From Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa (Seattle University)
Filmed Zoonosis- A History of Onscreen Animal Vectors
When the novel coronavirus first appeared as a global crisis, there was a hurried international conversation over its animal origins. Did it come from a bat or a pangolin? Was it the result of genetic tests into biological warfare? Were so-called Chinese “wet markets”—where many species of live and dead animals are sold—to blame? These concerns were quickly integrated into Trump’s xenophobic and racist attempts to frame the issue as one of external invasion. As NBC reported on April 30th, Trump said: “‘We’re going to see where it is, where it comes from, theory from lab, the bats, the type of bat, couldn’t have been here or there, a lot of theories… We have people looking at it strongly, scientific people, intel people.’”
Animals have remained a topic of concern. As stories of animal vectors proliferated, the CDC created a website dedicated to answering pet owners’ questions about contracting the disease from their furry companions. A tiger was tested for the virus in the Bronx Zoo. Can ferrets transmit the disease to humans? Will alpaca blood enzymes help to create a vaccine? By definition, zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 breakdown our already porous human/animal boundaries. Deforestation, habitat-destruction, and climate change, all accelerate the pace and prevalence of these diseases, leading to further border crossings of this type.
And yet, none of this is new. As you will see in the following brief and partial survey of the representation of zoonotic diseases on film, such diseases have been a staple of both scientific and narrative cinema. Whether a film is representing malaria, rabies, AIDS, or a fantastical disease such as vampirism, animal vectors are often used to personify these diseases as powerful onscreen presences. Throughout this history, infected animals have been racialized as invading outsiders, constructed as abject images of disgust, and transformed into avatars of geopolitical battlefronts. These films each navigate the unsettling effects of zoonosis in their own way, intersecting with the politics of a disease’s origins and the populations effected by it.
Content Warning: Many of these films deal with disturbing images of suffering humans and animals
Rabies and the CDC: Striking Back Against Rabies (C.D.C., 1950) and Rabies Control in the Community (C.D.C., 1956)
These 1950s public health films establish many of the key themes of representing zoonotic disease discussed above. Each film deals with the threat of rabies, how it can be transmitted from animals to humans, and what must be done to stop its spread. They picture suburban white America as an idyllic space invaded by feral animals. Here, the diseased body is mined for horrific affects—highlighting the dogs’ frothing mouths and jerky movements—in order to accomplish the dual purposes of informing spectators of what an animal with rabies looks like while also terrifying them into vaccinating their pets. As vectors for zoonotic diseases, animals are often presented onscreen by these public health films as akin to the monsters in Robin Wood’s classic “basic formula” for American horror films: “Normality is threatened by the Monster.”
Striking Back Against Rabies (C.D.C., 1950): https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-8800067A-vid
Rabies Control in the Community (C.D.C., 1956): https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-100892676-vid
DDT, Weapon Against Disease (Army Pictorial Service, 1945)
In an excellent paper for my class “Science & Film,” a film studies/biology double major El Melendez argues that this anti-malaria film is a classic example of what Kirsten Ostherr calls “disease as the enemy.” DDT, Weapon Against Disease is a classified public health film made for internal use by the U.S. Army after sharp increases in malaria amongst personnel following the invasions of the South Pacific in World War II. As Melendez argues, malaria, the mosquitos that carry it, and their origin in the tropics, are all associated with one another here to create a noxious combination of racializing and animalizing rhetoric, where people and insects are compared with one another as enemies to be wiped out by the “miraculous white powder,” DDT. Here, the propaganda effort to villainize a racialized enemy combines with the public health goals of promoting the use of DDT (which even at the time was known by some to be highly toxic) all in the name of combating zoonotic disease.
DDT, Weapon Against Disease: https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-9502511-vid
The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983)
Tony Scott’s lesbian-vampire horror film starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon, famously begins with a rendition of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by the goth band Bauhaus. The cage that Bauhaus’ lead singer Peter Murphy sings in is intercut with caged monkeys, who we later learn are gerontologist Sarah Roberts’ (Sarandon) laboratory animals. As described by Priscilla L. Walton in Our Cannibals, Ourselves, The Hunger is “one of the first post-AIDS vampire films,” where the themes of contagion, sexuality, and counterculture are all richly explored. (78) This film makes explicit the horrific potential of zoonotic disease and animal-as-vector by incorporating them as minor yet important figures within a genre film.
Available to rent on Amazon Prime (US & UK) & HBO Max.
Did Coronavirus Accidentally Escape from a Wuhan Lab? It’s Doubtful (Washington Post, 2020)
Descriptions of the animal origins of the novel coronavirus have continued the dynamics of this history. In this video from the Washington Post, made ostensibly to disprove the notion that COVID-19 is a bioweapon, we can see the bat being incorporated into the global theater of America and China’s deteriorating relationship. The two primary images of the video are those of the animal body and surveillance satellite photographs of the Wuhan province, thereby incorporating zoonotic disease as a foreign threat to national security. As climate change accelerates the prevalence of these diseases, we might expect the onscreen presence of animals-as-vectors to take on increasing prominence as political and scientific symbols, in which the dynamics outlined in this very brief history of the trope will be adapted to frame crises as they unfold.
Dr. Benjamín Schultz-Figueroa is an Assistant Professor in Film Studies at Seattle University, where he teaches courses on Film History, Genre, Animal Representation, and Science and Film. His book The Celluloid Specimen: Moving Image Research into Animal Life is due to be published by UC Press in 2022.