Blame it on Richard Preston. “The Hot Zone,” his 1994 nonfiction science thriller about the spread and devastation of the Ebola virus, pretty much set the standard for terrifying contagion scenarios. In an opening chapter that even Stephen King called “one of the most horrifying things I've ever read,” Preston depicts an infected man's rapid deterioration from the disease even as he boards a commercial plane en route to Nairobi for treatment.
I won't get too graphic. Suffice it to say that, in Preston's words, the patient's face “appears to hang from the underlying bone, as if the face itself is detaching from the skull.” The seatmate from hell, he vomits lethal blackened blood that “smells like a slaughterhouse.” He then hands the air-sickness bag to a flight attendant.
Is it any wonder that the media have had their cameras trained on the return home of two infected American aid workers from West Africa, where Ebola has killed more than 900 people? Last weekend, a photo of physician Kent Brantly, encased in a protective suit as he entered Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, appeared on countless news sites and seemed to transfix the public. By the time Nancy Writebol, the second patient, arrived, public worry about the virus was itself going viral.
Mount Sinai Hospital in New York made headlines when it admitted a man with “Ebola-like symptoms.” A congressman from Indiana suggested that the Central American immigrant children coming over the border might pose a risk “from a public health standpoint, with Ebola circulating and everything else.” Meanwhile, the Internet is rife with rumors that the virus can live on computer keyboards.
As medical experts have tried to make clear, there is no record of human transmission of Ebola in the Western Hemisphere, and the likelihood of any spread in the U.S. is remote. Ebola is transmitted through bodily fluids; it's a lot harder to contract than airborne pathogens such as SARS or the flu. Infection rates are also affected by factors that don't apply to developed nations, such as a distrust of Western medicine and death rituals that involve touching the bodies of the deceased.
What's more, the gruesome details relayed in “The Hot Zone” have been called out as extreme. Not all victims find themselves “weeping blood” or entering deranged, trance-like states as their bodies disintegrate.
Nonetheless, Ebola has secured a special place in the American imagination. It's not just an illness but a phantasmagoria, a hideous acid trip come to life.
Maybe that's why some people, convinced that two infected patients in a state-of-the-art isolation unit represent a direct path to a zombie apocalypse, have gone so far as to send nasty emails to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to Emory University Hospital. Maybe it explains the endless repeats of the ambulance-to-hospital videos. Ebola may be rare and, in the end, not as contagious as many assume. But it's also a disease introduced to us in a page-turner so riveting that the facts couldn't possibly compete for our horrified attention.
This summer, our horrified attention is being spread especially thin. A glance at the headlines offers a dizzying lineup of things to be upset and scared about. And maybe that's another reason the Ebola story has been so compelling. As frightening as the facts are, it still resides in our minds as a kind of science fiction. We're told it's real, but its mythic status, and our inexperience with it, makes it surreal, barely actual.
That's a status not conferred on news of fire and drought, of unaccompanied minors at the border or even of bloodshed in the Middle East — troubles we know are anything but fiction. The Ebola story is true too, of course, but for its U.S. audience, it still comes burnished with the patina of a disaster pic.
Oddly enough, this buffer is, in its own way, as protective as any hazmat suit. It's easier to tweet and fret and just generally obsess about the hypothetical and hyperbolic than it is to engage in more immediate concerns. After all, “The Hot Zone” has sold more than 2.5 million copies, whereas a lot of Americans can't find Gaza on a map. Perhaps the zombie apocalypse is here after all.