We all have our strategies for staying alive. When the walls of my apartment start to feel like a sarcophagus, I go outside for long, meaningless walks. By this point in the pandemic I’ve memorized every inch of my Queens neighborhood: every car, every tree, every corny statue of a fairy or a gnome. I adore my neighborhood: it’s full of pretty brick houses and apartment buildings with landscaped courtyards, but it’s circled by cemeteries and industrial belts, some of which are crossable, some of which are not. I pace around and around the same streets and gardens, hemmed in by the dead land.
Last spring was beautiful, but eerie in the face of death. Towards the end of March 2020 I slipped out for groceries only to find that all the pear trees on the block had flowered overnight, pale and shining like something out of a fairy tale. When I got to the supermarket I realized I was the only person there without a mask. The mask mandate wasn’t official yet; we had in fact been told it was morally irresponsible to wear masks when medical professionals needed them, particularly at overwhelmed local hospitals like Elmhurst, the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. But mask standards had apparently changed overnight, and in the produce aisle my neighbors stared at me, as if at the naked face of a murderer.
I liked the fall better. The neighbors went wild for Halloween: ghosts and witches hung from the trees by late September, and bony hands crawled out of gardens. A number of people in the wealthier, fenced-off part of the neighborhood arranged ghouls and skeletons around their Biden/Harris 2020 signs, which gave them a certain unintentional QAnon effect. In my favorite Halloween display, two skeletons lounged on patio furniture, draped in long ponchos and wigs like fabulous old New York broads having a hilarious conversation. A statue of Mickey Mouse huddled between them, and a clown mask grinned on top of an empty costume, as if the clown had liquefied while listening. I stared at this scene for a while, until I realized I was being creepy, or at least super goth. But I was still goth enough to take a photo before I left: trying to capture the two skeletons, and how their bodies seemed to be in motion, like they’d just been frozen in the middle of a seriously good time.
The popular medieval image of the danse macabre, or Dance of Death, has varied from time to time and place to place, but it has generally depicted skeletons—or Death himself—dancing with living people. The first recorded version of this image dates back to the second wave of the Black Death, painted on a wall in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris. “Danse macabre imagery began to appear not only in France,” writes the art historian Elina Gertsman, “but also in England, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, and even in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.” In the pan-European danse macabre, the living human characters usually come from all classes: peasants, noblemen, monks, popes, and emperors. The joyful skeletons flex and grin, while the living stand stiff and terrified. The Dance of Death is a story about how everyone will die, and not “eventually,” but very, very soon.
Referencing the Black Death during the time of coronavirus is a fraught matter; the comparison seems overwrought, and more than a little goth. The Black Death was obviously a much worse disease. (Vox has helpfully ranked historic plagues in terms of severity, in case you wanted to know how upset you should feel.) The Black Death also differs from the coronavirus in another sense, too: during the Black Death, every kind of person really did die, whether peasants, noblemen, monks, popes, or emperors. Drinking powdered emeralds wouldn’t save you; neither would an “injestion” of snakeskin, Armenian clay, precious metals, and “bone from the heart of a stag”(???). Contemporary COVID-19, however, can be staved off by cold hard cash. Money and fame can buy the special experimental treatments given to patients like Trump and Chris Christie, the private islands that are perfect for waiting out this plague in style, or the vaccines that the wealthy have been able to score through “hefty donations” and “cozy relationships with CEOs” as per a report from Business Insider. Over two million people have died of the coronavirus so far, but the rich (and white) have had a tendency to survive, while the poor (and Black and brown) have died. In Poe’s classic story “The Masque of the Red Death,” the rich and well-connected flee into the countryside ahead of a terrible plague that has devastated the poor, only to be caught, in the end, by the specter of the Red Death himself. But the Red Death would struggle to make it into the private party of a contemporary prince. He’d probably be turned away at the door by armed and vaccinated guards.
However, the danse macabre image—with its emphasis on the fact that everyone, rich and poor alike, will die—recently became very popular once again. Several commenters have pointed out that the “dancing Ghanianan pallbearers” meme, in which handsomely-dressed, professional pallbearers dance as they carry a coffin on their shoulders, can be seen as a kind of modern danse macabre. The pallbearers themselves have embraced the imagery, particularly after COVID struck. In May 2020, they released a video where, clad all in skeletal white, they warned: “stay home or dance with us.” When Boris Johnson and Donald Trump came down with the coronavirus, usage of the dancing pallbearers meme skyrocketed; Twitter became, on those miraculous days, a truly joyous place to be. It felt like the Red Death had finally caught up to the party: these emperors had succumbed to the plague that they had so mismanaged and ignored, and finally, finally, two rich men who deserved it would die.
