I work in a neighborhood building above a chocolate shop that usually smells so good it evokes a predictable wave of nostalgia — even patriotism, I guess.
It's an all-American street, with no less than three different places to grab a cup of coffee. Most days, there are kids on skateboards doing tricks in the parking lot behind the bank. Toddlers stop and stare every time the bright-red fire truck cranks up its sirens and lumbers out of its cave to save the day.
That's the kind of street where I work. You’ve seen it a thousand times.
But now, the candy shop is closed. It's scentless. No kids on skateboards. There's still coffee to be had, but the coffee shop patrons grab their drinks and make their way back onto the empty sidewalks, using their elbows or the knuckles to open the door.
All of this is new and surreal. At the same time, all of this is also strangely familiar.
You see, I've seen all this before. I wrote this.
Nearly 10 years ago, I published a novel that garnered a bit of notoriety. It featured zombies and viral pandemics, and so the story was riddled with empty and ravaged cities. Zombies were particularly fashionable back then.
In the screenplay version of my story, written by the late George Romero himself, the opening scene shows sidewalks empty of people, littered with unread newspapers, headlines caught in the eddies of the whistling breeze.
George often reminded me that every story was derivative. If you’re telling a story about a pandemic, and my novel was exactly that, certain signifiers must be present.
In our current pandemic, these signifiers are rearing their eerie heads. Of course most are absent. We certainly aren't and will not be anywhere near burning cars. There are no gangs of bandits on motorcycles. There are no broken windows. But there are uncollected newspapers, piling up at the entrance to the office building where I've been virtually meeting with patients through the wonders of sterile technology.
Lately, people keep asking me about my book. People seem to think I might have a particular angle on the psychology surrounding our current pandemic. After all, they remind me, I spent a lot of time imagining a world where this sort of thing could happen. I even feel a little guilty. I wrote an entire novel that indulged in a kind of salacious, infectious foreboding.
In fact, I have lots of angles. My first is that I'd much prefer all of this to have remained in the movies. We watch these disaster films in part so we can leave the theater and revel in the normalcy of the off-screen world.
My second angle is that we are not in a disaster movie. What we see in the movies is a lot worse, a whole lot worse, than the unsettling emptiness on the street where I work. That's important to remember. Film scholars have noted that we tend to over-interpret familiar cinematic images when we encounter these images outside of the movies.
That’s the trap of our current predicament, and therein lies the most important lesson from my novel, indeed from all novels and movies and stories that feature the eerie and unnatural trappings of apocalyptic landscapes: We are not in an apocalypse. We are in the midst of a public health crisis that will without question end, and life will go back to normal.
This is not to say that things won't be pretty strange for a while. This is going to be tough. But this isn't about zombies. This is about the cautionary tale of the zombie trope.
My book featured characters who grew bored and frustrated with one another. Ennui was at least as dangerous as the pandemic itself. This very ennui, the lonely, one-note chords that empty streets and closed shops play in our pattern-prone brains, is the sentiment we have to guard most stringently against.
This ain't no zombie novel, but the zombie novels can teach us a thing or two. In the zombie stories, the humans nearly always end up fighting. That's the trap, and we know better.
We tend to defend ourselves by adopting the attributes of our enemies. This is problematic, because a virus literally has no attributes. It doesn't think or feel or love. The cautionary themes of every zombie film feature these tropes. Exactly when we need each other most, we start acting like zombies. And this is not the time for microbial nihilism.
Now, I must apologize. As a psychiatrist, I am going to offer clichés. Clichés are clichés, after all, because they are true. Oddly enough, we tend to ignore clichés when things get weird. I am arguing, therefore, that these clichés are currently especially important.
Play music. Tell stories. Go for a walk. Check in on your neighbor and tip your hat to a stranger. These gestures, so boring, so ordinary, are to my mind right now extraordinarily important. They preserve normalcy even as we hunker down for what looks like a long and unfamiliar haul.
We do not, as a rule, tolerate uncertainty with grace. Current research suggests that in the face of uncertainty, we generalize — we decide that everything is foggy and out of focus. But there are constants of humanity, and we need to keep these in mind. We need to live in the moment even as we plan for the future. We need to keep up with routines as best we can. We need to sing and to play.
We got this. It's going to be hard, but we got this. This ain't no zombie novel, but the zombie novels can teach us a thing or two. In the zombie stories, the humans nearly always end up fighting. That's the trap — and we know better.
Let's stick together, and we'll get through it.
Dr. Steve Schlozman is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist.