A Brief Guide to Surviving the Most Frightening Fictional Diseases


Today marks the release of Ben Marcus’s long-awaited fourth novel, The Flame Alphabet , in which language becomes lethal, estranging families, turning children (who are solely immune) into something resembling packs of wild dogs, and requiring everyone’s complicity in a sort of social apocalypse brought on by an inability to communicate. Needless to say, the concept that language may turn toxic and slowly kill off its users is relatively terrifying for us, so we’ve put together a short guide on the most frightening fictional afflictions in literature — and more importantly, how to avoid them. Click through for a quick survival lesson, and let us know if you have any more safety tips in the comments.

Toxic language in The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus

When, perhaps from overuse, perhaps from something more sinister, all language — voiced aloud, written, mimed — becomes toxic to the listener, unless that listener is under eighteen (at least at first). The afflicted suffer from shrunken faces, vomiting, and extreme weakness until they ultimately die from the toxicity.

How to protect yourself: As all agoraphobics and the staunchly antisocial already know, you’re safest on your own. Make sure you have a secret — really secret — spot to hole up in when the worst of it hits, and don’t break down and take your family with you. Alternately, you can concoct your own medicine to combat the thing, but, well, good luck with that.

“The Bug” in Black Hole , Charles Burns

“The Bug” or “the teen plague” is a sexually transmitted disease that causes any afflicted parties to develop terrible mutations — a tail, a second mouth, skin that sheds like a snake’s — which leads to social ostracization and even violent persecution from “normal” people.

How to protect yourself: Easy. Just don’t have unprotected sex with any teenagers, okay? No matter how cool you think their tails are.

The Red Death in “The Masque of the Red Death,” Edgar Allan Poe

In Poe’s macabre short story, the Red Death is a fast-acting plague that causes “sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores” before death comes, usually within a half an hour. Apparently, the disease can also take corporeal form if it has a mind.

How to protect yourself: Well, if you’re going to try to wall yourself up inside a castle to protect yourself, don’t throw any parties. Better yet, don’t be an indifferent prince when your country is suffering.

Vampirism in I Am Legend , Richard Matheson

Though Matheson’s novel was in many ways the precursor to modern zombie literature, the disease that afflicts all but his main character is in fact a form of vampirism. The condition is transmitted through blood and causes all the usual signs. However, the living infected (as opposed to the dead reanimated by the virus) are working towards fighting their disease and building a new society.

How to protect yourself: On this one, you sort of have to be the one guy on earth who’s immune (you will be, right?). Or, you can just give in, and try to be part of the new vampiric earth. How bad can it be?

The insomnia plague in One Hundred Years of Solitude , Gabriel García Márquez

Not only does this plague, which starts with one girl and eventually infects the entire town of Macondo, cause sleeplessness, but it also gives the afflicted wide, glowing cat-eyes and general amnesia. Their ability to remember their own world deteriorates to the point where they must mark everything, even hanging a sign on the cow: “This is the cow. She must be milked every morning so that she will produce milk, and the milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee to make coffee and milk.”

How to protect yourself: Do not let any strangers into your town. Seriously, they’re going to ruin everything.

Spattergroit in Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling

Sure, like most of the afflictions in the Harry Potter-verse, spattergroit sounds kind of cute. It is not cute. A highly contagious fungus that covers its victim in giant purple pustules, stops them from speaking, leaves them completely bedridden, and can lead to death.

How to protect yourself: Stay away from all afflicted creatures, and try to avoid being the ghoul in Ron Weasley’s attic.

Solanum (Zombie-ism) in World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War , Max Brooks

The zombie disease is well-known in pop culture by now, but it bears repeating, if only to make you better prepared for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. The virus infects the brain, causing high fever, hallucinations, headaches, and vomiting until death. About twenty two hours later, the body is reanimated to stalk the earth and create more victims.

How to protect yourself: We think it only appropriate to leave you with the top ten points from the Zombie Survival Guide , written by the same author, who would know better than we: 1. Organize before they rise! 2. They feel no fear, why should you? 3. Use your head: cut off theirs. 4. Blades don’t need reloading. 5. Ideal protection = tight clothes, short hair. 6. Get up the staircase, then destroy it. 7. Get out of the car, get onto the bike. 8. Keep moving, keep low, keep quiet, keep alert! 9. No place is safe, only safer. 10. The zombie may be gone, but the threat lives on.

The Andromeda strain in The Andromeda Strain , Michael Crichton

The Andromeda strain is a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism that erodes the circulatory system, causing rapid blood clotting and/or insanity in humans.

How to protect yourself: As far as we can tell, the best thing to do is stall until the thing mutates into a benign version of itself. Also, try not to poke around any landed military satellites — but you knew that already.

White blindness in Blindness , José Saramago

Just as it sounds, Saramago’s epidemic of blindness is characterized by the infected’s ability to see only a bright white glare. Nearly everyone in his unnamed city is stricken by the sudden disease, and society quickly collapses accordingly.

How to protect yourself: Sorry to say, but this seems like another occasion where you just have to bank on being one of the lucky ones — or at least make sure someone in your family is luckier than you.

Captain Trips in The Stand , Stephen King

Known formally as “Project Blue,” this manmade superflu is mostly terrifying because it was created by the US government as a biological weapon and then accidentally released on its own citizens. The flu virus is characterized by constant mutation, so very few immune systems can deal with it, and it ultimately kills 99.4% of the world’s population.

How to protect yourself: Be part of the 0.6% of the human population with an immune system strong enough to handle the thing. Better stock up on Emergen-C.