Why Won’t You Die?

Warning: spoilers for The Masque of the Red Death and Jayro Bustamante’s superb La Llorona, herein.

1.

He has survived. This braying, sniveling coward whose vindictive petulance has led to the deaths of over 200,000 people, has survived. Of course we always knew he was going to. He has access to the best treatment imaginable – round-the-clock care, experimental drugs, even a hospital room that looked more like a suite at the Waldorf. A few caveats aside – “not out of the woods yet,” his shortness of breath – Donald Trump has survived Covid-19.

And he is doing what we always knew he would do with that survival. He’s gloating about it. He’s downplaying the severity of the disease and the pandemic, even as he spreads the infection to others. He’s preening on balconies and urging listeners “don’t let it control your lives,” kicking sand in the face of doctors, nurses, and essential workers. He’s even suggesting he deliberately exposed himself to the virus to lead by example, while simultaneously depriving millions of jobless of an economic lifeline.

This is what the civility cops don’t get. They don’t get that Trump continuing to live has mostly negative repercussions. It’s why so many hoped he would die.

2.

Death is inevitable, and our myths have always served to reckon with this. In one way or another, every culture’s mythology seeks to come to terms with what it means to exist as a conscious being in light of the fact that we, someday, won’t. Enter the supernatural. We want to believe, or at least aspire to, a cosmic order in which the balance between life and death is fundamentally just. Those who throw that balance off are earning their own punishment. The cheaper life becomes, the more senseless our death, the more we hope that those who cheapened it are bound to meet a sticky end. Horror as a genre took root during the rise of industrialization and empire for a reason, after all.

Roger Corman’s adaptation of The Masque of the Red Death is a particularly timely example of this. A highly stylized picture, taking cues from the indulgent tones of Hammer Horror, it takes great liberties with Poe’s original tale, ultimately to great effect. The fate of its main character and primary antagonist Prince Prospero, is the kind that every greedy despot has coming to them. Prospero fancies himself beyond death’s reach because he has made a pact with Satan. But this is as futile as the Christianity he disdains.

Ultimately, the only other-worldly force with any influence is death. When its personification enters the castle walls, felling the prince’s entire decadent court and, ultimately, the prince himself, Death indifferently tells Prospero that he is nobody’s servant. Equilibrium is restored, and it is effortlessly held up by Vincent Price’s scenery-chewing performance.

Price was a complicated figure. In some ways he was emblematic of mid-century America’s artistic and political contradictions. Born to a wealthy and deeply conservative St. Louis family, he was an anti-Semite in his youth, speaking admirably of Adolf Hitler. When he got to Hollywood his beliefs rapidly shifted. Come the 1970s he was a Democrat, not only campaigning against Anita Bryant’s vicious homophobia, but later becoming one of the first celebrities to openly discuss the AIDS crisis. He was also bisexual, and a renaissance man. By the time he died in 1993 he was already well on his way to becoming something of a queer icon.

Somewhere halfway through this evolution came McCarthyism. Price was supportive of the blacklist, though it’s not unlikely his support for it was motivated simply to keep HUAC off his back. Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunt had by then expanded to “rooting out” homosexuals, thanks in part to the Senator’s behind-the-scenes fixer, Roy Cohn.

Cohn himself met an infamously Prospero-esque end. Deeply closeted, he helped his friend Roger Stone stitch up the New York state vote for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. He was also by that point, it is well-known, a mentor to Donald Trump. Cohn’s death in 1986 – of AIDS, the “gay plague” that Reagan had yet to meaningfully address – is the quintessential real-life stuff of awe-inspiring irony. It’s the kind of apophatic occurrence seemingly designed to make you believe in a higher power that is, occasionally, just. Cohn’s square on the AIDS Memorial Quilt read: “Bully. Coward. Victim.” Tony Kushner, upon seeing this, remarked to a friend, “If I can write something half as dialectical as that, it’ll be a great character.” Kushner succeeded, beautifully, in Angels In America.

3.

Life isn’t a film or a play or a fable. It’s precisely why Trump gloats. He knows that money, power, and influence are enough to avoid consequence most of the time. His worst nightmare is that he meets a similar fate to that of his friend Cohn, but this will only happen if he becomes enough of a liability to be cast overboard by those closest to him. Of this he is absolutely capable, but it hasn’t happened yet. When does this happen? Will it?