Of course, both Trump and Johnson lived. Sometimes it seems as if terrible people have a way of surviving, just like roaches, while wonderful people are gone too soon. In a heartbreaking essay for The Georgia Review, writer Gerald Majer describes the illness and slow death of his partner Ka, whose cancer had spread to her bones. He also considers the meaning and interpretation of skeletons in general, riffing for a while on the 1929 animated Disney short: “A Silly Symphony: the Skeleton Dance.” This short is another version of the danse macabre, but this time without any living people in it—only the skeletons are featured. The video is publicly available on YouTube; I highly recommend watching it, though as Majer points out, it’s not “silly” at all. “[The skeletons] are too empty,” he writes, “they are too much frame and rack to be comical, though it’s a hard bone of irony they’re chewing on or being chewed up by. They are seriously dead, dead serious.” Majer’s phrasing here is reminiscent of the moment in the “The Masque of the Red Death” where the wealthy party-goers turn, shocked and angry, to see someone “dressed up” (they think) as the embodiment of the plague. “Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made.” The rich, who otherwise laugh at everything, who think they’ve escaped the reach of death and his skeletal hand, do not think a Red Death costume is funny.
“The Skeleton Dance,” with its ghoulish lack of humor—or, alternatively, its darkly brutal humor—doesn’t seem remotely Disney-like at all, at least not Disney as we have come to know it. We do not associate Disney with death and the danse macabre. The animator of “The Skeleton Dance,” Ub Iwerks, left his partnership with Walt Disney just one year later, citing Walt’s bullying and proprietary behavior. Walt Disney would later claim that Mickey Mouse—the foundation of his cheerful empire—had simply magically popped into his head one day, although the two men had actually developed the concept together. Eventually, a broke and desperate Iwerks crawled back to work for Disney, but he never again created anything quite as wonderfully weird as the dancing skeletons.
Beyond isolated examples like the old “Skeleton Dance” on Youtube, the Ghananian pallbearers, and the rituals of Halloween, images of dancing skeletons and the danse macabre are mostly missing from contemporary life. So too is any meaningful, popular grappling with the scope and horror of the coronavirus. A few ongoing TV shows have put together Zoom-based episodes—the coronavirus episode of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is particularly good, addressing both the misery of isolation and the ingenuity of creative people even in the middle of a terrible situation. I haven’t watched the romantic comedy Love in the Time of Corona, or the pandemic-set Coastal Elites. I don’t want to see attractive people winsomely struggling with the gosh-darn-it annoyance of Zoom. Mere depiction of events isn’t what I’m after: I want metaphor, scale, catharsis, grief.
However, in America, mass popular response to tragic events doesn’t really come out in art—it comes out in advertising. Most of what I’ve seen has been focused on the idea that the tragic event is in the sentimentalized past and tomorrow is already here. We’ve worked hard; let’s thank our essential workers; and hey, haven’t we all earned ourselves a snack? The Super Bowl’s expensive showpiece ads mostly treated the coronavirus like it was already over, or as a pleasant hardship we’re in the process of overcoming through hustle and determination. In one of the most disturbing ads, Sesame Street partnered with DoorDash, the gig economy delivery service. Both the muppet and the human residents of Sesame Street sing about “all from the people in your neighborhood” and how to “get more from your neighborhood.” While all this cute neighborly singing goes on, contracted workers at DoorDash earn less than a living wage making deliveries during a global pandemic while their CEO just became a billionaire.
I watch these ads and I feel dead. I sit on my couch, motionless, less animate than the skeletons.
Why are skeletons so creepy? The editor-in-chief of this magazine once wrote, “How often do you think about the fact that underneath your skin, you are a skeleton? When you see other people, do you think about the fact that they, too, are skeletons?” I told him I wanted to write an article about skeletons; he said, “ok, I will close my eyes.” We don’t really want to talk about skeletons, and the fact that we are all skeletons, and will all someday be reduced to skeletons. I once waited two hours in line to see the Catacombs of Paris—it wasn’t worth it, largely because it’s overpriced but also because all those long tunnels lined with millions of skulls don’t seem real at all. It doesn’t seem like so many people could have lived, and now have died, and I could be standing in a tourist trap gawking at what’s left of them.
