The Blood is the Life/Death: Queer Contagion and Viral Vampirism in the Age of HIV/AIDS

Curator's Note

Beginning in the summer of 1981, a smattering of reports began appearing across national newswires about a mysterious set of maladies that seemed only to affect young to middle-aged, and otherwise healthy, gay men. These gaunt, pallid, and wan blood-ailment sufferers were, like vampires, quickly reappropriated on screens across the country as a new, spectacularized shorthand for the phantasmatic amalgamation between queer identity and sexual pathology. One year later, on the June 17, 1982 edition of NBC Nightly News, anchor Tom Brokaw made this connection explicit by beginning a headlining story stating unequivocally that the “lifestyle of some male homosexuals has triggered an epidemic.” Reporting for the segment shown here, correspondent Dr. Robert Bazell noted, “researchers at the National Centers for Disease Control said they had found several cases where people who had been sex partners both had the condition. The scientists say this probably means they are dealing with some new, deadly sexually transmitted disease.”

As James Kinsella maintains in Covering the Plague: AIDS and the American Media, making this disease as “spooky as possible helped make AIDS a national issue, but it also fed on Americans’ fears and did little to inform them.” Kinsella’s use of the term “spooky” here is, I would argue, far from coincidental. Indeed, during the 1980s, the looming threat of HIV/AIDS played out across the American televisual imaginary as if it’s worst epidemiological anxieties culled from the frames popular horror texts (e.g. Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), Ubaldo Ragona’s Last Man on Earth (1964), David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977)) had finally been realized as a nightmare of epic proportions come true. The manifesting characteristics of HIV/AIDS, as David Skal details in his encyclopedic V is for Vampire, “weirdly echoed the classic motifs of vampire legends. A blood-borne, wasting malady appears, each victim capable of creating others through vein-puncturing or unconventional forms of sex. Science is baffled. Self-appointed moral guardians come forth, waving religious talismans, insisting that the affliction is the work of the devil.” By relying on formulaic conventions of the horror film, television news coverage of HIV/AIDS in the ‘80s aided in its colloquial construction as “gay cancer,” at least until the HIV virus was was officially named as such in May 1986.


I really appreciate that you bring the realm of supernatural connotation into a discussion of HIV/AIDS. I think we focus too often on denotative queer representation, forgetting that there is a whole connotative tradition that has shaped queer visibility in the media. Aside from news reports, can you think of other TV examples? I know people have talked about Aliens as metaphor for HIV, but I can't think of any TV series off the top of my head.

Thank you for pointing this out! I was thinking more of 1980s programs, but it's fascinating that True Blood is doing a story arc considering that AIDS is not as much at the forefront of the public imagination/the media as it was during the 1980s.

I really enjoyed your write-up on the vampire trope. Some of my colleagues have talked about the vampire-zombie dialectic and the ways each metaphor becomes more visible during specific historical moments. I wonder which might be more prominent today, in both the gay press and the MSM, especially given the ways HIV is often articulated as a "manageable" disease.

Thanks for this post. I'm struck by the way that horror troops shaped the coverage of AIDS, in the same way that they seem to currently shape the coverage of Ebola - though very different diseases in terms of their transmission. Both are about horrific transformations of bodies that seem to overnight lose their boundaries. I think you can see a clear example of the ways that these fears about queer blood circulated in the X-Files. The early years featured many references to a deadly alien blood that killed anyone who came into proximity to it. I'm a bit rusty on the outlines, but there was a discourse about virus transmission as well, that led to the creation of a rebel force who literally refigured their bodies as prophylactic by sewing shut all their facial orifices. Jeff - I find the zombie aesthetic to be interesting, especially in the current post 9/11 context. It seems like the zombie figure is tied to an "outside" threat (foreign), while the vampire is the threat among us.....

What I think is also really striking about the horror dimension is not only that figures like vampires or zombies become AIDS embodied, but also that, as "monsters," they're mediated villains who are not only capable of infecting, but whose mission is to deliberately infect. I'm thinking here about a few TV examples, notably MIDNIGHT CALLER, SOUTH PARK, or even the mediated culture of "bug chasing/giftgiving". And then there's the comic character Hemo-Goblin "a vampire created to help a white-supremacy group eliminate non-whites. He is notable mainly for infecting members of the New Guardians with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS." That was in a 1988 issue. On the flip side, when AIDS is discovered infecting "normal" people, the way media coverage turned to "innocents" in children, whose sexuality can never be manifest, (juxtaposed with these sexual monsters) is also incredibly telling. Some examples are MR. BELVEDERE, THE EQUALIZER, GO TOWARD THE LIGHT, THE RYAN WHITE STORY, and SESAME STREET.

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