Horror, perhaps more than any other genre of storytelling, is full of metaphors. It gives us fantastical monsters as a way to contain our fears, to examine them and to confront them. Sexual desire was one of the most taboo subjects in Victorian England, so it’s no surprise writers of that milieu gave us Mr. Hyde and Dracula. Japan, in its attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible destruction wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, gave us Godzilla. And in the 1960s, a young filmmaker named George Romero made a movie about the social turmoil and racial injustice that gripped the U.S. called Night of the Living Dead.
Romero’s film did more than just comment on the times; his modern zombie has proven an incredibly versatile metaphor. Zombies have been used as symbols of rampant consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), misogyny (Deadgirl), and even juvenile escapism from the pressures of adult life (Shaun of the Dead). But perhaps the most literal interpretation of the zombie myth is as a physical manifestation of an out-of-control disease, as in 28 Days Later or Resident Evil (originally titled Biohazard in Japan). This also happens to be one of the biggest fears of the modern world: The Ebola virus, bird flu, and necrotizing fasciitis (aka flesh-eating bacteria) have all had their time to take hold of the public imagination.
2009 was a particularly big year for horrific diseases. In the mass media, it was the year of the Swine Flu pandemic, which closed down schools and caused a run on vaccines. In videogames, it was the year of Left 4 Dead, which pitted millions of gamers against a zombie plague that had left the world in ruins, complete with bilious Boomers vomiting green ooze and tumor-ridden Smokers choking the life from the survivors. And in my little corner of the universe, it was the year that cancer would claim the lives of both my parents.
My father had actually been diagnosed with lung cancer in August 2008, but my mother told me repeatedly that the doctors were optimistic. In hindsight, I may have been deaf to the truth. I was getting married that December, and it’s possible that Mom didn’t want me weighed down by the thought of his death while we were preparing for the wedding.
Either way, by the middle of January the doctors determined any further treatment would do more harm than good. I talked to the oncologist myself and asked him, with treatment ending, how long he thought Dad had left to live. The doctor said roughly two to three months. Samaritan Hospice got involved. And in the meantime, I spent a few hours a week pumping shotgun rounds into zombies.
At this point, I simply enjoyed L4D as a game, irrespective of the brief reprieve it gave me from thinking about my father’s illness. I hadn’t ever played anything else that was as truly cooperative. You depend on your friends for survival, and they depend on you. Wander away from the group, and not only are you likely to meet your own grisly end, but you dim the prospects for everyone else. Every week, my friends and I – Attacked Cactus, Starlit Aardvark, Furianus, and me, RevJJCuster – got better at functioning as a unit. Every week, we survived the apocalypse together … or died trying.
On the home front, Mom took the brunt of the burden of caring for Dad. I’d go by their place to see him a few times a week, and I’d call her to check in as soon as I got out of work every day, but she seemed to have the situation under control. He was eating much less than he used to and his voice had become raspy and strained, but he actually seemed to be doing pretty well considering the situation. He would fall asleep in the recliner in the living room a lot, but he’d been doing that for as long as I could remember.
When it finally happened, it was quick. One weekend, his symptoms worsened sharply, and he struggled to move on his own. On Monday, the hospice nurse told Mom it was time for them to bring a hospital bed into the house. It arrived the next day, St. Patrick’s Day. And late Wednesday afternoon, at the age of 61, he died.
There were things to do. There were services. There were places to call and there was paperwork to sort out.
Two weeks went by. I can’t remember, looking back, if I played any L4D during that time. But after those two weeks, when the wound wasn’t so fresh, I most certainly did. I came to rely on the scant hours I had each week to tear through the zombie horde. It became one of the few threads keeping me tenuously connected to my sanity.
Early in the morning after the two-week anniversary of Dad’s death, Mom called to tell me she couldn’t move her right hand. I’d find out later that this had been the case for almost a day, but she hadn’t told anyone because she thought it would get better on its own. I rushed out of the house to pick her up and drive her to the emergency room. “This is awful,” I thought. “All the stress of losing Dad must have caused a small stroke.”
The doctors performed some tests. One of them told us he also thought it was a small stroke. Then the results came back: It wasn’t a stroke that had caused her to lose function in her hand; it was a “mass” in her brain. We were told she had to be immediately transferred to another hospital with a neurologist on staff.
There was an outbreak. I was now a survivor in the middle of a cancer pandemic.
The next five months went by excruciatingly slowly, yet it all blends together in my mind, with moments surfacing and then floating away: the CAT scans and MRIs; the official diagnosis (Stage IV lung cancer that had already spread to her brain); the surgery to remove the tumors; the recovery; radiation treatments – lots of them. Every day of the week, for nearly a month after she finally came home from the hospital, a doctor irradiated her brain in an effort to wipe out the small remnants of the tumors that surgery couldn’t get. It didn’t work.
Less than two months after the brain surgery and one month after the heavy radiation treatments, there were tumors in Mom’s brain bigger than what was there before the surgery. Any more radiation, and any chemo at all, would just cause her needless suffering at this point. It was time to call the hospice again.
If you’ve been close to someone with a terminal disease – especially a malignant brain tumor – you know how apt the metaphor of the zombie is. You see your loved one change into a perversion of who they once were. When they try to move on their own, they shamble and lurch about. Their face slowly drains of any real expression until their eyes become all but lifeless, blankly staring into some unfathomable distance. And through no fault of their own, their sickness begins to mentally and emotionally drain you as you try to care for them during their last days. This thing, which used to be someone you loved, begins to figuratively eat your brain.
You need backup to handle it. Thankfully, I had my real-life team of fellow survivors: my wife, my mother-in-law and a few good friends (one of whom was also part of my L4D crew). They had my back; between their love and support and the outlet I had in L4D, I knew I would get through my personal apocalypse.
Mom’s decline was a bit more prolonged than Dad’s, happening steadily over weeks rather than days. During that time, even sparing a few hours for a videogame became impossible. It’s hard for me to recount any concrete details of this period, not because the memories are blurry but because they’re still too painful. But I remember that during her last week, she was bedridden and reduced to little more than a breathing corpse.
When Mom died, I was filled with more frustration, anger and sadness than I could possibly articulate in the real world. So I did the only thing I could: I poured it into digital zombie heads and systematically pounded them in with the butt of a shotgun.
But there was something more than simple catharsis to my time spent with Left 4 Dead. Unlike other forms of horror storytelling, games let us fight back against the metaphor, let us point a gun at the face of disease and pull the trigger. In my day-to-day life, I was helpless against the illness that killed my parents. In L4D, I could rip the very idea of disease and death apart.
That was my year in a nutshell, a year spent dwelling at the crossroads of symbol and reality, a year spent in the place where zombie meets cancer. It was a tough year – my toughest year, in fact – and I will be sorting out the experience for a long time.
But in spite of everything I’ve lost, I’ve learned why horror and its metaphoric monsters are so important. It’s because the real horrors are just too big, and so we use books, movies and games to reduce them into something manageable, something with a set of rules that implies they can be beaten. But sometimes there is no victory. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to survive.
John Carr is a freelance writer from New Jersey. You can contact him at twitter.com/cyricpl.