Maybe it’s for the best that people don’t want to think about skeletons, now or ever; maybe it’s better to focus on bright, cheerful things. Disney superfans in California, for example, have endured the COVID-19 closure of Disneyland by “finding creative ways to keep the magic alive: consulting Disney-inspired cooking blogs, participating in Disneybound costume challenges on TikTok and Instagram, watching Disney+, hosting outdoor movie nights and stay-at-home Disney Days.” Disneyworld, however, reopened in July, even as Florida experienced one of the worst outbreaks in the world, with higher caseloads than most countries altogether. The company was losing a great deal of money at the time, even having to trim executive pay; and, as a Disney shareholder put it, Disney World is “the heart of the brand,” one of their most beloved and reliable money-making assets. Disney World has stayed open ever since; a few months ago, many “cast members” who put their lives on the line in “the happiest place on earth” were fired, even as executive salaries were restored.
I keep looking at that photo I took of the Halloween display, trying to find the creepiest element. The skulls and the clown mask seem the most obvious, but I think it’s the Mickey. The other faces are grinning and laughing, having a fabulous time. Mickey’s smile is forced, and fixed.
Walter Benjamin once wrote that “‘Mickey Mouse proves that a creature can still survive even when it has thrown off all resemblance to a human being…[Mickey Mouse] films disavow experience more radically than ever before. In such a world, it is not worthwhile to have experiences.” The curious thing is that Disney’s parks are supposed to be about experiences: specifically, the experience of magic. The travel site Undercover Tourist promises that if you go to Disney World right now, you will “still see pixie dust around every turn…The magic,” they promise, “is still there!” I went to Disney World as a kid, and liked it fine; later, as an adult working for a Disney subsidiary, I gave away my complimentary parks tickets and never went myself. I didn’t feel the magic as a child and I don’t feel it as an adult. I especially don’t feel it now: even to imagine the seething crowds in a Disney park is to picture something deathly, frightening, uncanny.
How can one person visit a place and experience something magical and comforting while another is only disturbed? This question is addressed in Freud’s essay about the uncanny, which he partly explains through the German word unheimlich. Unheimlich, as Freud explains it, is “the opposite of heimlich, heimisch, meaning ‘familiar,’ ‘native,’ ‘belonging to the home.’…we are tempted to conclude that what is ‘Uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.” But it’s not quite that simple, as Freud illustrates with the following passage by the writer Karl Gutzkow:
“The Zecks [a family name] are all “heimlich.”’ ‘“Heimlich”? What do you understand by “heimlich”?’ ‘Well, . . . they are like a buried spring or a dried-up pond. One cannot walk over it without always having the feeling that water might come up there again.’ ‘Oh, we call it “unheimlich”; you call it “heimlich.” Well, what makes you think that there is something secret and untrustworthy about this family?”’
The unheimlich is the creepy that underlies the familiar, the glimpse of the skeleton that hides beneath the face. The words end up meaning the same thing because the heimlich obscures the unheimlich; the very wholesomeness of heimlich necessitates the existence of the unwholesome unheimlich beneath. As Freud puts it, “what is heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich.” The smiling family that never says what they mean, that covers up their secrets and the bones of the dead: nothing could be quite as uncanny, or really quite as German.
For a deeper look at the interplay between the heimlich and the unheimlich in Germany, I recommend A Demon-Haunted Land, historian Monica Black’s appraisal of miracle doctors and witch trials in postwar Germany. That’s post-1945 Germany: the supposed modern age, free of such unwholesome magic. Narratives about postwar West Germany are usually tales of triumph: the industrious Germans worked hard and, with American help, they performed an economic miracle. But Black’s book complicates the story: the economic miracle came at the expense of real reconciliation and acknowledgment of crimes. The denazification process was never really complete; far too many people had been involved. “Like the neatly swept streets of Munich,” Black writes, “the surface of things was being smoothed over.” Under that surface, darkness bubbled: it came out in a belief in magical cures, in signs and portents, and the conviction that random neighbors were actually witches, malignant forces bent on destruction.
