Horror’s Muse

  • Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus. Viking, 2012.

On May 26th, surveillance cameras installed on the Miami Herald building captured footage of a man walking along a causeway, stopping suddenly, and dragging a vagrant out of the shade. He crouched down, stripped the vagrant naked, and proceeded to chew him up.

When police arrived almost twenty minutes later, the man was still ferocious. When told to stop, he reportedly “just growled like an animal and continued eating the victim’s face.” An officer opened fire, and seconds later the assailant was dead.

Later identified as Rudy Eugene, 31, his autopsy revealed a stomach full of undigested, unidentified pills. Eugene’s victim, Ronald Poppo, a 65-year-old schizophrenic, survived, though 75 percent of his face was, in the words of so many accounts, “devoured.” His goatee was all that remained intact.

Predictably, the media response was tremendous. Within days, prank videos proliferated on YouTube, and Rudy Eugene was renamed the “Miami Zombie.” To close-read the news reports was to be impressed by the suggestive quality of their syntax. As ABC phrased it, Eugene “had to be shot four times by a police officer to halt the cannibalistic attack.” That resignation—“had to be”—is a sort seldom used in reference to humans. It’s your sick pet that “had to be” put down, not your sick brother. Even the briefest news items described the incident with the frame-by-frame detail of a screenplay. Bloggers were spooked by Eugene’s feral behavior— how he made eye contact with the officers and then “resumed”—how he betrayed human awareness and then reverted to savagery.

Horror scholar and xenoarchaeologist Jason Colavito defines a monster as “a bizarre liminal creature poised somewhere on the continuum between man and beast.” A monster then, in the classical sense, is an obsolete threat. We are now less afraid of devolving than we are of progressing too quickly. Our civilization is contaminated not by animalism but by technology; we risk becoming not werewolves but cyborgs. We don’t worry anymore about our animal instincts getting amplified out of control, but instead about becoming outright alienated from them. The Miami Zombie was a reminder of what we used to fear, and the outsized media attention a sign that ancient strains of alarmism die hard.

“Ours is a domesticated age,” writes Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy in Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus. Wasik is an editor at Wired and Murphy, his wife, a veterinarian. Together they have coauthored a sprawling chronicle of rabies, which until you get the numbers, seems like a willfully anachronistic topic. I did not know, for instance, that rabies is the most fatal virus in the world (only six unvaccinated people have survived, the first in 2004.) A fun party trick is forcing people to guess how many rabies fatalities there are each year. Optimists will hazard 100. Skeptics, 1,000. The real answer is 55,000, a figure so large it transforms your audience into a bunch of stoned teenagers marveling at the fact equivalent of a Big Gulp.

Wasik and Murphy’s subject might seem like a deliberately strange one, but they exercise nothing but user-friendly restraint when it comes to historical detail and medical explanation. It’s a rare pleasure to read a nonfiction book by authors who research like academics but write like journalists. They have mined centuries’ worth of primary sources and come bearing only the gems. My favorites were the archaic cures, some of which were reasonable (lancing, cauterization), while others were plain perverted. The Sushruta Samhita recommends pouring clarified butter into the infected wound and then drinking it; Pliny the Elder suggests a linen tourniquet soaked with the menstrual fluid of a dog. The virus comes up surprisingly often in literary history, too. A Baltimore-based cardiologist speculates that Edgar Allan Poe, who died in a gutter wearing somebody’s else’s soiled clothes, perished not of alcoholism, as has long been thought, but of rabies. In the most famous anecdote about Emily Bronte, she is bit by a mad dog while dawdling in a moor. Terrified of infection, she rushes home and secretly cauterizes the lesion with an iron.

One needn’t have biographical reasons for enjoying these stories, but I do. There was a distemper outbreak that ravaged the small mammal populations of the Northern California county I grew up in. Multiple fourth grade weekends were ruined by infected foxes wandering into the yard. My sister and I would be displaced indoors, where from the windows we’d watch them salivate and stumble around the garden like drunks. They’d twitch and jerk in reaction to nonexistent stimuli, while completely ignoring our legitimate threats—screams, hurled rocks. I remember these sick foxes with distinct disgust: there is almost nothing more hideous than an animal without instincts. Finally, after what always seemed like hours and probably was, someone from the Humane Society would arrive to euthanize them. It seemed romantic the first time it happened, thrilling to wait with such rapt and theatrical fear. I had just read To Kill a Mockingbird, and the fox reminded me of Tim Johnson, the rabid, inexplicably surnamed dog that Atticus shoots. But once was enough: by the second time I resented being shuttled inside, left to act out, with great anguish, Calpurnia’s desperate line: “I know it’s February, Miss Eula May, but I know a mad dog when I see one. Please ma’am hurry!”

