Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” & Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”

Eyes Wide Shut Red Death

 

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Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is an enigma of a film. After watching it, I couldn’t help but make comparisons of the film to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Masque of the Red Death. A large portion of this article will be dedicated to comparing Poe and Kubrick’s work, but I’ll also be discussing theories involving Beethoven, Alice in Wonderland, the bible’s Book of Revelations, elite bloodlines, occult mysticism, dreams and more.

I’ll be extracting some lines from The Masque of the Red Death to make my point, but I urge you to read it first. As always, what I say here is strictly my opinion, not fact. Much of what I’ve found lies in coincidence, and so whether or not you believe in coincidence is essential. Also, I’ve gathered some of these points from what I read regarding other people’s opinions of the film, in an attempt to address their opinions from my own perspective. I’ve highlighted my main points in bold.

SPOILERS!

In Eyes Wide Shut, Bill comes to this gothic mansion where he witnesses a satanic-like ritual involving sex an incantation. People have written extensive essays on exactly who these people in the film are, but it’s safe to assume they’re very powerful people- elitist, male-dominated and most likely involved in politics. The goal of these people? World domination among other things. But the ritual we see in the film surrounds the controversial elitist bloodlines. Essentially it’s believed that these rich folk have been preserving their bloodline for centuries in hopes of creating specific spawn to serve their needs and/or to become their future leader/savior (what we know as the Antichrist).

Elitist groups associated with ritual magic can often be tied to the phrase “As above, so below.” This phrase is similar to “Within you, without you.” Essentially these phrases seem to represent a sacred balance. (Note: No one knows if these supposed elitist factions truly exist, and what, if any, their rituals consist of. For all we know, Kubrick was playing with people’s minds- notably conspiracy theorists).

To further my point, I have to introduce Edgar Allan Poe’s story, The Masque of the Red Death. After seeing Kubrick’s film, I couldn’t help but tie the infamous orgy scene to Poe’s story- not because of the sexual nature involved, but because of the gothic scenery (not to mention all the masks).

You can read Poe’s story here , but here’s a brief summary:

A brutal sickness called ‘the red death’ is ravaging the lands. Prince Prospero and his associates are happy and secure in seclusion, however, enjoying a masquerade ball where “the prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure.” The story goes on to describe such methods of pleasure before stating, “All these and security were within. Without was the ‘Red Death’.” We then are given vivid descriptions of seven rooms, each a different color of the rainbow. Each room has a stained glass window that matches the color in question. The seventh room differs from the others as it is black but the window is scarlet. There is also a grandfather clock near this seventh room which frightens the guests every time it rings on the hour. Of the prince, “His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre.” Of the ball itself: “There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust. To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams. And these — the dreams — writhed in and about, taking hue from the rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as the echo of their steps…

I’ll stop there for now. If you don’t see the similarities… For one, we see Dr. Bill enter the Rainbow costume store, mirroring Poe’s seven rooms. The descriptions of Poe’s gothic interior greatly match what Dr. Bill sees in Kubrick’s mansion. Prospero (aka money/power, aka the archetypal Satan), and his associates, seem to find themselves superior to those in the outside world, just like the elitists appear to in Kubrick’s film. Prince Prospero could also be paralleled with the red-cloaked leader in Eyes Wide Shut (who for brevity, I’ll refer to from now on as the ‘Ringleader’). Dreams are an ongoing, mysterious element in Kubrick’s film, as well as Poe’s story.

Continuing with Poe’s story… “…Before the last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, there were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before. And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disapprobation and surprise — then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.” This of course mirrors Bill’s situation in the film. Poe’s story goes on to describe how this intruder would have fit in undetected, but its mask showed symptoms of the red death. Prospero felt he was being mocked, and finally gained the courage to approach the intruder in the seventh room. Before Prospero can kill the intruder, the intruder turns to face him, and Prospero instantly dies, along with the rest of the masqueraders.

To relate back to Eyes Wide Shut, first we have to posit theories on what happened in Poe’s short story. Was the red death an actual illness or a metaphorical one? Although I read this story once in high school, having read it again I couldn’t help but imagine that Prospero saw the image of himself as the face of the red death, similar to the doppelganger effect whereby one dies instantly once they see their double. This also mirrors the idea of “within, without.” Prospero and his people were surrounded by lavish things, hoping to keep death away, but death came anyway- leading many to analyze that Poe’s moral was that death is inescapable. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps Poe was describing the corruption often found within the rich. The Red Death was a reflection of what Prospero really looked like on the inside– that is, Prospero was empty, filled with nothingness. This image literally frightened him to death, as all his life he thought money and power could fulfill him and make him a god. Prospero had his rooms of color, but once this artificial coloring was stripped as he entered the seventh (black) room, he saw that within himself (the red death) there was no true light. The same goes for Prospero’s associates, who while being under a spell of sorts, still chose to follow Prospero’s ways of excess and decadence- thus, they were equally empty.