People weren’t supposed to talk about the darkness: what they had done during the war, and to their Jewish neighbors, or what might have been done to them in turn during the Allied invasion. “Instead,” Black explains, in the process of describing a contemporary study called The Inability to Mourn, “[Germans] fled into a kind of perennial busyness: constant work, constant rebuilding, constant improvement and tinkering.” That busyness has formed the basis of the popular narrative of Germany’s postwar journey: hard work and success through an embrace of liberal capitalism. It’s a much easier story to tell, for Germans and for everyone else. Black concludes, “For what does it mean, for all of us, if a nation can turn so quickly from building Auschwitz to constructing an affluent and neon-lit world?”
People do not like to talk about death and grief and horror; it’s much easier to work hard, to be cheerful and industrious, to visit brightly-lit Disney World while all the darkness bubbles out underneath. Incidentally, Walt Disney was allegedly anti-Semitic himself, and his original design for Disney World was distinctly fascist in character. However, if you google this today, the first page of results will tell you, triumphantly, that Disney wasn’t an anti-Semite; a flattering 2015 documentary supposedly proves it. Insider.com declares Disney’s alleged anti-Semitism “a myth,” even though he founded a famously anti-Semitic industry lobbying group, and invited Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl to visit his studio shortly after Kristallnacht. The author of the biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, claims that in his research he “saw no evidence” that Disney was anti-Semitic. With a little triumphant imagination, you can cover up just about anything.
After the waves of the Black Death subsided, many of the images of the danse macabre disappeared too. “Plastered over,” according to Gertsman, “in order to be covered by a newer, more fashionable subject in a newer, more fashionable style, or else destroyed along with the edifices on which they were painted…the danse macabre images suffered an exceptional streak of bad luck…only a few survive…” The plague was over and other, often cheerier subjects became popular in its place. The original mural in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents was lost long ago. Nobody wants to think about the fact that they are skeletons.
“The skeleton,” writes Gerald Majer, “might be an emblem of the Western political subject in its modern phase, a creature diagrammed out to productivity and efficiency, averages and norms. Stripped and racked, with the motley variables of human movement and gesture reduced to motion sequences and statistical frequencies.” I feel like a skeleton sometimes, working; I feel my skeleton itself, or more specifically the soft tissues around it, which seem to have liquefied with lack of movement. I go out for my long walks; I use the elliptical machine I bought online and assembled while watching ten episodes of a murder mystery show. My feet hurt, all the time—not from dancing, but from thoughtlessly pressing down on my heels, hard, as I work.
We’ve been told during the pandemic to work—if we’re so lucky to be employed—and to perform self-care. There’s not much else to do. Still, “it’s okay to not be okay,” insist a hundred articles. Another hundred articles warn against the dangers of the toxically positive, that is, those who insist everyone should be happy and upbeat. The anti-toxic positivity screeds flooded the internet mostly between July and December 2020. Viewed together, they have a weird identical quality: each essay begins with a recounting of personal trauma, frustration with a toxically positive person or group of people, quotes from experts on why “it’s okay to not be okay,” and concluding with some variation on how “you will be more emotionally healthy if you let yourself be sad.” Toxic positivity is ironically built into the framework: you let yourself be sad so that later you will be happy; you strip yourself down to a skeleton so that later you can put your skin back on, and then your loungewear, and get back to work with a smile. Show us those teeth that you’ve been grinding down to stumps.
Nothing is okay right now, not even the affirmation that it’s okay to not be okay, that eventually there will be something positive to pull out of this experience, that everything has meaning and will make sense. We are skeletons, working, constantly moving, except when we are caring for the connective tissue of our skeletons, so that they will continue to keep moving, forever. In the meantime, Disney World—that cathedral of toxic positivity, of fake miracle magic—will reopen, has already reopened, over the bones of the dead.