This is all to say that I might in fact be Wasik and Murphy’s ideal reader. Animal-born illnesses have informed my subconscious like almost nothing else. But the previously untraumatized will also be gratified, finding much to gasp at and underline.

Rabid is more than just a cabinet of curiosities though. It is, in fact, a book reviewer’s worst nightmare. Plotted like a chess match, it stays multiple steps ahead of even the most free-associating of readers. It leaves almost no room for transcendent analysis. From the appropriation of rabies in fiction to the inevitable moralizing of animal-born illnesses, Wasik and Murphy have already made all the conceptual leaps.

Their prose is relentlessly precise; each word is chosen for maximum menace. “Once inside the brain,” Wasik and Murphy write, rabies “works slowly, diligently, fatally warping the mind.” There might be no phrase more sinister than “brain infection,” and Wasik and Murphy clearly know why; they are consistently astute about the reasons rabies so repulses us, writing that “it troubles the line where man ends and animal begins—for the fear of the rabid bite is the visible symbol of the animal infecting the human, of an illness in a creature metamorphosing demonstrably into that same illness in a person.”

There’s certainly something vile about a disease that does not admit even the crudest distinctions: humans can get rabies, dogs can get rabies, bats can get rabies. The vaccination syringe is especially haunting—four feet long and plunged straight into the gut. And the literalness of the disease’s course is revolting: its “time of onset depends on the distance of the wound from the head.” The very etiology of rabies is mythic: once the bite heals and the virus has traveled to the brain, “the wound will usually return, as if by magic, with some odd sensation occurring at the site.” Then there’s the fact that no definitive diagnosis can be made without taking a biopsy of the sick animal’s brain, leaving only one gory solution: decapitation.

Rabies is horror’s muse. In almost all iterations of the genre, those we most trust suddenly turn strange: a boyfriend morphs into a wolf at midnight, a fiancé turns out to be harboring a mad first wife in the attic, a friend is bit by a zombie and goes berserk. Charles Rupprech, a representative of The Centers for Disease Control, whose quotes in the book are hilariously vivid, speaks of rabies—“an exquisite parasite”—with the purple poetry of an uxorious husband. “We love to lick, we love to suck, we love to bite,” he says. Rabies, Rupprech explains, “exploits what mammals do naturally.” When unpacked, the analogy between rabies symptoms and horror tropes proves to have a surprisingly logical and detailed derivation, which Wasik and Murphy spend a whole chapter meticulously reverse-engineering. The earliest vampire tales, for instance, indicate that the creatures live for forty days, which just so happens to be “the average duration of a rabies infection from time of bite until death.”

“For centuries,” they write, “rabies was the only illness in which the animalistic transfer, or more like transformation, was clear.” Besides hypersexuality (thirty ejaculations in a single day!), one of the disease’s most gruesome symptoms is hydrophobia, “an eerie and fully physical manner,” in which the desperately thirsty patient cannot bring himself to drink. The diaphragm involuntarily contracts and the throat spasms, producing “cries of agony” that give “the impression of an almost animal bark.” After sustaining a rabid bite from a pet fox in 1819, the Duke of Richmond was so repelled by water that he “could not even accept his customary shave.” He died, “like an animal, in a barn laid with straw.”

Despite their willingness to invoke disquiet and analogize the rabid human to a beast, Wasik and Murphy are cautious when writing about the metaphorical value of the disease, as even the most truant pupils of Susan Sontag know to be. They’re careful to always historicize the muddling of the virus’s medical and figurative senses: “For millennia, the disease was metaphor,” they write, preemptively deflecting a tedious critique by italicizing the very tense of the sentence.

All too often, general-interest nonfiction books, especially ones with colons in their titles, are bloated with specious studies, tedious examples, and obvious conclusions. Reading them, you are impressed not by the writing or the research, but rather by the authors’ business savvy, social connections, or whatever it is that allowed them to get paid to write a book about what should have been, or already was, a magazine article. Rabid is not one of those books. Not only are its sentences funny and spry, but Wasik and Murphy make a continuous case for their topic. They devote a densely entertaining section to the life and work of Louis Pasteur, who discovered germ theory and invented the vaccine while studying rabies. There is enough detail in just this one segment that you read it and know there was once even more. It’s one of many angles that could be hypothetically book-sustaining had Wasik and Murphy chosen to focus on it exclusively. You don’t wish they did, but you trust they could.

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