In a week where denial spreads as rapidly as disease, the movie of the week (November 22-28, 2020) is 1964’s “The Masque of the Red Death”.
Enter 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death, an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 Gothic horror tale, directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price.
“And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.” – Edgar Allan Poe
Another fictional take on a pandemic? Yes. But Poe’s most famous tale eerily anticipated some of our dismissive attitudes about the dangerous spread of disease, either as a result of willful ignorance or crass indifference.
Poe’s story is set several months after the outbreak of a plague, known as the “Red Death”. The boorish Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) has holed up in one of his luxurious abbeys to wait out the threat, along with 1,000 invited guests from among the kingdom’s elite. With half the population dead from disease, Prospero holds an extravagant costume ball for his friends.
Walled up behind iron gates, and well provisioned with all the trappings of aristocratic indulgence, Prospero and his guests feel entirely insulated from the pestilence that has devastated the country. To them, the plague is the problem of the poor.
The COVID pandemic has highlighted the fact that the ability to deny or downplay the threat of the disease is a matter of privilege. Prince Prospero had the means to isolate himself and his friends for months. Similarly, many of us are able to isolate for the sake of our own health. We may be able to work from home without financial risk. If we’re young and healthy, we may feel confident in our advantaged state of health. But outside our doors, millions are not so lucky.
For months, conservatives have tried to diminish the virus, despite a shocking death toll. The President himself scoffed at precautions like masks and social distancing. He held parties at the White House with members of his inner circle. Despite the known risks, they thought they were safe, protected by wealth and privilege and power. Now, the White House is a castle haunted by disease.
Because, as Poe shrewdly cautions in The Masque of the Red Death, it may be the poor who get hit first and hardest — but the plague does not discriminate. And hubris only leads to “darkness and decay”.
THE RIGHT FILM FOR THE RIGHT TIME
Prince Prospero visits one of the villages he rules over, turning a blind eye to the the poverty and starvation. When he discovers the Red Death has arrived, he orders the village be burned down to prevent the spread of the disease. He then sends out invitations to members of the local nobility, offering refuge in his castle. When the surviving villagers arrive at Prospero’s castle to beg for sanctuary, they are turned away. When they plead with him that they will die unless he helps them, Prospero orders his soldiers to shoot them down.
During the film’s climactic masque — a hedonistic affair full of debauchery and depravity — Prospero notices the entry of a mysterious, red-cloaked figure. He follows the figure through different colored rooms, ultimately confronting the figure in the Black Room. [Poe originally described seven different colored rooms, moving from east to west, which are considered symbolic of the progression of life: birth (blue), youth (purple), adolescence (green), adulthood (orange), old age (white), imminent death (violet), and finally death (black).]
In Poe’s story, a giant ebony clock in the Black Room rings out each hour. The loud and unusual chime causes the orchestra and the dancers to pause temporarily, momentarily meditating on the passage of time. But the moment quickly passes, and the revelers return to their orgiastic celebration. They have been reminded but ignore what the bell tolls.
Corman reimagines the ebony clock in a much more brutal and visceral way, momentarily breaking up the revelry with a gruesome display of torture and murder, only to immediately return the briefly horrified guests to their state of blissful detachment.
As the story drives to its inevitable and unforgettable conclusion (the last 20 minutes of the film are among the most memorable in all of cinema), the licentious celebration of life devolves into a danse macabre — an allegory on the universality of death. No matter what one’s station in life, the Danse Macabre unites us all. The warning bells ring out, yet those behind fortified walls feel safe and secure, never worrying about for whom the bells toll.
However, as English Poet John Donne cautioned in his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
WHY IT MATTERS
In The Masque of the Red Death, the poor are sacrificed to disease so the rich can keep their comfortable lives, which may ring hauntingly familiar for modern-day audiences. Poe named his fictional disease “Red” Death, probably to differentiate it from “Black” Death, otherwise known as the plague. By alluding to the Black Death, he invokes memories of the vast plague epidemics that ravaged the world.
The Black Death arrived in Europe in 1347, via 12 ships from the Black Sea. Over the next five years, it would kill more than 20 million people in Europe — almost one-third of the continent’s population — before officials were finally able to slow the spread of the disease by creating social distancing that relied on isolation. The plague also led to widespread anti-Semitic rage around Europe, causing repeated massacres of Jewish communities.
The parallels to America’s COVID response are chilling; President Trump’s repeated racist references to the “China” virus have ignited intense anti-Chinese sentiment across the country.
In addition, the wealthy’s response to the virus is painfully reminiscent of Poe’s prince partying in an abbey while destruction reigns outside. As a historic pandemic highlights the economic and social disparities in society, The Masque of the Red Death underscores how a selfish, myopic worldview from the lens of entitlement leads to those in power being more concerned about comfort and capitalism than the catastrophic toll on human life.
In the end, the true villain of the story is not the plague personified. It’s not even the foolish prince hidden away in his castle, unconcerned with the tremendous suffering of his subjects. Rather, the greatest evil is the society the prince represents, one in which the privileged are insulated — or at least believe themselves to be — from the harsh reality of the sickness outside the abbey’s walls.
WATCH IT NOW
It’s easy to interpret The Masque of the Red Death as a morality tale. However, it is also undeniably a cautionary tale — and one we should take careful heed of.
Depending on how privileged you are, or how much your circumstances allow for it, it may be easy enough to dismiss the very real and present danger of COVID as fearmongering, political theater, or simply irrelevant to your life. But whether the masked guest at the party is acknowledged or not, the outcome is the same. Apathy born of privilege makes us all a party of fools, unaware that the disease is knocking at our door; it’s only a matter of time before it lets itself in.