It’s really not surprising that so many of the Super Bowl ads treated the pandemic as something that could already be forgotten, paved over. It’s not just a generalized capitalist or American tendency; the NFL has, specifically, chosen to treat coronavirus as a sort of embarrassing inconvenience, much like the chronic traumatic encephalopathy that afflicts so many of its players. When too many players on a team caught coronavirus during the 2020 season the games were simply canceled, and disappeared. But the season’s over; Tom Brady won again, and in the ad space Dolly Parton sang a new version of her classic “9 to 5,” updated into—as Tom Sexton calls it in the Baffler—“an anthem for the rise-and-grind, side-hustle set.” Parton didn’t write the lyrics on her own: her corporate partner, Squarespace, collaborated with her in the process. “At one more ominous point in the song,” writes Sexton, “she just repeats the word working several times in a row.” It’s indeed ominous, unsettling, heimlich/unheimlich: a cheerful, attractive young woman dances through her side hustle, and Parton sings “working, working, working” over her like a broken record, like someone performing the same repetitive movement, over and over and over again.
To say all this is to be a buzzkill; to think about the grinding work and skeletons and endless repetitive misery below the surface of this country as the spring turns around again and the vaccines are distributed, haphazardly, and to the wealthy first—it’s not positive, or funny. At best, it’s totally goth. I keep thinking of the movie Midsommar, and its protagonist who is unable to grieve the death of her family because everyone around her finds her grief uncomfortable. Eventually, she falls in with a cult who lets her feel it, precisely because they are the only ones who will let her feel it.
“How does one mourn in isolation?” Dodai Stewart asks in the New York Times. “How does one process grief for an entire city?” Her essay-diary covers five months of life in New York, from March to July 2020. It concludes soon after Governor Cuomo’s triumphant declaration that “we did it”: aka the state had lowered infection rates, largely due to conscientious mask-wearing and the weather. In her final entry, Stewart describes a video she saw on Twitter, with symbolism she liked and “took…as a sign” even though it was “cheesy.” “During a thunderstorm,” she says, “lightning struck the Statue of Liberty, the bolt slicing through an immense and menacing cloud. The statue stood steadfast and unmovable. She didn’t budge an inch.”
The New York Times has talked about the virus quite a lot since July, as caseloads throughout the country surged again and ambulance sirens screamed through my neighborhood on their way to Elmhurst hospital. The Times coverage through the winter spoke of delays and coverups and disappointments, promises from the Biden administration of a definitive end, plus a shocking story about how Trump was closer to death in October than anyone realized—but, as we know, still didn’t die. The vaccine will eventually be distributed, and by Halloween 2021 things may be more or less “back to normal.” Skeletons will hang from the trees. There are theories that the holiday of Halloween evolved out of the danse macabre, that we dress up as ghosts and witches to perform a kind of yearly Dance of Death, haha, we will all die, but not now, not all of us, not yet.
In a surprising twist, one of the better TV shows to debut during the pandemic—a show which also happens to feature ghosts and witches—was made under the aegis of Disney. The Marvel show Wandavision, written before the coronavirus hit, is set in the ensorcelled town of Westview, New Jersey, where a grieving witch forces everyone to act out a treacly, celluloid version of suburban American family life. It’s very heimlich of course, and unheimlich too. But it’s also a story about the inability, or refusal, to grieve. The Scarlet Witch is unable to accept the death of her robot boyfriend, whom she has recreated within the ensorcelled town as a kind of living ghost. She’s opposed/aided by Monica Rambeau, a Black woman whose mother died in a hospital while Monica was unable to be at her side. The resonances are surely coincidental, and the show is limited by the synergistic needs of the Marvel universe and its sunny Disney overlords. But it’s at least a story about how hard it is to talk about death, and grief; how hard it is to admit that we are skeletons, and the even more unimaginable truth that the ones we love are also, will also be skeletons (or in the case of the robot boyfriend, a bunch of metal parts.) In any case there will be nothing we can do but remember them, and let them go; they will live and be animated only in our minds, in what may be a kind of actual magic.
There’s an honesty about skeletons: that’s why they’re laughing at us. They’re what will remain after we’re gone; they will continue to exist whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. Gerald Majer, writing about his dead partner (Ka was an artist, and she sounds lovely) says that for a while she wanted to put a human skeleton in her studio. “She wouldn’t do anything with it,” he writes, “just hang it in her studio and look at it, maybe talk to it. I guessed her feeling wasn’t only that everything vain and false would be stripped away and the naked truth of the human frame would stand clear; in some way the skeleton would be a living thing to her. She would draw power from it. A hard, glowing nakedness, in some fashion more alive than any fleshly, living body.”