The Masque of the Red Death (1964) – Kierkegaard’s Aesthetic Phase and Inverted Freudian Pleasure Principle (Part 2).

Part 1.

The Levels of the Aesthetic Stage Through Castle Rooms and Colour.

Corman’s beautiful excess of colour in the film has already been mentioned but colour plays a vital role within the film’s narrative too.  Its narrative focus however does not chime well with the Kierkegaard reading when considering the unevenness and ambiguity as to the death creatures and their colours at the end of the film.  Once the Red Death has wreaked his final havoc on Prospero’s castle, he is seen meeting up with other deaths of different colours; white, purple, yellow, blue and black.  There isn’t enough variety to claim they represent something as simple as the seven deadly sins nor do they appear to claim difference between in each other in their goals.

What makes the creatures or daemons seem even more complicated is their tie in to Prospero and his beliefs.  Not only do they share the colours of the rooms of his satanic temple (with the exception of the blue death), they are said to act outside of the control of the devil, meaning Prospero has gravely misjudged his own power and importance.  Because of this uneven nature, the Kierkegaard analysis of the film works best when looking at the colours of Prospero’s temple in their own right rather than as a tie in to the death creatures, looking at any coincidences that the reading can account for later on.

As stated, the rooms have four colours.  These four colours are deliberately shot as stages, leading to one final ending room where unspeakable acts occur.  The first room is yellow, said to be where Prospero’s father kept a friend prisoner for two years, meaning he could no longer look at the sun or a daffodil.  The yellow has ties with fear and terror but also shows the beginning of aesthetic reliance.  An initially pleasant room, the story of the prisoner shows that the excess of escapist aesthetics can only lead to one of two options; madness of even greater excess to satisfy needs and cravings.  The madness lies in the open out of the door when first entering the room while the greater aesthetic excess is found in the next room.

The second stage and room in the journey towards evil is in a lavish purple. The colours of all of these rooms is almost pure with this room screaming of the pure excess that the aesthetic stage craves.  The prisoner of the first room clearly could not last and chose the path of ethics in spite of madness.  Here, the purple shows the final stage of the aesthetic phase before jumping ahead of ethics and straight into Religion (albeit an evil one).  Corman however does show the second phase of existentialism in the third room by showing a deliberate lack of it.

The third room is devoid of colour as it is devoid of ethics.  It is a bright, clear white; an evil shade with a purity and precision of Satan himself.  It is also fitting that white is showing the absence of morality, tying into fascism’s goals of singular visions, pure race and calculated, numerical evil.  The final room is therefore a room of acceptance.  It is black with red (symbolising the foolishly misjudged pact with the Red Death) and the final resting place for Prospero when he sleeps; happy in his journey through the rooms.

This piece of set design seems to break down the aesthetic phase of existentialism while also defining its other stages too.  Whether this reading works with the presence of other deaths at the end of the film (for example, it is unlikely that a death wearing yellow really represents any sort of existentialism) is besides the point. This reading doesn’t simply relate to narrative but also to the philosophy of Corman and, importantly, the rigour and worries of Poe himself.  Poe and Kierkegaard share a surprising number of worries, both seeming to be ardent deniers of romanticism and pessimistic of its fantasies and indulgent self-obsession.  Corman sums this up in a number of his Poe adaptations, always showing the evil to manifest in the lavish lives of nobles and owners of huge property.  As we will see though, The Masque of the Red Death has more ideas to it than just Kierkegaard’s worries but also those of Sigmund Freud; another figure whose ideas were foreshadowed morbidly by Poe’s writing and stories.

Part 3.

Adam Scovell.

2 thoughts on “The Masque of the Red Death (1964) – Kierkegaard’s Aesthetic Phase and Inverted Freudian Pleasure Principle (Part 2).

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