the gentlewoman

The Reader

Dahlia Schweitzer, 41, is a lecturer in cinema and media studies at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in California. Her newest book Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses and the End of the World delves into pop culture’s penchant for a pandemic. So how far are we from a virulent Armageddon? Just remember to wash your hands, Dahlia advises.

Dahlia Schweitzer

Richard: Dahlia, tell me about your book.

Dahlia: So, it looks at what I call “outbreak narratives” – large scale viral epidemics – in contemporary American film and television. It really became a recurring theme in cinema around 1995, with the release of the film Outbreak starring Dustin Hoffman. There was also 12 Monkeys, directed by Terry Gilliam, The X-Files dedicated episodes to it and the TV movie Formula for Death – all in 1995.

R: I don’t think we had that TV movie in the UK. Why all in 1995?

D: Well, the main thing happening in the mid-’90s in America, and internationally, was the threat of AIDS. Growing up then, l learned about sex and AIDS at the same so I think that’s how my interest in this topic came about. I was curious to see, as AIDS permeated the cultural consciousness, how was it going to show in mainstream entertainment.

R: But, Outbreak is about Ebola, right?

D: Right! All of those films in the 1990s were about Ebola attacks. None of those featured AIDS explicitly. Ebola became a sort of metaphor for it because it’s much more cinematic than AIDS. There was this notion then that if you contracted AIDS it was because your behaviour brought it upon you. Whereas, Ebola could infect “innocent” people. The other preoccupation of the 1990s was globalisation and the idea that the world was becoming uncomfortably small. So the outbreak always moves westward from Africa to the USA. Never the other way – of course! Then, post-9/11, the threat changes and the narrative shifts to terrorists from the Middle East spreading Ebola in the USA, so films such as Global Effect or Covert One.

R: So, level with me, how likely is a real viral outbreak?

D: The chances are very, very slim. The virus would have to be this perfect combination of being just contagious enough to spread easily, but then also deadly enough with a long enough latency period that you’ll get it, but won’t die right away and can still go and spread it. So in the outbreak narrative it’s always a “rare strain” of Ebola which has become…

R: Airborne!

D: Yes! They love to make it airborne.

R: Why do filmmakers pursue that particular narrative?

D: Money, of course. An overly sensationalised portrayal of disease will always get people to watch movies or TV shows. And it’s not just cinema. The Centre for Disease Control does it with their messaging, governmental departments, so that they can get political funding. In my research for the book I discovered these CDC guidelines for scientists on how to communicate their agenda through what they call “Entertainment Education” – basically the use of fictional narratives in order to spread a message. It tells scientists how to dilute their message into a few buzzwords which will find their way into films and television programs.

R: Has writing the book impacted how you feel about viruses and germs?

D: I wash my hands a lot now.

Interview by Richard O'Mahony. Photograph by Mackenzie Lenora, courtesy of Dahlia Schweitzer. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!