we living through the early stages of a disaster movie? Or is it just solipsistic to think so?

Some of this looks like a scene out of a movie, of course,” Brian Williams said during a recent report about Ebola on NBC’s nightly news. “It’s more reminiscent of a movie than it is reality,” Abby Huntsman said on MSNBC’s The Cycle. Almost since Ebola began to make headlines in Western newspapers, in late summer, two movies have been constantly referenced in relation to it:  Outbreak, the 1995 thriller about an African virus similar to an airborne Ebola that is eventually stopped by Dustin Hoffman, and Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 Contagion— back on Amazon’s most popular list— about a deadly bat/pig virus originating in Asia that kills 26 million worldwide before a vaccine is developed. If you’re a real pessimist, you might also be reminded of the dozens of other movies, TV shows, and books about terrifying make-believe viruses that scientists cannot contain and so inaugurate the apocalypse, fictions like The Walking Dead, The Passage, The Strain, Station Eleven, The Stand, and 28 Days Later, among many, many others. (And soon The Hot Zone, Richard Preston’s 1994 best-seller about Ebola, which will become a Fox miniseries, with the story reconfigured to address the “current situation.”)

There is nothing more banal, and nothing less repressible, than noting when horrific real-world events resemble movies. And not even good ones. During 9/11, the world resembled a Michael Bay blow-’em-up. This time around, it’s an action movie that had Dustin Hoffman squeaking, “It’ll mean your ass if you don’t get your finger on the phone. Finger it!” As an observation, This feels like a movie has a shiny, aphoristic quality. It’s the kind of surreal moment of recognition that feels meaningful, significant, tweetable—even if it’s just a bolt of unexpected pattern recognition, no more weighty than noticing when the sky is a particular shade of Simpsons blue.

The family and friends of the infant cradle and wash his corpse, weeping, crying, moaning. [The corpse should look ravaged by disease, but it’s a small child, so within the bounds of good taste, please.] His mother, distraught and wearing a bright African print, wipes her forehead, which is beaded with sweat. Her nose starts to bleed. Camera pans out and we hear amidst the bawling the sound of persistent, multiperson hacking.

We turn catastrophe into narrative because it makes ungainly events comprehensible, creating a frame of reference for happenings that might not otherwise have a frame. And despite health officials’ assurances that Ebola is not like the diseases in Outbreak or Contagion we can’t quite help but notice that it seems like someone who took Robert McKee’s class is scripting its trajectory. As with Outbreak, the Ebola crisis is about a virulent, tissue-destroying disease that originated in Africa. As with Contagion, attempts to contain it in one country or region have failed and fear is spreading faster than the virus. (A doctor in the movie says, “In order to get sick, you first have to come into contact with a sick person or something they’ve touched. In order to get scared, all you have to do is come into contact with a rumor or the television or the Internet.”) Plus, there have been all these stranger-than-fiction near misses seemingly tailored for a screenplay: the potential cure that can’t be grown fast enough; the sick person who went to the hospital and was turned away; the hubristic promises that American hospitals are equipped to handle the disease, and the two sick nurses who suggest they are not. Before she knew she was ill, one of the nurses went to a bridal store named—really—Coming Attractions.

Living in the midst of this particular “movie” allows us to feel a simultaneous mixture of smug and panicked. Smug, because we know how this plays out: Despite promises the disease can be kept under control, it spreads, civil society breaks down, and then, probably, the ZMapp teased at the beginning finally gets rolled out. Since you’re the hero of your own movie, you’re probably OK, though who can say about your co-workers? And panicked because, well, we know how this plays out: with the total collapse of civil society and, best case, you holed up with your children and a gun, rationing out clean water and cans of beans. And, besides, are you really sure you’re the hero of this movie? What if you’re one of the important characters they kill to prove that no one is safe?

Establishing shots in impoverished West African city, where soldiers guard barricades, impoverished people are in quarantine, and corpses are sprawled in the street. A man [non-American] boards an airplane, sweat trickling down his brow.

There is, of course, a privilege to thinking and worrying this way. This is what you can do when nothing is immediately, pressingly wrong and there is time to daydream your nightmares; this is what you can do when CNN is so desperate to fill airtime it can wonder if Ebola is, somehow, not bad enough in and of itself but instead the “ISIS of biological agents.” It’s the sort of worrying that is the emotional equivalent of roller coasters and disaster movies: It brings you closer to death, in a safe and not entirely unwelcome way. It’s fear and panic tinged with the same slightly sickening, inexplicably satisfying feeling that comes, having plunked down 15 dollars, from peering through your fingers as Gwyneth Paltrow convulses on the floor. It’s the difference between watching events unfold and being in the midst of unfolding events.

For Americans, when Thomas Eric Duncan died in Dallas from Ebola—and, after promises that all proper precautions had been taken, two nurses became sick anyway—it felt like the movie was finally getting rolling, out of the setup, toward Act 2. But this is a virus that has been raging for the better part of a year and has killed thousands: If this is the beginning of Act 2, it only looks like that from American movie seats.

A woman enters a bridal store. She’s smiling, but looks a little pale, under the weather. She accepts a glass of champagne from an employee, who begins to show her dresses. The woman looks at a few and then stops abruptly. Her champagne glass falls to the ground and shatters in slow motion.

There is a long-existing virus raging in West Africa—not because it is de facto uncontrollable, but because of poverty and disarray and lack of appropriate medical facilities. This doesn’t exactly sound like the beginning of a disaster movie. But far away our minds contort the story into one, and we worry we should be hoarding water and closing the border—things they should always have done in the movies, but may only inspire unnecessary panic in real life. If 9/11 is any precedent, we should know that being familiar with the movie doesn’t help us predict what comes next and that insofar as our narrative hunger exerts any influence, it pushes us toward hasty, cool-only-in-the-movies responses.

Speaking with On the Media, Priscilla Wald, a professor at Duke University and the author of Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative, explained that we are currently at the stage of the “outbreak narrative” where we’re looking for a hero. The part of the movie where bold and brave scientists come up with solutions that may or may not involve exposing themselves to the disease and self-administering a new vaccine to see if it works. But Ebola might not need that kind of dramatic foil. Nigeria and Senegal have both contained the disease using methods already available to us. “If patients are promptly diagnosed and receive aggressive supportive care,” wrote infectious disease specialist Paul Farmer in the London Review of Books, “the great majority, as many as 90 per cent, should survive.” Ebola resists narrative, and we should too.

The screen cuts to black and a map of the world appears on screen. A red line traces from West Africa to Texas, then from Texas to Ohio. Then the line winks out. Meanwhile, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone continue to glow red.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Ebola.