If you’re talking about blood or cookies, that’s a good thing. You definitely want those inside you. If you’re talking about aliens or zombie viruses, not so much, right? Well, 99% of the time the answer is probably ‘Hell, no!’ but the other 1% makes it a much more interesting question than it appears at first glance.
Usually when a character in a horror movie gets scratched or bitten, or discovers a mutation in their cells or eggs in their spleen, you can see their companions in the background reaching for something sharp. After watching 28 Days Later, I woke up to find my wife staring at me very intently. When I asked her what she was thinking, she said, “I was wondering what in the room I could use to beat you to death with if I had to.” No more zombie movies for her, but you take my point.
Every so often though, instead of dying, a character evolves. Being infected or mutated in exactly the right amount or configuration results in immunity rather than horrible death, and having the alien DNA or lethal virus inside them acts as a vaccine. Whether that transforms them into a mutant or a hybrid or a superhero, their resistance increases and their odds of surviving go way up. It’s an epidemiology-based narrative that also operates on a metaphorical level as an exploration of ethics and self-control. Having a little of the evil inside you increases your resistance to it.
I was thinking about it in the context of Alien 3, Resident Evil, and Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy, but I can also see its roots in older archetypes. Werewolves, for instance, or superheroes. Superhero stories often involve something that would usually kill a person but by some coincidence transforms them and gives them additional powers of resistance, like Peter Parker and his radioactive spider bite. Werewolf narratives are sometimes focused on uncontrollable violent impulses, but in stories where the werewolf is aware of what they are, the transformation is usually only during the full moon and the narrative often centres on their efforts to control that part of their nature.
Alien 3 isn’t really the best example because it’s not symbiotic. The alien queen growing inside Ripley kills her in the end, and the other aliens spare her because she’s a host, but epidemiologically speaking being a host does offer some immune-system benefits. Your parasite has a vested interest in keeping you alive (as long as it needs you, anyway), other parasites avoid you, and you probably have fewer allergies. Although I don’t recommend it, I understand that having a tapeworm decreases the likelihood of developing auto-immune disorders. Having the alien inside her does seem to give Ripley some immunity to the alien goo though, and it protects her from being attacked. As long as she has it inside her, she’s in some way one of them.
A better example is Alice Abernathy in Resident Evil, who was an unwilling lab rat deliberately infected with the zombifying t-virus. Her DNA bonded with the virus on a cellular level, turning her into a kind of hybrid with an immunity to zombies. Essentially, she’s infected with the same thing that makes the monsters monsters, and just like a vaccination, it keeps her safe from them. The idea of having some of the same thing inside you as the evil things is interesting because it’s both fighting fire with fire, and also being made of some of the same components but being different or making different choices.
Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy is directly based in virology. A pathogen created by the fusion of two experimental viruses designed to cure cancer and the common cold wipes out both diseases, but also brings dead people back to life as zombies. Millions of people die (twice, if they’re lucky), but then humanity gets it more or less under control and life goes on with infinitely more blood tests and less freedom. As the series progresses, outliers emerge with “reservoir conditions”, localized infections that make them immune to the long-term effects of the virus. They still get sick, but then they get better because they’re already a little bit zombie.
So having a little bit of the evil inside you is protective, having a lot makes you crazy or kills you. We’re all chimeras – hybrids of good and evil, impulses toward compassion and violence – and knowing that we have that inside us is essential to making a choice and resisting the actions we believe are wrong. Having an awareness of our own capacity for or tendency toward something makes us more likely to be able to resist it, whereas if we’re not aware we are capable of or inclined toward something, we’re more easily overwhelmed when we’re exposed to it. Non-violence is strongly rooted in self-awareness because if you don’t believe you have it in you to be violent, those impulses take you by surprise and you can’t respond well or curb them effectively.
Does that mean I’d be willing to lick a zombie? Nope, pretty sure I’m in the 99% who’d develop a taste for brains. But I will let my kid eat dirt, ’cause a little bit of that inside helps you fight the big germs.
alex MacFadyen swears this immunity argument is not just an excuse for failing to resist temptation.