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.