From art to zombies, the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic gave us some ‘surprising cultural byproducts’

spanish flu
Credit: George Rinhart/Corbis

Elizabeth Outka, author of “Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature,” argues the 1918 flu pandemic’s influence is an undercurrent that runs through many works of the period.

She points to examples like Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway,” which follows upper-class London resident Clarissa Dalloway as she makes her way around the city. Though often read as a novel about the aftermath of the war, the pandemic leaves its mark, too. The titular character suffers from heart damage resulting from influenza — as did Woolf, in real life. 

Another surprising cultural byproduct of the pandemic? Zombies.

Outka says the enormous death toll of the war and the pandemic — which required mass graves, delayed funerals, or insecure burials — deprived families of the traditional mourning process. There was also a fear of unwittingly infecting loved ones with a hidden, contagious disease. From these anxieties sprung proto-zombie figures in the works of horror author H.P. Lovecraft, as well as in the 1919 silent film “J’accuse,” by French director Abel Gance. 

Related article:  What caused anatomically modern Homo sapiens to evolve into behaviorally modern people?

“I think we’re going to see a lot of art coming out in the immediate aftermath of COVID, but keep your eyes open about the way art is going to emerge down the line — that’s how people process things,” [Outka said.]

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