Nobody expects the Spanish Flu! – The epidemic forgotten by popular culture
The streets of Whitechapel were deserted, as were the streets of the London Docks and Southwark. The doors of the houses were locked, the windows partly nailed up with boards. Many houses seemed to be abandoned at all. One hardly saw any policemen, but isolated gloomy figures. Only in the corridors of the Pembroke Hospital there was lively activity around the clock. Due to the outbreak of the epidemic, an additional tent camp had been erected in front of the hospital, all beds being occupied. The mood of the staff was gloomy.
Only two years ago, when I had experienced the described situation in the computer game “Vampyr” (Dontnod F 2018), it appeared purely fictional, just like the rest of the setting – London 1918 at the time of the Spanish flu and a centuries-old war of a secret society against vampires. It would never have occurred to me to look for a direct connection to my everyday world. In my opinion the game could best be read as a metaphor for a currently increasing distance between rich and poor. Even the clear historical location of the game, for example by using the most realistic historical architecture and clothing possible, as well as the use of historical leaflets, did not change the fact that I was constantly aware of the fact that I was immersing myself in a fictional world.
Two years later this has profoundly changed, from now on the game can only be experienced with the Corona crisis as background. From a cultural studies point of view, an interesting shift in the perspective of perception has occurred, which can also be found in other media. It is not without reason that Camus’ “The Plague” is currently being read intensively again, and films like Soderbergh’s “Contagion” are enjoying a renewed interest.
The world-building in the game Vampyr functions primarily through a visualized health policy: public health posters and leaflets with instructions on how to behave correctly during the epidemic (washing your hands, not coughing in public, avoiding public transport, sewing yourself face masks). This must seem like a direct reference to our current experiences. The same applies in general to the aesthetic atmosphere and also to the narrative of the game: The deserted streets of London. The fact that the plague hits the Romanian immigrants in Whitechapel much harder than the upper class of the West Side and the cynical proposal of a wealthy Londoner to build a wall around the wealthy district to protect them from infection by the poorer classes.
Finally a conspiracy of a shadow state controlled by secret societies as (perceived) cause of a health policy failure. Now, two years later, all this has an unpleasant taste of actuality. Even the story of the protagonist Dr. Jonathan Reid, a dashing young doctor with World War II trauma who unintentionally became a vampire and is now searching for a cure for a mutated flu, takes on a completely different connotation from this new perspective.
It is of course nonsense to reinterpret a game from 2018 into a clairvoyant prediction of the current pandemic. In fact, the developers had probably taken the Spanish flu as a setting mainly because it was at the same time spectacular, far away and almost forgotten, an antithesis of our surely believed everyday life. A very prosaic reason might also have played a role: the flu allowed deserted streets, which meant less programming effort than busy streets. So why talk about the game at all? Well, for one thing, Vampyr is a good reminder for us researchers that we always apporach our research objects with a huge baggage of own experiences and worldviews. That’s why we always have to be careful in our conclusions. And: readings change. The relationship between sign and signified can shift at any time, both in production and reception. What yesterday appeared as a metaphor might be interpreted literally today.
On the other hand, the game is also an interesting indication of the (non-)functioning of our collective memory. Especially the fact that this was supposed to be an exotic historical setting is an indication that the Spanish flu is only little remembered, although it caused an incredible 27-50 million deaths worldwide in the years 1918/1919. Laura Spinney asks the same question in the conclusion of her monograph “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it changed the world”. Forgetting is not only true for digital games, but also for painting, novels, films and television series in general. Apart from one plot line of the extremely successful television series “Downton Abbey”, there are no successful examples of the past century. Diseases such as tuberculosis, which was also highly damaging, or smallpox or the plague have long occupied more prominent positions.
It should therefore come as no surprise to us that so many aspects of the pandemic and the attempts we have made to contain it seem unfamiliar, even disturbing at times, even though our ancestors may have had similar experiences two or three generations before us: From compulsory quarantine, mouth and nose protection to the diffuse feeling of insecurity.
What remains of pandemics in our collective memory are usually only superficial references, which – what is more – unintentionally give those imaginations of the catastrophe a xenophobic attitude because they instrumentalise the feeling of invasion. Thus they fuel conspiracy narratives in which our small protected worlds are undermined by zombies or other “pathological” intruders. Laura Spinney wrote accordingly in her conclusions: “Intriguingly, post-viral fatigue leaves more of a trace than the flu itself, as if writers had mistaken the disease for the metaphor, and been tricked into giving it a proper treatment.” The memory silts up, the sign itself survives the passage of time, in order to constantly transform itself.
The game “Vampyr” is an interesting source for us also because it dealt with a – otherwise in popular culture – quasi forgotten pandemic. We can’t yet answer the question why certain diseases like the plague and tuberculosis made it into the epidemic canon of our (popular) culture and others – like the Spanish flu – did not. it will be adressed in the following blog posts.