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Just after receiving her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, my mom made a strange joke. “I don’t know,” she told me over the phone. “I just feel like, now that I’ve had the vaccine, I’ll come back as a zombie when I die.”
It’s a scene straight out of The Walking Dead, an AMC show I watched with my family. At the end of season one, the characters learn that they’ve all been infected by… whatever is causing the dead to rise. (Supposedly, it was “space spores.”) Long story short, even if a person dies of natural causes, they’ll reanimate and become a zombie.
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I verified that my mom—a strong believer in science—was kidding (mostly), and her comment became nothing more than a silly anecdote. That is, until I read a story in the Denver Post in which a man who felt uncomfortable receiving the COVID-19 vaccine mentioned the apocalyptic film I Am Legend. The 2007 movie starring Will Smith also appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post articles—each featuring someone blaming their vaccine hesitancy on the film.
Here’s the elevator pitch for I Am Legend: a botched cancer cure turns most of the world’s population into vampire-zombie hybrids. Outlandish as it may sound, posts about the premise began circulating on social media to question whether we really felt safe taking a rapidly developed COVID-19 “cure.” The posts were pervasive enough that Reuters ran a fact check, pointing out that it was a genetically altered virus—not a vaccine—that caused the outbreak in I Am Legend. Akiva Goldsman, the screenwriter for the movie, bypassed picking apart such technicalities in a Twitter post: “Oh. My. God. It’s a movie. I made that up. It’s. Not. Real.”
But, for some, the film felt real. A piece of pop culture gained new life, infecting the minds of the unvaccinated and vaccinated (sorry, Mom) alike. So, what caused this idea to rise from the grave?
“There’s a lot of good examples throughout horror and zombie horror,” says Bryan Hall, the academic dean of Regis University’s School for Professional Advancements and a professor of philosophy, “that allow you to talk about social, political, and ethical issues in a way that people are going to be more open to.” Hall harnessed that idea when writing An Ethical Guidebook to the Zombie Apocalypse: How To Keep Your Brain Without Losing Your Heart, a book of short stories that introduces theories of moral philosophy.
The surge of slasher films in the 1980s, for instance, coincided with Ronald Reagan’s presidency signaling a turn toward conservatism. This bloody genre’s offerings, such as Friday the 13th (1980) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), often depict a killer dispatching sexually explorative teens. Sarah Juliet Lauro, an English professor at the University of Tampa and author of The Transatlantic Zombie: Slavery, Rebellion, and Living Death, offers another example: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which alien pods imitate and replace actual humans to develop a population of emotionless conformers. It hit the big screen in 1956, after Joseph McCarthy spent years warning that Communists were infiltrating the United States.
Watching these movies is no mere exercise in masochism. “In this imaginary world, the fear is so exaggerated, so ridiculous, that you can talk about it,” Lauro says. Zombies are used to signify that something isn’t normal. “What’s the most unnatural thing you can possibly imagine?” Lauro asks. “Someone coming back from the dead.”
Early zombie narratives from the Caribbean imagined a sorcerer reanimating corpses to work as laborers, but once the zombie reached the United States, those tales of slavery and control gave way to fears of science gone wrong—and were tinged with a suspicion of authority common amongst today’s anti-vaxxers. Lauro points to 1968’s Astro Zombies as a telling, albeit schlocky, illustration of this distrust. In it, a scientist involved with a CIA mind-control project goes rogue, using the technology to control zombies he built from corpses’ body parts. Doctors lose control in other flicks, like when an experimental skin graft makes a woman thirst for blood and zombify her victims in Rabid (1977).
The government rarely handles these outbreaks well. “You often see the military take over and try to quarantine people,” says Ashley Knox, a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado whose love of zombies led her to study microbiology. Those attempts at control are often violent—a SWAT officer shooting indiscriminately at unarmed residents of a low-income apartment in Dawn of the Dead comes to mind. “People really internalize those scenes and think, Okay, our government’s out to get us,” Knox says.
It doesn’t help that we have real-world examples of scientists and governments mishandling sickness. The Associated Press outed the U.S. Public Health Service in 1972 for purposefully not treating Black men infected with syphilis during the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The HIV/AIDS crisis is another obvious example. And in 2003, an outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus started in China and spread to four other countries. Chinese health officials were accused of withholding information about the disease.
The SARS situation came one year after the release of 28 Days Later—a film that begins with animal rights activists breaking into a lab, where they find chimpanzees being forced to watch footage of violent riots. The chimps, a scientist explains, are infected with rage. One monkey bite sets off a violent epidemic that overtakes Britain.
“There’s another correlation between the fear of science and the fear of government there,” says Beth Younger, a professor of English and women’s and gender studies at Drake University, of 28 Days Later. [Full disclosure: I took Younger’s class on horror and gender while I was a student at Drake.] The fact that the survivors are eventually rescued by a small outfit of British soldiers—remnants of governmental control—only to learn the soldiers plan to rape the remaining women further invites the viewer to wince at vestiges of authority.
The zombies’ shambling lack 0f agency maps onto rhetoric anti-vaxxers use: that they’re freethinkers, and vaccinated people are sheep blindly following authority. “I think some of the fear of the vaccine—and you see this in the idea that the vaccine will magnetize you or put a microchip in you—is that you’ll stop being human,” Younger says. Pair that with unsubstantiated lab theory claims made by the far-right, and the overlap between COVID-19 and zombie flicks grows.
“The virus feels very apocalyptic to people,” Younger says. Scenes of barren grocery store shelves from March 2020, as well as fears that anyone, especially your loved ones, could be infected and give you the illness, is straight out of a zombie movie.
Even pandemic language feels familiar. Phrases like “rapid antigen testing” have gone from laboratory lingo to fodder for dinner table discussion. “It’s this massive input of vocabulary that people aren’t familiar with,” Knox says. “Where they have heard all of these terms are films where a bumbling scientist or an evil corporation sets off the zombie apocalypse.”
“I think that’s why people are confused, because we have seen pandemic narratives for so long in horror,” Lauro says. “They wonder, Can my real world look even more like these fantastical horror films?”
Which brings us back to I Am Legend. Scientists brazenly experiment on the human body in an attempt to cure the looming threat of cancer. When the public blindly trusts these meddlers, disaster ensues. The rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccine might seem similar, and for some, public debate among healthcare professionals (such as whether mixing and matching booster shots is safe; the FDA just approved the practice) could give the disconcerting impression that experts don’t agree. Current political divides worsen the distrust, says Hall: “People are being reactive instead of reflective.”
Unlike I Am Legend, scientists in our world weren’t fiddling with something they didn’t understand—they were using familiar technology. Countless studies have determined that serious, life-threatening side effects are extremely rare, and that the vaccine significantly reduces the chance you’ll die of COVID.
And the back-and-forth amongst experts? “This is a normal pathway to learning about something new,” Knox says. “Scientists run many different trials, and if we can reliably replicate results with stringent studies, we start moving toward more solid conclusions.”
A lack of scientific literacy can prevent the public from seeing debate that way. “There’s a big push in our community to communicate science better,” Knox says. “Shutting down someone who has doubts about vaccines isn’t helpful. We need to be willing to have those conversations.”
That’s how the man quoted in the Denver Post came around—a doctor took the time to talk to him. “At some point, I think you just have to trust doctors,” Lauro says. “Because reaching for a horror film as your guide is really not helpful.”
(Read more: A Coloradan’s Guide to Surviving the End of the World)