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Scott Sigler – Werewolves? No. Ghosts? No. Microbes? Now That’s Real Horror

Novelist Scott Sigler’s horror column appears every Thursday.

Zombies, werewolves, and ghosts can be downright frightening, and entice us to toss down $11 for a movie ticket, but we all know these creatures aren’t real. We can watch those flicks and know we are safe — Dracula isn’t going to kick in the back door and feast on Aunt Mabel. There is, however, a certain strain of horror that gets us where we live, because it has happened before and will happen again.

Microbes. The Black Death whacked 75 million peeps. Let’s see Jason beat that body count. The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed an estimated 100 million people — around five percent of the entire world population. Bird Flu, SARS, flesh-eating bacteria; the media constantly tries to fire us up about “the next plague.” I referenced microbial terror in Monster Taxonomy, Chapter Two, but only in the context of zombies. Here’s a professional opinion:

“Microbes are probably related to somewhere around 25 percent of all fatalities worldwide, whereas the undead are probably only responsible for heart palpitations,” says Dr. Kirsten Sanford, Ph.D. “Microbes are scarier than imaginary monsters because they are really here, and we don’t know nearly enough about them to protect ourselves. The next big killer could be lurking in the shadows of the jungle waiting for its chance to spread. Or, it could be in your bathroom…”

That gestalt of fear makes for great movie terror. A comprehensive list of microbial horror movies would be too long to list, so I’ve thrown down a few interesting flicks along with a “plausibility rating” to show if the movie’s concept could actually happen (that is, make you literally puke your guts out until you die a very nasty death).

12 Monkeys (1995)
Plausibility rating: 2
is a big body-count virus, killing five billion people (an estimated 99
percent of the population). Of course, the plot involves time travel,
as in going back in time to get the virus before it mutates, to study it in the future (as
opposed to go back in time and stop the thing from being released in
the first place). The time-travel factor should give it a plausibility
rating of 0 (and a writer’s work-ethic rating of -10), but the fact
that 12 Monkeys looks at bioterrorism as a vehicle for viral
dissemination is worth notice. For a virus to really kick our
collective asses, it needs to infect a critical mass very quickly,
before governments can organize military forces to cull out diseased
areas. Even a 100 percent lethal virus needs to spread over a large
area to escape containment, and that’s easy to do: A dozen or so
Greyhound tickets and you can bring humanity to a crashing halt. A crazy Brad Pitt doesn’t hurt, either.

Outbreak (1995)
Plausibility Factor: 9
deadly Motaba virus, with a mortality rate of 100 percent, finds a way
out of Africa’s jungles and invades the Pacific Northwest. OK, it’s not
“a way,” it’s a monkey that spreads the disease, which causes massive
bleed-out and liquefied
organs. Yech! If a virus should jump species, and we have no prior
species history of fighting this strain, a 100 percent lethal
virus is definitely possible. Add to that an airborne delivery vector,
a decent incubation period that allows people to travel and spread it
before they know they are infected, and yeah, humanity is
screwed. Outbreak is the best of this bunch in presenting at least a
plausible story for what a killer microbe can do. 

Cabin Fever (2002)
Plausibility Rating: 8 (if you slow things down a lot)
A rare appearance by necrotizing fasciitis,
more commonly known as “flesh-eating disease.” Five college kids (and
after watching a dozen or so horror movies, you have to ask, how can
there be anyone left in college?) stumble upon this nasty disease in,
you guessed it, the Very Isolated Deep Woods. This one kind of ramps up
the disease to Formula One speeds and people dissolve within hours.
Good times, bad movie, worth a rental to see a disease movie that does
not end in global destruction and/or zombification.

28 Days Later (2002)
Plausibility Rating: 4
This Danny Boyle-directed classic was as good as its sequel, 28 Weeks Later , was bad. In 28 Days,
we’re dealing with a zombie-creating bacteria. This has to be a
bacteria, mind you, and not a virus, because the change from
happy-go-lucky UK resident to snarling monster happens fast, in
less than a minute. A virus can only replicate as fast as human cells
divide; bacteria replicate much faster and can also exude various
neurotoxins that could cause psychopathic insanity. So, 28 Days Later is plausible, if only just by a mere shred of decomposing skin.

Resident Evil (2002)
Plausibility Rating: 1
Milla Jovovich Rating: 10

movie cashes in on two of Hollywood’s favorite whipping boys: Science
and big business. This flick features the constantly mutating T-virus.
Scientifically speaking, the movie makes about as much sense as
creationism, but features Milla Jovovich at the peak of her
monster-killing hotness. I’m afraid the Y chromosome in me has to let
this one slide and award it a “must-rent” status.

I Am Legend (2007)
Plausibility Factor: 5
one is difficult to separate from Richard Matheson’s amazing novella.
The movie completely misses the point of the book, which is that the
definition of “monster” lies in the eyes and beliefs of the masses, not
necessarily the people who think and act like you and I. So instead,
the movie is about weird CGI dudes that yell a lot and run real fast.
Here’s what you need to know: Will Smith rocks, the dog is great, and
the CGI of a Manhattan gone to seed are sweet. Plot? Science? Don’t
worry your pretty little head about it.

Quarantine (2008)
it’s just another zombie movie, and it isn’t even out yet (it opens
October 10), but it’s got a very microbial-related name: Quarantine.
Say no more, I’m in. This is also a fun plot — zombie outbreak in an
apartment building, so the government seals it up to prevent further
contamination. The uninfected saps who are still inside? Tough cookies,
my friend, enjoy your final 90 minutes of life or see if you can make
it into the sequel, Evicted.

Do I Know What I’m Talking About?
yes. I have a Ph.D in how to get Ph.Ds, part of my “I Made a Million by
Getting Ph.Ds. and Now You Can Too!” DVD series. And if you can’t trust
a guy you see hawking self-help success DVDs on late-night TV, then who
can you trust? Fine, if you don’t trust me, you can trust Dr. Sanford.
“Dr. Kiki” is the host of This Week in Science podcast and the Food Science Internet video show and her Ph.D didn’t come off the back of a cereal box. It’s a Ph.D in
physiology specializing in neurobiology of learning and memory, from
the University of California, Davis.

scott75.jpgScott Sigler writes tales of hard-science horror, then gives them away as free audiobooks at His hardcover debut, Infected, is available in stores now. If
you don’t agree with what Scott says in this blog, please email him Please include all relevant personal
information, such as your address and what times you are not home, in
case Scott wishes to send someone to “discuss” your opinions.

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