When most people think of the plague, they are likely to think of the bubonic plague, or “Black Death” that decimated the populations of medieval Europe and other parts of the world. Caused by bacteria carried by infected rats and the fleas who regarded their rodent hosts as moveable feasts, the plague killed as many as 30,000,000 Europeans, or about a third of that continent’s population, in the 13th century. About 550 years later, the same disease killed about 12,000,000 Chinese. Although the plague continues to kill men, women, and children today, its death toll has been greatly reduced, there having been a mere 2,118 fatalities in 2003. A handful of individuals in the United States succumb to the disease each year, but “there has not been a case of person-to-person infection. . . since 1924.”
Usually, the plague attacks the lymph nodes, causing flu-like symptoms within three to seven days, including “fever, headache, chills, weakness, and swollen tender lymph glands,” or buboes (“hence the name bubonic”). Today, the plague is treated with antibiotics.
In addition to rats, “many other rodent species, for instance, prairie dogs, wood rats, chipmunks, and other ground squirrels and their fleas,” also “suffer plague outbreaks and some of these occasionally serve as sources of human infection.” In addition,
Deer mice and voles are thought to maintain the disease in animal populations but are less important as sources of human infection. Other less frequent sources of infection include wild rabbits, and wild carnivores that pick up their infections from wild rodent outbreaks. Domestic cats (and sometimes dogs) are readily infected by fleas or from eating infected wild rodents. Cats may serve as a source of infection to persons exposed to them. Pets may also bring plague-infected fleas into the home.
The bacteria multiply inside the flea, sticking together to form a plug that blocks its stomach and causes it to begin to starve. The flea then voraciously bites a host and continues to feed, even though it cannot quell its hunger, and consequently the flea vomits blood tainted with the bacteria back into the bite wound. The bubonic plague bacterium then infects a new victim, and the flea eventually dies from starvation.
. . . in men and women alike it first betrayed itself by the emergence of certain tumours in the groin or the armpits, some of which grew as large as a common apple, others as an egg, some more, some less, which the common folk called gavoccioli. From the two said parts of the body this deadly gavocciolo soon began to propagate and spread itself in all directions indifferently; after which the form of the malady began to change, black spots or livid making their appearance in many cases on the arm or the thigh or elsewhere, now few and large, now minute and numerous. And as the gavocciolo had been and still was an infallible token of approaching death, such also were these spots on whomsoever they shewed themselves.
There are other plagues besides the Black Death, a famous series of which were the 10 plagues described in Exodus.
- Water turned to blood
- Sky raining frogs
- Diseased livestock
- Rain of hail and fire
- Deaths of firstborn sons
Professor Roger Wotton of the University College of London identifies several natural events that might have caused the Biblical floods:
A large storm may have caused the rivers of blood with heavy rain on the dry, baked soil of Egypt causing sediment-rich underlying soils and rocks to flow from tributaries into the Nile, which could also explain the killing of fish.
The fiery hail as described in the Bible could have been large hail and ball lightning that often followed dramatic storms, as could the darkening of skies.
The lice plague could be explained through the sudden mass hatching of lice after rainfall that followed hot and dry weather and the plague of frogs was explained by the emergence of spadefoot toads from hiding places in damp undersoil following a large rain.
The described biblical swarms of flies may have been clouds of biting midges which could have been seen as pestilence that killed cattle and caused boils on humans.
Both the Black Death and the Biblical plagues have inspired both horror novels and films, including Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, Stephen King’s The Stand, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and The Reaping, among others:
On the edge of a barren Kansas landscape, an ex-wrestler called Black Frankenstein hears the cry. . . . . "Protect the Child!"--In the wasteland of New York City, a bag lady clutches a strange glass ring and feels magic coursing through her--within an Idaho mountain, a survivalist compound lies in ruins, and a young boy learns how to kill.
In a wasteland born of nuclear rage, in a world of mutant animals and marauding armies, the last people on earth are now the first. Three bands of survivors journey toward destiny--drawn into the final struggle between annihilation and life!
They have survived the unsurvivable. Now the ultimate terror begins.
One man escapes from a biological weapon facility after an accident, carrying with him the deadly virus known as Captain Tripps, a rapidly mutating flu that--in the ensuing weeks--wipes out most of the world's population. In the aftermath, survivors choose between following an elderly black woman to Boulder or the dark man, Randall Flagg, who has set up his command post in Las Vegas.
The two factions prepare for a confrontation between the forces of good and evil.
Four lifelong friends gather in the woods of western Maine for their annual hunting trip. When they were young, they were bound together forever by an act of bravery involving a fifth friend, whose influence has given these men special powers. Their trip is disrupted when a stranger, disoriented and delirious, wanders into camp, muttering about light in the sky. Before long, the friends find themselves pitted against an alien invasion and must draw on their old friend's strength once again to fight for their lives.
Dr. Anton Phibes, a mad doctor (his Ph.D is in music!). . .was horribly disfigured in an automobile accident while racing to see his wife in the hospital, where she was undergoing unsuccessful surgery that left her dead. . . .
Set in 1925, the plot follows the mad musician as he kills off the surgical team behind the failed operation, using grimly imaginative methods (bees, rats, bats) inspired by the Old Testament plagues Moses called down upon Egypt (it seems Phibes also studied theology while getting his musical degree). . . .
Investigative scholar Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank) is a debunker of modern "miracles," bringing scientific light to superstition and fraud. But events in tiny Haven, Louisiana, defy even her expertise. There, the 10 Biblical Plagues seem to be reoccurring. And the more she seeks answers, the more she questions her own beliefs.
Not to be outdone (or left behind) by the masters of horror, several science fiction novelists and scriptwriters have also based stories upon the idea of plagues, one of which arrives from outer space (Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain), and another of which resulted from a disease caused by biological warfare. The victims undergo bizarre mutations that transform them into vampire-like creatures. The Omega Man is a military scientist who’d injected himself with an experimental vaccine against the disease. It’s up to him to try to save the world.
“Everyday Horrors: Plagues” is the first in a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured in Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.