Even still, another conclusion for Poe’s moral would be that he was describing a specific group of people, and thus was predicting their future demise. If this was the case, then the group of people could be the elitist factions (what some call the Illuminati), and their demise would be the infiltration of a disease in their sacred bloodline.

So, Bill is the intruder, and thus could represent the Red Death (especially considering the fact that he just left a hooker who had AIDS; we see he doesn’t sleep with the hooker, but his simply being with her could represent him bringing something foreign an unwanted into the ritual). Like the intruder in Poe’s story, Bill’s life is threatened, yet Poe’s intruder takes off its mask and everyone around it dies- in the film, Bill takes off his mask and everyone around him still lives. One of my theories is that Bill and the Ringleader in the film are the same person (if not literally, symbolically). From a literal standpoint, this theory may seem ridiculous. Bill comes off as a chump and therefore he couldn’t be the leader of the entire occult group. But hear me out.

For one, this isn’t far-fetched when you consider the many layers of dreams and archetypes found in the film. Yes, this may mean that the entire orgy scene was a fantasy or dream in Bill’s mind, but it could also mean Bill’s mind is fragmented or disassociated (a sign of long-term brainwashing, associated with the elite). Second, in the scene where Bill talks to Ziegler regarding Bill’s exposure at the ritual, Bill makes the same two-stomp motion (with his foot I believe) that the Ringleader makes with his staff (he pounds his staff twice to summon the girls to find their suitors). Notice too that Bill previously denied several women before the orgy, but after the orgy, when he goes to speak with the hooker a second time, he immediately comes on to her roommate- completely changing form. Yes, this could mean that the night’s events were so profound that Bill himself became brainwashed overnight, but I’ll leave that for you to decide. Third, Dr. Bill can be translated as “dollar bill” or “doctor’s bill,” hinting at commercialism and greed, just like the name ‘Prince Prospero.’

Fourth, the Ringleader could be Bill’s fantasy self or shadow self. Maybe, driven with enough jealousy over his wife, Bill created a fantasy that consisted of him being this dark lord who oversees orgies with beautiful women. Or, the Ringleader is literally Bill himself, but in the shadow, meaning that Bill is leading a double-life, which is supposedly prevalent in secret society members. On one hand, Bill is a doctor who drinks budweiser and is devoted to his wife, but on the other hand, he is the Ringleader of a powerful, elite cult. Perhaps because of Bill’s broken mental state, he cannot connect the two personas in reality.

Fifth, although Bill seems way out of his league at the orgy, previous to this he doesn’t seem to question the company kept by clients like Ziegler. Why was it that Ziegler didn’t have the decency to even cover up Mandy before Bill arrived to resuscitate her? It almost seemed as if, in his subconscious, Bill was aware of the secret activities Ziegler was involved in. Science and medicine are also supposedly rooted strongly in occult religions, thus, Bill’s role as a doctor may’ve held a lot more weight than his simply being Ziegler’s physician.

Sixth, at the end of the film, Alice and Bill take their daughter Christmas shopping. Helena picking out her gifts suggests that she’s raised not to believe in Santa. This is pure speculation, but it seems that Christmas is associated with mainstream Christianity and thus, members of the occult wouldn’t associate themselves with Santa (meaning, perhaps both Bill an Alice are associated with the occult as well- more on this later).

Still, as mentioned previously, there is a key difference between Poe’s story and Kubrick’s plot. In Poe’s story, all the humans perish once they see their true selves in the guise of the Red Death. But in Kubrick’s film, the archetypal red death is a human (Bill), and the surrounding folk are ‘demons.’ Kubrick’s film then takes a sinister undertone, as it is the majority of masked, evil ones (aka those who hide truth) who still stand, and it is the exposed human (representing truth) who ends up (almost) being killed.

The elitist groups (who go by many names) have done a great job manipulating the masses. Bill, while having the face of a human, is a slave to the system and its incessant advertising. If Poe’s Red Death represented truth, then Kubrick’s ritual scene posits that evil still stands because there is no truth anymore. Bill isn’t special by any means- he is a product of an empty world built by the elite. So, the Red Death showed Prospero’s people their true reflection when it took off its mask. But when Bill took off his mask, it was he who saw his own reflection in the surrounding ‘demons.’ Hence, Bill and the Ringleader are metaphorically the same person, even if they’re not physically the same- Both wear a mask, both hide truth, both are empty. The sad irony of this entire scene is that, in reality, this elite group has managed to disempower an entire nation (let alone world) of people, when people could easily outnumber the elite.

***

Another theory I have is that Ziegler’s party and the orgy scene were connected in more ways than one. Moreover, the two seemingly separate events actually mirrored each other. At the party, there’s an 8-pointed star in the background with a center of some sort; at the orgy there’s a circle of women with the Ringleader at the center. Nick Nightingale is present at both events. The slow-dancing at the party could equate to intercourse at the orgy. Bill saves Mandy from a drug overdose, while the following night she supposedly saves Bill from death- whether we see her face or not, Mandy is supposedly present at both events. Both residences are lavish. I’m sure there’re plenty more similarities. Point being, if this theory has validity, then because both Alice and Bill are at the party, then both Alice and Bill are also at the orgy. I know, many say this is impossible- how would Alice have the time to make the trip? Well, Alice wouldn’t need time if the orgy and the party were actually one and the same. How and why could this be?

