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Burning Man, Pandemic Edition


Carolyn Cooke

Back in January, my screenwriting partner and I wound up a two-year project: a script for a TV pilot in which 80,000 people are exposed to a deadly virus at Burning Man, the mass gathering of artists, psychedelicized gearheads, climate activists, libertarian capitalists, believers in the gift economy, and the odd tech millionaire. With revelers quarantined in the Nevada desert to save humanity, the pitch had the same deliciously queasy feel as Snakes on a Plane. It was a reboot with a twist: Gilligan’s Island for acid heads.

Where we are now, pandemically speaking, should have been easy to imagine when we started the project in 2018, given history and epidemiologists’ urgent warnings after SARS, MERS, Zika and Ebola. But even as the new coronavirus took a world tour, conveniently riding in human hosts on commercial airlines and landing in every city near all of us, the “reality” of “our situation” was—and remains—impossible for many people to conceive without an imaginative framework, such as a book, a TV show, or a movie.


The chaos wrought by a deadly virus attacking revelers at one of the wildest parties on Earth was freighted with dramatic possibilities. But even from the beginning the questions raised by our premise felt chillingly real. What if a virus to which no one was immune struck an isolated place like a cruise ship (too obvious, we thought), or the bacchanal of Burning Man?

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The choice is stark: sacrifice 80,000 to prevent spread of the infection—or risk a pandemic? What would the world say to such a bargain? And what would a group of “burners” committed to radical self-reliance, communal effort, and a gift economy, do with the challenge? Adapt and survive? Or devolve into a nightmare out of Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell?


In our story, nine scientists bring an ancient virus unleashed by melting Arctic permafrost to the Nevada desert. By the time revelers begin to hemorrhage and die, it’s too late; a new government task force declares the event a “zone of sacrifice.” To complicate matters, a group of teenagers from the Native tribe who own the land decide to help the doomed revelers—for a price. Their move is controversial, as elders remember measles, influenza, smallpox blankets, and other annihilating plagues brought by white people. The pandemic threat also accelerates the race by tech entrepreneurs to colonize Mars as an insurance policy for a dying Earth.


We wrote, I think, a darkly comic story about the value of a defining moment when humanity is threatened, ordinary rules are suspended, and priorities change. In our show, those who love to hate Burning Man could revel in schadenfreude as the revelers confront world-sanctioned death, while those who look for hope in a plague year could watch an atmosphere of confidence, competence, self-sufficiency, and generosity spread virus-like through the zone of sacrifice, as ordinary people learn to live differently on the Earth.


“Beyond the fiction of reality is the reality of fiction,” writes Slovenian philosopherSlavoj Žižek. In the early days of coronavirus, those quarantined in Wuhan or Seoul watched Contagion, a 2011 biomedical thriller written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh, to see, more or less, what was happening to them. Two months later, Contagion was one of the top ten downloaded movies worldwide. A month after that, the Directors Guild of America asked Soderbergh to lead a committee to explore how to safely resume production when COVID-19 retreats a little. His sole medical credential: he directed the movie Contagion.


What’s most “true” about a story often includes the shimmery part of life that hasn’t happened yet. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that the seeds of our “new normal” were already present when my screenwriting partner and I started shopping our show to Hollywood. They just grew more quickly than we’d thought. As I write, Burning Man organizers have announced that the event will be held virtually in 2020, over fears of an outbreak of COVID-19.


For now, instead of people watching our TV show about 80,000 people quarantined by a deadly virus at Burning Man, millions of people who’ve been quarantined by a deadly virus will watch Burning Man on TV.

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Carolyn Cooke is the author of the novel Daughters of the Revolution and two collections of short stories. She teaches in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Writing MFA Program at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

Drawings by Lily Black.