Evan Calder Williams’ Combined and Uneven Apocalypse provides an interesting spooky heuristic, through which we might envision such outcome. Calder Williams wrote his book almost ten years ago. Even then, zombies had already become overused, and they still show no sign of fading from the cultural landscape. In fact, with our cultural zeitgeist shot through with a fresh plague obsession,we can safely predict it isn’t going anywhere. We can expect most of it to reinforce the tired template of The Walking Dead, teaching us to accept the apocalypse.

Calder Williams offers up a different approach. His is an interpellation that, rather than shunning the imbalance between life and death, urges us to lean into it. He writes:

Think here of the beginning of Night of the Living Dead, where the first zombie we see – the first recognizable zombie of late capitalism – looks like nothing so much as a homeless drifter of sorts, a gaunt raggedy man. Tellingly, Barbara and Johnny, her soon-to-be-zombified brother, hardly give him a second glance: at worst, he’ll ask them to spare some change. He is not marked as undead, at least not in the technical sense. Just as unwanted. Therein lies the explosion out of and against the accepted codes of who we recognize and who we don’t: the zombie’s furious attack, which here has nothing to do with trying to eat them, is the feral assertion of the right to be noticed. Even to the end of the encounter, we can practically read on Johnny’s face the bourgeois frustration: funny, it’s not usually this hard to kill the poor…

4.

Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona presents a great many challenges to an audience living through American authoritarianism’s current iteration. For one thing it causes confusion with the execrable The Curse of La Llorona, made for an American audience and released the same year. Whereas Michael Chaves’ film used the storied Latin American folktale to exploit American fears of the brown other, Bustamante’s serves to remind us that Trump’s exceptionalism isn’t all that exceptional. In some ways he is the kind of figure that Latin America is quite used to, thanks in no small part to the US itself.

It also provides something of a cognitive map fitting together the contours of political uprising and the eldritch hopes of myth and folklore. I’ve argued before that ghosts and zombies are a kind of dialectical opposite: “If a zombie or vampire are what might become of our physical selves if we have our humanity stripped of us, the ghost is the humanity itself extracted from any physical power to achieve self-realization.” Perhaps, for the sake of this argument, it might be better to think of ghosts as a halfway between the ethereal spirit-forces of kismet and the resolutely corporeal, “reality”-bound undead.

General Monteverde is the deposed and aged former dictator of Guatemala, loosely based on the real-life José Efraín Ríos Montt, who seized power in a 1982 coup. Responsible for large-scale massacres against the country’s Mayan Ixil community, Monteverde is found guilty of attempted genocide, but is allowed to return home when the verdict is thrown out. As large demonstrations converge on his palatial home, his family’s staff of servants (themselves mostly Ixil) flee. The family call the demonstrators and other indigenous “savages,” “whores,” and “communists.” Outside they chant “We want them alive! We want them alive!” It is not clear if the protesters are referring to the general and his accomplices, or his thousands of victims.

New domestic help arrives in the form of Alma, another Ixil. Her name means “spirit.” Through nightmares and spectral hallucination, even the General’s family is turned against him. His wife sees the world through his victims’ eyes. Alma tells the General’s granddaughter that the faces of protesters staring up into the compound’s windows match those of the disappeared, that in fact they are the same people. Sure enough, they are. Before long, those stares aren’t coming from outside the compound walls.

A salient takeaway from this stunning film is that the balance between life and death, powerful as it is, doesn’t exist in the abstract. It is a social determination, agreed upon by some, forced upon others, subject to change as society’s own equilibrium begins to shift. The meaning and viability of myths, particularly those that exist on the margins of colonialism, are shaped depending on what spaces are created to preserve them, and whether they can take on powers that would have them erased. It comes down to who is willing to not just remember the dead, not just mourn them, but to avenge them, to let their names become a revolution. It is the kind of memory that can wrap our collective fingers round tyrants’ throats.

Note: I, along with my wonderful co-hosts, will be discussing Corman’s version of The Masque of the Red Death in the upcoming Halloween episode of Locust Radio. If you want to hear it, then subscribe here.

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