The Masque of the Red Death

"The Masque of the Red Death", originally published as "The Mask of the Red Death", is a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe and first published in 1842. The story follows Prince Prospero's attempts to avoid a dangerous plague known as the Red Death by hiding in his abbey. He, along with many other wealthy nobles, has a masquerade ball within seven rooms of his abbey, each decorated with a different color. In the midst of their revelry, a mysterious figure enters and makes his way through each of the rooms. When Prospero confronts this stranger, he falls dead. The story follows many traditions of Gothic fiction and is often analyzed as an allegory about the inevitability of death, though some critics advise against an allegorical reading. Many different interpretations have been presented, as well as attempts to identify the true nature of the disease of the "Red Death."

The story was first published in May 1842 in Graham's Magazine. It has since been adapted in many different forms, including the 1964 film starring Vincent Price. It has also been alluded to throughout other works in many types of media.

Plot summary

The story takes place at the castellated abbey of the "happy and dauntless and sagacious" Prince Prospero. Prospero and one thousand other nobles are taking refuge in a walled abbey to escape the Red Death, a terrible plague that has been sweeping the land. The symptoms of the Red Death are gruesome to behold: the victim is swept by convulsive agony and sweats blood instead of water. The plague is said to kill within half an hour. Prospero and his court are presented as being indifferent to the sufferings of the population at large, intending to await the ending of the plague in luxury and safety behind the walls of their secure refuge.

One night, Prospero holds a masquerade ball to entertain his guests in seven colored rooms of the abbey. Six of the rooms are each decorated and illuminated in a specific color: blue, purple, green, orange, white, and violet. The last room is decorated in black and is illuminated by a blood-red light; because of this chilling pair of colors, few guests are brave enough to venture into the seventh room. The room is also the location of a large ebony clock that ominously clangs at each hour. At the chiming of midnight, Prospero notices one figure in a blood-spattered, dark robe resembling a funeral shroud, with a skull-like mask depicting a victim of the Red Death, which all at the ball have been desperate to escape. Gravely insulted, Prospero demands to know the identity of the mysterious guest so that they can hang him, and when none obey, pursues him with a drawn dagger through the seven rooms until the mysterious figure is cornered in the seventh room, the black room where the windows are tinted scarlet. When the figure turns to face him, the Prince falls dead at a glance. Enraged, the revelers surge into the black room and remove the mask, only to find both it and the costume empty. To the horror of all, the figure reveals itself as the personification of the Red Death itself, and all the guests suddenly contract and succumb to the disease. The final line of the story sums up: "And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all."


In "The Masque of the Red Death" Poe adapts many conventions of traditional Gothic fiction, including the setting of a castle. The multiple single-toned rooms may be representative of the human mind, showing different personality types. The imagery of blood and time throughout also indicate corporeality. The plague may, in fact, be typical attributes of human life and mortality. This would imply the entire story is an allegory about man's futile attempts to stave off death, the commonly accepted interpretation. However, there is much dispute over how to interpret "The Masque of the Red Death", including those who suggest it is not allegorical, especially due to Poe's admission of a distaste for didacticism in literature. If the story really does have a moral, Poe showed restraint by not explicitly stating that moral in the text. For those looking for the moral, then, it is there, while for others it has no message.

Blood, emphasized throughout the tale along with the color red, serves as an oddly paradoxical dual symbol. For one, it represents death in the story. It also, however, represents life. This is emphasized by the masked figure, never explicitly stated to be the actual Red Death but only a reveler in a costume of the Red Death, making his initial appearance in the easternmost room. This room is colored blue, a color most often associated with birth.

Though Prospero's castle is supposed to serve as a protective location, meant to keep the sickness out, it is ultimately an oppressive structure. Its maze-like design and tall and narrow windows become almost burlesque-like in the final black room, so oppressive that "there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all. Additionally, the castle is meant to be a closed space but the stranger is still able to get in, suggesting that control is an illusion.

