Friday, December 11, 2009

Viral Vestiges

"viral" adj.
1) Of the nature of, caused by, or relating to a virus or viruses
2) Of or involving the rapid spread of information about a product or service by viral marketing techniques

"vestige" n.
1) A trace of something that is disappearing or no longer exists
2) Biology a part or organ of an organism that has become reduced or functionless in the course of evolution

Back in October (when I originally started this post), I fell ill with a virus resembling what some may call "Swine Flu," "H1N1," or (as I came to call it) "Flu +: New and Improved." While the kind of flu was never verified, I was the sickest I had been in a very long time. It got me thinking about viruses and their inherent nature, their composition, and how they behave because - despite not being a med student or having a medical degree - I have an oddly clinical perspective. Viruses are some of the most hated "creatures" on the face of the Earth, whose existence is incredibly interesting.

For instance, did you know that viruses are not technically alive?

Literally, viruses are strands of DNA or RNA wrapped in protein shells that float inertly until they infect your living cells, hi-jack them by injecting their DNA inside, and use them for their own devious purposes. They don't consume energy, they have no organelles to qualify them as living cells, yet they exist - mindlessly reproducing their own, dead kind and using your biological process to spread themselves around. They have no motive, instinct, or express purpose - no desire to reproduce, to destroy you, or to annoy you. They just are. Where they come from is uncertain, but some suggest that (in layman's terms) viruses are the vestiges of the primordial ooze. Relics from "organisms-to-be" left over, forgotten by biology and time, drifting aimlessly under the radar, going through the motions of being alive, but still are not. With no thought or reason, they reproduce, evolve, and reproduce again, endlessly infecting, consuming, and destroying all living creatures - as if they're cosmically designed to seek vengeance against life itself for not permitting their contributions into the gene pool. Where there's one, there's often many. We try to avoid them at all costs, but many will inevitably succumb to virus' mindless fervor. And, then the fallen will infect the rest of us. If you're thinking that our relationship with viral disease strangely mirrors a horror movie character's relationship with zombies, you're probably not too off base.

The roaming, living dead. Scary and fascinating, this pervasive legend peeks its head out in some form in nearly all cultures. The term "zombie" originates from Voodoo and Hoodoo legend - the dead risen again, re-ensouled, mute, and will-less, for the express purpose of performing labor and obeying commands. These zombies did not have the undying hunger for flesh present in current cinema (you can thank George A. Romero for that. And, thank God, because he was half-way into considering rape as their modus operandi instead of cannibalism), but instead were controlled through the use of salt. America's cinematic melting pot melded the collective influences of multiple countries (primarily myths about "ghouls") and, interestingly enough, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein in crafting our own cinematic myth that uses science at the core of its explanation, as opposed to evil forces or black magic. Between space dust, bacteria, radioactivity, gene therapy, genetic weaponry - the most common source from which zombie apocalypses spawn now seem to be viruses.

We often make monsters from real-life concepts of which we're afraid. Between Swine Flu, SARS, Mad Cow, Foot and Mouth, HIV/AIDS, Malaria and the fear of a resurgence of Small Pox - we have our hands full with diseases. And, rightfully so - viruses can inflict pain, suffering, and destruction on the human body like nothing else. Is there really any question why the biblical plagues were so epic or why Pestilence gets his own horse?

Viruses and plagues have a very natural association with zombies, providing an ease of explanation over the undead's existence as well as drawing inherent similarities between the ways zombies and viruses behave. These not-quite-alive, wandering, mindless, and consumptive creatures flock, swarm, multiply, and flock again - witlessly feeding some primal, but unnecessary, instinct to feed. The zombie's plight and lament does not simply originate from his need to eat flesh and viscera, but also to remain on the verge of being alive while not quite actuating it. Reanimated, but not living, these poor, unfortunate souls continually go through the motions of life only to rot further and spread their disease person by person, eventually crumbling civilization under their rotten (and possibly missing) heels. Viruses, as dictated above, seem to function in similar fashion - consuming all life, desperately trying to be a part of it, yet never succeeding.
"More than any other monster, zombies are fully and literally apocalyptic... they signal the end of the world as we know it."
Kim Paffenroth
Author of
Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Vision of Hell on Earth

2 comments:

B.Graham said...

I actually read this aloud at work today. Brilliant, and also terrifying.

Also, viruses now remind me of jellyfish: benign in the most horrible, painful way possible.

B.Graham said...

PS your last paragraph got The Little Mermaid stuck in my head, thinking of those poor. un. fortunate soooooooouuuuuuuuls....!