Down with the Sickness
By Desmond Reddick
16 April 2007 — I have been ill more days than not since September. A mixture of having a child in daycare and teaching high school exposes me to every germ floating through this dreadful city. The thing with me is that every time I get sick it turns into a virus. Currently an infection has me bleeding from the nose at random intervals. Yesterday at work, when a co-worker heard of my illness she stepped back in disgust and used her two index fingers as a crucifix. This single act sparked this week's column: an analysis of infection in horror cinema.
There has always been a fear of sickness. From the plagues of the Old Testament to the modern fear of AIDS, there can be no argument against humanity's intense fear of illness. But it is a rational fear. Never is this fear more prevalently expressed than in the horror genre.
The early horror films of the German Expressionist movement had illness as a theme. Cesare of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a comatose sleepwalker whose bouts of sleepwalking resulted in murder. Count Orlok from Nosferatu appeared rat-like and sucked the blood of his victims like a leech. Of course, further vampire films would add vampirism as an infection to the mythos. Werewolves are also treated as an infection, an incurable one at that. While zombies were originally portrayed in films like White Zombie as victims of voodoo, films like Night of the Living Dead — and almost every zombie film since — had zombies as a roving infection. These icons of horror cinema all portray a vision of sickness that carries on still today.
The above are all examples of sickness (and the fear of it) personified. Often, the home is the refuge from these representations. Especially in the case of vampires; one must invite a vampire into their home. Does this mean that you bring sickness upon yourself? Maybe. It may also mean that society views the sick as something outside the norm. One cannot know sickness until it hits them at home. Take, for example, the Cooper family in Night of the Living Dead. When a child is ill it consumes the entire world of the family, so when a vampire or zombie infects a child the entire family soon falls prey to it.
Most of this has, of course, sexual connotations. Horror has always been a genre laden with morality tales. This is why the chaste, virginal girl always survives. She is not corrupted, she's clean and pure. Those around her engage in "immoral" activities, and wind up punished for their deeds. This, however, is a conversation for another column. As for the topic at hand, throughout history and cinema there is a very clear connection between intimacy and disease — one which usually involves monsters in one form or another.
Going back to the home as a metaphor for health and safety, the invasion of the home is an invasion of health. It unnerves us as humans to think that our refuge has been invaded. Think only of the emotional trauma one goes through when their home has been broken into. Or, taking it to extremes, in the final story of the Stephen King / George Romero collaboration Creepshow; a man whose home is safeguarded and sterilized against the infestation of insects finds that his bad deeds led to the infestation from within. The insects emerging from his body represent impurity. Whether we find the threat from outside the home or inside ourselves, these physical representations are intended to make us think twice about our actions.
Metaphors and analogues are not the only way that horror cinema deals with sickness. On occasion, the sickness itself becomes the threat. I would argue that it is almost always more effective in the literal representation than in the metaphorical. The portrayal of actual sickness in film is as harrowing in Ben-Hur's lepers as it is in Cabin Fever. Cabin Fever is actually a terrifying example of nubile young teenagers trying their damnedest to avoid a violent, Ebola-type illness. Besides its ridiculous ending, the rest of the film is skin-crawlingly bleak in its depiction of a "Ten Little Indians" situation reminiscent of Carpenter's The Thing. (That, by the way, is the only time you'll ever see a comparison between Cabin Fever and The Thing.) The situation is never tenser than when two people are trying to evade a highly contagious airborne disease — neither knowing if the other is infected. Cabin Fever, and most of the films depicting literal sickness, also use the home as a key plot point. Whether it's the cabin in the woods, the isolated Antarctic research center or a decadent castle, doors can't keep plagues out for long.
Cinema's greatest portrayal of straight ahead sickness is Roger Corman's 1964 Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, The Masque of the Red Death. This faithful version of the classic short story depicts a satanic Prince of a medieval kingdom — played by Vincent Price in one of his best roles — inviting noblemen to his castle to wait out the passing of a terrible plague: the Red Death. Their nights are spent in orgiastic reverie, decadence and debauchery. Their wild abandon not only blinds them to their eventual fate, it allows for a veiled morality tale. But the morality tale falls on deaf ears when one looks back to the beginning of the story where we see innocent villagers ravaged by the merciless Red Death. The haunting scene of the Red Death handing the old woman a rose is a beautiful and cruel reminder of how relentless nature can be. Disease, in this film as in life, is not a vengeful spirit meting out justice; it is an uncompromising force of nature — and it's efficient.
Illness in cinema is often used to illustrate our wrongdoings. As in life, it is a warning. If you smoke, you may get cancer. Sleep around, one or many STDs. Drink too much: liver failure. In a way, your body is saying, "Stop that!" In film, as we've seen, it is used in the same way; those who stay behind to have premarital sex will be the first to be swarmed by flesh-hungry zombies. That is just the way it is.
It's now getting late and something is scratching at my kitchen window. So before my immune system completely unravels, I'm going to my sick bed. Stay healthy.