Like many of Poe's tales, "The Masque of the Red Death" has also been interpreted autobiographically. In this point of view, Prince Prospero is Poe as a wealthy young man part of a distinguished family, much like his foster parents the Allans. Poe, then, is seeking refuge from the dangers of the outside world and leaves himself as the only person willing to confront the stranger, emblematic of the author's own rush towards inescapable dangers in his own life.

The "Red Death"

The disease of the Red Death is a fictitious one. Poe describes it as causing "sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores" leading to death within half an hour.

It is likely that the disease was inspired by tuberculosis (or consumption, as it was known then), as Poe's wife Virginia was suffering from the disease at the time the story was written. Like the character of Prince Prospero, Poe tried to ignore the fatality of the disease. Poe's mother Eliza and foster mother Frances Allan had also died of tuberculosis. Alternately, the "red death" may refer to cholera; Poe would have witnessed an epidemic of cholera in Baltimore, Maryland in 1831. Others have suggested that the plague is actually Bubonic plague or the Black death, emphasized by the climax of the story featuring the "Red" Death in the "black" room. One writer likened the description to that of a viral hemorrhagic fever or necrotizing fasciitis. It has been suggested that the Red Death is not a disease or sickness at all but something else that is shared by all of humankind inherently.

Publication history

Poe first published this story in the May 1842 edition of Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine as "The Mask of the Red Death", with the tagline "A Fantasy." This first publication earned him $12. A revised version was published in the July 19, 1845, edition of the Broadway Journal under the now-standard title "The Masque of the Red Death. The original title emphasized the figure at the end of the story; its new title put emphasis on the masquerade ball.

Film, TV, theatrical, or radio adaptations

Allusions/references from other works


  • Stephen King's novel The Shining contains several allusions to the story. For example, the line "and the red death held sway over all" seems to reference the final line of Poe's story. It is alluded to more directly in volume six of his "Dark Tower" series.
  • In Tom Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, this story is referenced by an elderly British author in a speech given at a socialite's party.
  • In Neil Gaiman's 1996 novel Neverwhere, a minor character briefly mentions the story "The Masque of the Red Death" when describing a fancy event at a museum.
  • Death in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels references the story a couple of times; in Maskerade (which pastiches Phantom of the Opera, see below), he wears a Red Death costume at the book's climax. In The Light Fantastic, Death consoles himself after being summoned from an enjoyable party, noting that it was going to go downhill at midnight - as that's when everyone would have expected him to take his mask off.
  • The Chuck Palahniuk novel Haunted begins with a quote from "The Masque of the Red Death". Also, several of the rooms are colored with themes that reflect the story.
  • In the Dan Simmons novel The Terror, an elaborate Carnivale is staged outdoors by the crew of two ice-locked ships. The crew builds a series of multi-colored compartments for the event out on the ice using the ships' rigging and different colored paints. A crew member thinks of this idea from remembering a story by Poe he read in a magazine.
  • The last chapter of Valerio Evangelisti's novel Il corpo e il sangue di Eymerich shares the story's title and retells its plot almost literally in the context of the book.

Stage and screen

  • In Gaston Leroux's novel The Phantom of the Opera, Erik, the Phantom, attends a ball dressed as the Red Death with the inscription "Je suis la Mort Rouge qui passe!" ("I am the Red Death that passes") embroidered on his cloak in gold. The Red Death costume shows up in both the 1986 musical and 2004 film of the same name, though the stage production is somewhat more accurate regarding his appearance, as he bears a large feathered hat and lengthy cloak as described in the novel(although both stage and screen costume bear skull masks). Neither appearance, however, shows the inscription. The 1987 animated film also shows the Red Death scene. In the 1989 film, starring Robert Englund, Erik is also dressed as Red Death. On the cover of Sam Siciliano's The Angel of the Opera, Erik is dressed as the Red Death.
  • The 2001 animated/live-action comedy Osmosis Jones features a scarlet fever virus called Thrax, who claims to be the Red Death, as the main villain. He was voiced by Laurence Fishburne. As in Poe's story, Thrax is a dangerous and fatal disease, but did not cause the same symptoms as The Red Death.
  • Currently in London, a production of The Red Death created by Punchdrunk productions and Battersea Arts Centre (BAC). The follow up to the hugely popular Faust production. Running from October 2007 to April 2008. This interpretation has the audience walking through a mock up of the castle in the Arts Centre. The company have converted the building into a castle and staged various scenes from the book, alongside several other Edgar Allan Poe short stories.
  • An anime film adaptation of the story scripted by Akira Kurosawa will be released in 2010 as The Masque of Black Death.


