Because it’s Halloween, a little Poe seemed apropos. To be honest, I was looking for a short number that I could read and write about quickly before enjoying the public viewing of Psycho accompanied by the Erie Orchestra’s rendition of the original score. And, my boyfriend, Michael, and I want to go out to dinner before the movie. So here’s something quick to chew on for Halloween: Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” heightens the terrifyingly unknown nature of death by sticking death in what we can essentially call a “non-place” and inverting biblical references.
Poe does not hesitate; true to the form of contemporary horror movies, which often open with a violence or suspense-filled scene, Poe opens “The Masque of the Red Death” with a paragraph-long description of the plague. Poe relates: “There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and sympathy of his fellow men.” Immediately, Poe points us toward the realization that the red death is not only hideous because of its physical consequences. Somewhat unlike Camus’ plague victims in his book The Plague, who are quarantined but at least attended by doctors, victims of the red death are so gruesome that they are cast off and shunned by their fellow men, left to die a violent death alone. If isolation is among the most poignant fears of the human being, Poe taps into that fear immediately in this text.
In my Master’s thesis, I applied Yi Fu Tuan’s Space and Place theory to an analysis of mentally ill women in fictional literature. To Tuan, place is warmth and familiarity; space is openness and freedom. As one might expect, many mentally ill women were confined to areas that contained none of those positive identifiers. Mentally ill women were often confined to non-places – places that are neither space nor place – isolated, unfamiliar areas of crowding and discontent. Even less surprisingly, one might conjecture that many horror stories take place in the realm of the non-place. I would certainly back that statement.
In “The Masque of the Red Death,” Prince Prospero tries to create comfortable, familiar place by gathering a thousand or so healthy friends and inviting them into seclusion in one of his sequestered, “castellated Abbeys.” Of the abbey, Poe proclaims: “This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the Prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron.” Eccentric architecture is a prevalent motif in the horror genre. In the 1963 version of The Haunting, the original, mad owner of the house embellishes the walls with bizarre and unnerving artistic décor. In the most recent installment of American Horror Story, Season 5, Haunted Hotel the mad serial murderer creates a hotel with an unusual infrastructure to make it easier to follow through with his compulsive urge to kill. It seems, then, that while mentally ill women are confined to non-places, madmen often create non-places, areas of darkness, of uncomfortable isolation and unfamiliarity. Indeed, unusual architecture in the horror genre often reflects the reality that something chaotic or sinister lurks beneath the edifice’s surface.
While Prince Prospero seems to create a sense of place for the inhabitants of the secluded abbey, Poe continues to emphasize the building’s strange internal architecture. He notes that the architecture is a byproduct of “the duke’s love of the bizarre.” He continues his description of the dance suite in the abbey – a series of seven rooms – by explaining: “The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect.”
The number seven seems hardly accidental, here. Every time I hear the number seven, I consider a biblical reference to the creation story. That may or may not have been Poe’s intent, but get this: perhaps this is an ironic inversion of Christianity. On the seventh day, after all, God rested. But the seventh room in Prospero’s dance suite is the most insidious and macabre, a room that dancers seldom enter. Unlike the other colorful rooms, it’s adorned in black, and a light shines through a “blood red” window in a way that disfigures the miens of any of the rooms inhabitants, creating an unusual, grotesque atmosphere. In the room is also a tall, ebony clock that emits a sound so unnerving that all of the dancers stop in terror, every hour, when the clock chimes. Indeed, the seventh room in Poe’s text is the epitome of a non-place. It has no freedom – it sits in the corner, as room number seven, isolated from the other six dance rooms and enclosed by an abbey that’s surrounded by iron gates, with a plague waiting outside – and it has no familiarity, because a light shines through a red window and distorts everything the inhabitant sees, disorienting the room’s visitors. If the seventh day of the Bible marks God’s celebration of creation, Poe’s seventh room in “The Masque of the Red Death” marks the presence of horror and isolation.
“The evil room” motif is a cornerstone of horror, and could possibly be a recurring phenomenon originated by Poe. I would imagine that an evil room sits at the heart of many haunted house stories, but I think of a few examples: First, in the 1963 version of The Haunting, the room of the house’s original owner is a seat of sinister, silent mayhem that the house occupants avoid. In The Shining, Danny asks Mr. Halloran early in the film about room 237, and when he enters the room later in the movie he gets maimed by an angry ghost. In American Horror Story, Season Five, Haunted Hotel, room 64 was the room of James March, the hotel’s builder, a serial killer. And John Kusack plays the role of a writer in the more contemporary horror movie, 1408, a movie in which room 1408 in a given hotel is insidious, even lethal. The evil room and its unnerving, insidious components are quintessential examples of non-places. Poe says, of Prospero, “There are some who would have thought him mad.” Thus, we can conclude, in “The Masque of the Red Death,” that a madman creates a maddening non-place, a place avoided by the occupants of his Abbey.
If God rested on the seventh day of creation, Prospero’s “rest” is ironic in “The Masque of the Red Death.” If, theologically, seven is a number associated with the infinite and divine, in this text, room seven becomes the ultimate non-place, a realm of death and suffering. Among the “wanton” and “terrible” costumes at the masquerade ball, at the stroke of midnight, appears a blood-covered, zombie-like figure who walks through a frightened crowd and into the dance suite’s seventh room. Prospero, outraged that he’s mocking the party, approaches him with the sword. His intent is either to stab or to hang him. But as Prospero approaches the figure, he falls to his death. After this death happens, Poe relates: “Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of revelers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave cerements and corpse-like mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.”
Poe’s story, then, is a cautionary tale. When Prospero callously shuts himself and his friends away from those dying of the plague, and neglects the problem, then the plague personified, death incarnate, slips through the walled, locked abbey to kill him. Death must make a point to Prospero, and to the other abbey inhabitants: nobody can escape death. No wall stands between the individual and the ultimate reality that life ends in death. In rabbinical commentary, death was the last thing God created, on the seventh day of creation. And realizing that death was a necessity, that all life must end, God deemed death good. In Poe’s story, death incarnate walks into the seventh room, a non-place unsuited for humans, and thus perfectly suited for death. It’s as if, without ever realizing it, Prospero built a room where death would find a home when it came to visit.
The brilliant thing about “The Masque of the Red Death” is that so much is going on in this five- page story. If you’re looking for a quick Halloween read by lamplight tonight, or a story to reiterate around a fire, “The Masque of the Red Death” is the perfect, macabre selection. Poe was a tormented individual, and his demons dance in front of the reader on the page, tempting the reader to enter his twisted world.