- February 27, 2020
Fans of Edgar Allan Poe and Hammer horror films will recall Poe’s tale The Masque of the Red Death, and the Roger Corman remake with Vincent Price as Prince Prospero. For those who don’t, the story describes the attempts by Prospero and a bunch of panic-stricken and fairly decadent medieval nobles to escape a mysterious plague known as the Red Death, by taking refuge in an abbey.
Not one to allow the mass death of the peasants to get in the way of a good debauch, Prospero stages a masked ball to amuse his guests which takes place inside seven rooms, each of which is decorated in a different color.
The fun comes to an end when a masked stranger disguised as a Red Death victim joins the party and makes his way through each of the rooms, till he traps Prospero in the last room. Prospero discovers that the stranger has nothing inside his costume. He dies, and the guests die too, which considering what a bunch of bastards they are is a kind of happy ending.
I can’t help thinking of this story every time a new ‘borderless’ virus emerges to disturb the fretful peace of the 21st century. If anyone was to remake that story in our own era, it would probably take place in a nightclub, a narcomansion somewhere in Sinaloa, or Mar-a-Lago, with the guests coked up to the eyeballs and dancing to techno. Prince Prospero would probably be a CEO named Dave Prospero or something, played by Leonardo di Caprio or Benedict Cumberbatch.
You could also do an icier version at the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos. Anyway, I digress. Variations on the Red Death theme have already been played out in pandemic disaster movies such as Outbreak or Contagion, which Gwyneth Paltrow helpfully referred to whilst posting an Instagram picture of herself wearing a two-piece black facemask that makes her look a lot like Hannibal Lecter – were it not for the fact that her disturbed-looking eyes are more reminiscent of someone trying to work out a crossword clue:
Gwyneth is clearly worried though, and she’s not the only one. Though she seems to believe that she’s in a movie, and uses enough p’s to make you spit phlegm, her advice is certainly more sensible than applying Psychic Vampire Repellent.
It’s up to you to decide whether she is paranoid, prudent or panicked, but it’s all too easy, confronted with these 21st century viruses that move so easily across borders, to succumb to unreason in our response to them, and talk about stockpiling or heading for some cave in the mountains or a basement underground, on the basis, that now, finally, the big plague has come that will finally wipe us out.
It was the same with Bird flu, Swine flu, SARs, and particularly Ebola. In all these cases too many people forgot the dictum that Dennis Hopper’s Ripley teaches us in The American Friend, that there is nothing to fear but fear itself, and allowed themselves instead to give in to what Tom Clancy once called in another context ‘The Sum of All Fears.’
Clancy was talking about nuclear terrorism, what governments used to call ‘megaterrorism’, but his novel and film were an expression of the same underlying fears that so easily transform viruses into imagined agents of apocalypse: that the world is more fragile and delicate than we think and may come apart at any minute either through the fulfillment of some Internet Mayan prophecy, a pandemic, a dirty bomb, or an incurable virus that comes from birds, apes, or pigs.
Too many people, in the rich world at least, have lived for a long time in societies when death is compartmentalised, to the point when it still seems like something abnormal, something that comes from outside.
In the rich world, and in the rich enclaves or gated communities in the ‘undeveloped’ world, people live in societies that valorise ‘security’ and generally assume that threats to our security come from beyond the secure enclaves and bubbles that they attempt to create for themselves.
Whether it’s a walled compound in Cape Town or the European Union’s ‘space of security, prosperity and justice’ rich countries and communities have tried to create ‘safe spaces’ against a range of threats emanating from beyond our ‘walls’ – whether these threats take the form of terrorism, people trafficking, organised transnational crime, drugs…or superviruses.
At the same time we are conscious that the world is a small place, much smaller than it used to be, and the proximity of places and people that we don’t think are ‘like us’ exacerbates the desire to reinforce our defenses and build new ‘beautiful walls’ – even as this proximity feeds our collective anxieties. This fear of ‘the world outside’ often means that viruses, like terrorism, are easily racialised or attributed to ‘exotic’ cultural habits or standards of hygiene.
So it was with Ebola, which was often presented as some sinister ‘African’ contagion, spreading from the Congolese jungle into our polished shopping mall world. And now COVID19 has provoked outbursts or racism and xenophobia directed against ‘Asian’ people or people who simply look Asian, based on the belief that ‘Chinese people are dirty’ and other well-worn ‘yellow peril’ tropes.
Left to run unchecked, this kind of paranoia, whether racialised or not, can reinforce the retreat into nationalism, the reliance on militarised borders, the fear and loathing of immigrants and all the other pathogens that are poisoning 21st century politics and making it increasingly difficult to engage in the international cooperation and the search for collective security that is the only way out of the various cul de sacs we are currently building for ourselves.
Such fears can also leave us with a quaking sense of impending doom, in which we see extermination coming every time we look at a headline or a social media post or someone comes up the escalator wearing a face mask. Faced with the spread of the coronavirus, it behooves us to think calmly, to listen to expert advice and not conspiracy theorists or doom mongers or crazed presidents, to take sensible precautions and ensure that governments take them too.
It is not to minimize the threat or the very real victims of this virus, to point out that the death toll from COVID19 is still extremely low, even in comparison with the most recent seasonal flu epidemic, and that a pandemic – even if it is declared – is not necessarily synonymous with mass extermination.
And instead of trying to retreat behind fortified walls, as Prince Prospero and his companions did, we might use this virus to remind ourselves that we all live in this world together, and that we need to confront it together through common, borderless action and cooperation.
And last but not least, it’s worth remembering that we all die of something, sooner or later. Because if if we learned to accept that very simple fact and consider what it means, we might learn to quake a little less whenever some new plague appears, and take the simplest and most obvious course of action, which always to keep calm and carry on.