When I was 14, I saw a movie called “The Andromeda Strain,” based on novelist Michael Crichton’s first big seller. Remember that one? It was about a virus from outer space that could turn human blood into veins of clotted powder within seconds, and it scared the hell out of me.
But it also reassured me because it said that humanity could be prepared even in the mind-bogglingly random event of a killer alien microbe hitching a ride to Earth on a US satellite. No, not “could be” prepared — was prepared.
There was a top-secret high-tech quarantine bunker beneath the sands of the Nevada desert and it was staffed by Nobel prize-winning doctors and scientists in hazmat suits. And they would take care of it. They would always be able to Take Care Of It.
This is the fiction we tell ourselves over and over, in movies and miniseries like “Outbreak” (1995), “Pandemic” (2007), and “Contagion” (2011). It goes back, arguably, to 1950’s “Panic in the Streets,” in which heroic doctor Richard Widmark saves New Orleans from an outbreak of pneumonic plague carried by Jack Palance and Zero Mostel.
And it helps explain why the Ebola crisis — which is, to date, a genuine crisis in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone and nowhere else — has had so many people in a tizzy over the past few months, lying awake through the night like that woman in the Roz Chast cartoon.
The anxiety in this country has ebbed in recent weeks and “Ebola” is no longer trending, either on Twitter or in the more atavistic corners of our brains. Dallas is uninfected; Kaci Hickox has left the building. Still, it will take only one new case popping up in, say, San Diego or Peoria for the fear machine to whip back into gear, prompted simply by our inability to predict outcomes.
There’s no script here. And we need our scripts.
Actually, at this point, I’d say we’re addicted to them. In part this is human nature, the urge to order the chaos of reality according to organizing principles of beginning, middle, and end. Making stories allows us to tell ourselves (or fool ourselves) that this is how the world works. But it’s also because we live in a popular culture that sells fictions to us around the clock.
We spend the majority of our days in front of screens of varying sizes, and those screens pour forth narratives, shaped and delivered via TV shows and movies, newspapers articles and blog posts, even the haiku of our briefest online communications. Every tweet tells a story, as Rod Stewart didn’t sing.
There are times, of course, when reality decides to not play fair, and our fears metastasize in the absence of a governing narrative. Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the 2011 Japanese tsunami offer instructive examples.
We recoil in fear from unimaginable destruction and only later retell versions of the tale to include hope and resolution, like 2012’s “The Impossible,” a movie in which a white European family miraculously survives the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed 228,000.
The current Ebola outbreak is the latest example, one that taps into our panic about invisible killers that can seep, undetected, into our bodies. To date, the virus is estimated to have infected 14,000 and killed 5,000, all of those except one in West Africa. The exception was Thomas Eric Duncan, who arrived in Dallas from Liberia and died Oct. 8.
Some perspective: The Centers for Disease Control estimates that influenza kills 3,300 to 49,000 people in the United States per year; statistics are much debated, but the point is that they’re more. Bubonic plague — the Black Death of the Middle Ages — reached London around Nov. 1, 1348; by February, 200 people were dying per day. The 1918 influenza epidemic that killed 30 to 50 million worldwide landed in Boston at the end of August; by the end of October, 195,000 Americans had died.
But we never see movies about the 1918 influenza epidemic, and bubonic plague exists in the cultural memory banks mostly as a gag in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (“I’m not dead”). Too scary; too unkind to our need for soothing clichés of biomedical heroes conquering all.
Instead, we subsume those fears into fantasies of zombie pandemics, which are, quite tellingly, everywhere these days.
From “World War Z” in movie theaters to “The Walking Dead” on TV to the billboard I saw for a Halloween fright-fair that offers the chance to “shoot real zombies,’’ the living dead are on us from all sides. Is that because the dead dead are too frightening to contemplate?
What has been revealed over the past two months is how skittish and profoundly insecure we feel, as individuals and as a species, and how fear is a brushfire easily fanned, by memories of best-selling books like Richard Preston’s 1994 “The Hot Zone” — soon to be a television miniseries, directed by Ridley Scott! — and by the fear-mongering of news media and politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Most unnerving is that the virus isn’t conforming to popular expectation. A doctor in the full hazmat regalia still got infected? That’s not supposed to happen. The CDC proving to be as fallible as any human organization? Who’s writing this thing?
Well, no one is. That’s how reality works. Things fall apart and get put back together — or not — in ways you wouldn’t believe. Entropy happens.
What also happens is that we learn, adapt, and use trial and error to combat the problems that don’t play according to the shopworn story arcs in our heads.
And by “we,” I mean the real heroes in the struggle to contain the Ebola virus: the flawed medical professionals laboring amid the sick and dying, the scientists and policymakers working to find a cure and mass-produce a vaccine.
There will be an ending to this crisis, but it won’t be written by Hollywood. If that scares you, maybe you should ask yourself why.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.