  • Avant-Garde musical artist Diamanda Galás adopted "Masque of the Red Death" as the collective name for a trilogy of work consisting of the albums "Saint of the Pit", "The Divine Punishment" and "You Must Be Certain of the Devil". The trilogy was a tribute to the sufferers of AIDS and a protest against the ignorance towards the epidemic from religious and political groups. Galás often used biblical texts and excerpts from classic literature in her work, reinterpreting them as her message of protest. She used "Masque of the Red Death" as the trilogies name, relating the plague in the story to the AIDS epidemic to highlight her opinion that AIDS effects everyone, whether you are a sufferer or not.
  • The French impressionist composer André Caplet based his work Conte Fantastique for harp and string quartet on this tale.
  • The German metal band Stormwitch has a song called "Masque of the Red Death" on their 1985 album Tales of Terror.
  • The American metal band Manilla Road made a song called "Masque of the Red Death" on their 1987 album Mystification.
  • The American metal band Crimson Glory made a song called "Masque of the Red Death" on their 1988 album Transcendence.
  • On the Norwegian gothic metal group Theatre of Tragedy's 1996 album Velvet Darkness They Fear, the fifth track, And When He Falleth includes various sections of Jane Asher and Vincent Price's dialogues from the film version of The Masque of the Red Death.
  • The lyrics in Eros Ramazzotti's song "Lettera al futuro" (= Letter to the future), included on his 1996 album Dove c'è musica, tell the story's plot in a simplified form and compare Poe's plague to AIDS and various 'plagues' affecting today's world (war, pollution, poverty, etc.), finally expressing hope that all of them won't exist anymore in a future world. The first two lines in the lyrics state that "This is an old story / already told many years ago"; however, Ramazzotti manages to reverse Poe's harsh finale into a more optimistic ending.
  • The 2002 Thrice album The Illusion of Safety features a song titled "The Red Death", an interpretation of the story.
  • Musician Ann Danielewski received her nickname, and later stage name, "Poe" after wearing a Red Death costume to a childhood Halloween party.
  • The Swiss Black Metal band Samael made a song called "Mask of the Red Death" on their album Ceremony of Opposites.
  • On Michael Romeo's solo album has a song named Masque Of The Red Death.
  • On the American band Tourniquet's album Vanishing Lessons, the equally named track quotes a passage from this story.
  • Producer Winnie Waldron of the American radio drama series Radio Tales produced a program entitled Masque of the Red Death for National Public Radio; the program featured a full-length musical score by Winifred Phillips. In their Fall 1997 Quarterly Edition publication, NPR wrote, "Things get underway on an elegantly macabre note as Winifred Phillips performs Edgar Allan Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" to her original music score. In describing the program Benjamin H. Cheever of AudioFile Magazine wrote, "The music of Poe's text is amplified and clarified with sound effects and an original score.

Other media

  • The 1994 computer game Under a Killing Moon featured interludes in which text slides containing lines of The Masque of the Red Death were narrated by James Earl Jones.
  • The 1995 computer game The Dark Eye featured an abstract slide-show segment accompanying a reading of "The Masque of the Red Death" performed by William S. Burroughs.
  • Launched in June, 2007 the website Go! Comi launched a weekly webcomic written and illustrated by Wendy Pini of Elfquest fame, entitled Masque of the Red Death. It is a futuristic adaptation of the Poe tale.


External links

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