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Poe's The Masque of the Red Death

Phobia of Disease

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Updated October 20, 2011

Edgar Allan Poe was a well-known American Gothic horror writer of the 1800s. Many of his works are still analyzed in literature classes today, while readings of The Raven, The Black Cat and The Telltale Heart are not uncommon at Halloween carnivals and other spooky events.

Edgar Allan Poe was fond of presenting his audiences with a twist ending, leading them down a logical path only to shock them with an unexpected climax. This technique was used to great effect by legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock more than a century later, in films such as Psycho and Vertigo. The Masque of the Red Death was one of Poe's most shocking short stories.

The Plot

An unidentified country is in the throes of a deadly disease known as the "red death," a silent killer that may strike anyone, anywhere, at any time. It matters not whether the victim is young or old, healthy or frail, wealthy or poor. The disease causes intense pain, dizziness and a profusion of bleeding from the pores. The disease process lasts only 30 minutes from onset to death, leaving its unsuspecting victims only enough time to grasp the magnitude of its horror before succumbing to their fate.

Against this backdrop, Prince Prospero decides to seclude himself in one of his abbeys. He invites 1,000 of his most lighthearted, fun-loving courtiers to join him. The message is clear and unmistakable -- rather than attempting to do what he can for his citizens, of whom fully half have already fallen victim to the disease, he chooses to keep the outside world at bay and have fun with his friends.

Several months into the seclusion, the prince throws an extravagant masquerade ball for his guests. The costumes are over-the-top, running the gamut from breathtakingly beautiful to horrifyingly grotesque. The ball is held in an imperial suite consisting of seven unusual rooms.

Each room is separated from the others by a sharp turn or other impediment, so that visitors can only see one room at a time. The rooms feature stunning stained glass windows overlooking corridors and are illuminated only through the windows. Six of the seven rooms are each fully decorated in a particular color -- blue, purple, green, orange, white and violet.

The seventh chamber is draped in black velvet, but the stained glass window is blood red. The lighting in that room is so ghastly that few revelers dare to enter. The black room also contains a peculiar clock that plays a haunting chorus when it chimes each hour. The sound can be heard throughout the suite, causing the musicians to pause and the dancers to freeze in place.

At midnight, the clock chimes as usual and the revelers stop moving. Before the last note is struck, they notice a strange figure within their midst. Even by the garish standards of the evening, the figure's costume is shocking. Dressed in the garb of the grave, the gaunt visitor wears a mask that renders him nearly indistinguishable from a corpse. But, unbelievably, the stranger is adorned in the blood that is a hallmark of the red death.

In the blue room, Prince Prospero encounters the figure. Calling the choice of costume blasphemous, he demands that the courtiers unmask the stranger. He wants to hang the visitor from the battlements at dawn. Stunned, none of the revelers come forward. With a purposeful stride, the stranger makes his way through each room in sequence.

The prince gives chase, his dagger drawn. But as they reach the haunting black chamber, the visitor turns to confront his pursuer. Dropping the dagger with a cry of horror, the prince falls dead upon the carpet. The revelers surge forward into the chamber, gripping the stranger violently, but soon learn that there is no mortal form beneath the costume. Recoiling in horror, the courtiers realize the truth -- that the red death has come for them. One at a time, they succumb to its power, until none remain.

Analysis

Scholars and literary experts have debated the imagery in The Masque of the Red Death since its initial publication. Some argue that the individual chambers refer to different aspects of the human personality. In this interpretation, the entire story is an allegory about man's attempts to cheat death. Others see the story as a simple revenge fantasy in which the rich and powerful turn their backs on the small and meek, only to find themselves punished by karma. Still others see the story as autobiographical, documenting Poe's own, ultimately futile struggles against the difficulties in his life.

The red death is a fictitious disease that could also be interpreted in several ways. Some see it as merely representative of the reality of death that we all face. Others interpret it as the black plague, hemorrhagic fever or even tuberculosis, to which Poe lost several family members.

Phobias and The Masque of the Red Death

The work could trigger a variety of phobias. The basic fear at the heart of the story is the phobia of death. The decision to go into seclusion is a direct reaction to the constant death that the prince and his courtiers see all around them daily. The red death is presented as a silent and sudden killer, stalking the citizenry without respect for age, power or social class. The fear of death is a universal theme, striking readers today as it did in Poe's time.

The story could also trigger fears of illness. It alludes to mysophobia, or the fear of germs, as victims are universally reviled. Within the story world, the constant threat of the red death could trigger hypochondriasis, or the fear of being sick, as well as nosophobia, or the fear of having a specific disease. The story also preys on hemophobia, or the fear of blood, making it the outward and unmistakable symptom of the dreaded fatal illness.

In today's world, it is highly unlikely that The Masque of the Red Death would cause a brand-new phobia. Modern horror has largely desensitized us to the subtle terror of writers like Edgar Allan Poe. Yet the story remains thrilling and delicately eerie, and the masterful language brings the scenes to life. Those who suffer from phobias that the story is designed to evoke may be disturbed by the imagery.

Source:

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

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