If Alice and the Hungarian man were downstairs at the party, and Bill was upstairs helping Zeigler, then perhaps at the orgy when Bill was downstairs, Alice was upstairs in the balcony (Remember seeing a feminine mask next to the man who nods at Bill? Perhaps that was the Hungarian an Alice symbolically)…[This also begs the question that if Bill was downstairs at the orgy, Ziegler was also…Was Ziegler the Ringleader? ‘Z’ is often associated with death, and when Bill helps Mandy at the party, we see Ziegler standing by a painting of a woman with her legs spread open- when I saw this I immediately thought of the Gnostic belief of Mother Sophia giving birth to her son, ‘the devil,’ who is actually the creator of our world. While Kubrick could have intended something different with this image, at minimum we see Ziegler in a creepy light. But I digress…]. Anyway, the fact that Alice and Bill hang in the same circle as Ziegler is enough evidence to suggest they might take part in these rituals as well. As mentioned before, brainwashing happens in elite circles from a very young age. Hence, it’s possible that in Alice and Bill’s mind, they were at Ziegler’s party, but in reality, they were at the orgy.

Perhaps Kubrick was portraying his views on what the institution of marriage, as well as sex, represents. For example, when Alice and Bill go home after the party and have sex, perhaps this ritual was representative of the bigger ritual that took place at the orgy- almost as if marriage was being correlated with something sinister or unholy. If the party and the orgy did take place separately, than perhaps Kubrick was showing the ‘shadow’ side of these parties with the orgy; in other words, just as much corruption and degradation goes down at these parties than what went down at the orgy. One could also posit that either the orgy or the party was a dream– but a very realistic dream at that.

***

Are Alice’s eyes open throughout the film because she is more ‘awakened’ than her husband? Or is this constant looking into mirrors a sign of vanity? In Paradise Lost by John Milton, Eve is seduced by her own reflection, and the devil intercepts her thoughts to make her dream about committing original sin before it happens.

When Alice reveals her naked-dream to Bill when he gets home, she describes something very similar to the biblical fall of man/Eden. In this sense, Bill is the archetypal Adam an Alice is the archetypal Eve. Notice that before Bill wakes Alice up, she doesn’t seem frightened in her sleep- she is enjoying her dream. Maybe whatever original sin was, it caused desire to spread in the mind through dreams. Alice’s wicked/erotic dreams then brought about the orgy scene in reality- or rather, Eve’s dreams brought about something sinister in reality after ‘satan’ whispered in her ear.

What if, in a twist of everything we thought we saw in the film, the Ringleader was actually Alice? What if behind this male-dominated elite there really was a woman in charge? As I’ll mention later, Alice’s name and fondness for mirrors echoes Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Perhaps if Bill’s fantasy was to witness the orgy, Alice’s fantasy would be running it, with her at the center of worship. Or perhaps the Ringleader was symbolic of Carroll’s Red Queen, which in itself may have represented a piece of Alice (the book character). Therefore, just like Alice (In Wonderland) falls down the rabbit-hole, perhaps Alice in the film does the same- she enters another world (the orgy) through her dreams.

Certainly while Alice seems like the average beautiful woman, there was also something sinister about her character which I couldn’t quite place- was she really in on the sex rituals or were we seeing her through the eyes of a deluded Bill? At minimum, it seems Alice is brainwashed somewhat, and her closing line about ‘needing to frack’ comes off as more of a demand than a request- almost as if she has a deadline to meet. If it is true about elitists interbreeding to produce a future Lucifer-figure, then surely this new ‘savior’ will have to be male- thus, Alice and Bill need to have sex again until they get a boy. Are they pawns? Are they possessed by magic forces? Is one human and one not human? Hmm…

***

There are seven rooms in Poe’s story corresponding with these seven colors: Blue/Purple/Green/Orange/White/Violet/Black. The black chamber was different in having a scarlet window. This is interesting, as the typical seven colors of the rainbow include red and yellow instead of white and black. Oddly, red and yellow are colors associated with fire, and in Poe’s story, none of the seven rooms are lit with fire, but each corresponding corridor features a stained glass window which holds fire on the other side. This emphasizes perhaps how Prospero and the film’s orgy people did not want to be seen in the light- they preferred to carry out their activities in the shadows. This in itself is ironic, as many of these elitist/occult groups are associated with worshipping a sun god. However, they’re also associated with praise of Lucifer aka the planet Venus (more on this below).

In the film, we see Christmas lights indoors an outdoors, which while being associated with Christmas (commercialism), also could represent false light/deception- a fake rainbow. Rainbows themselves are symbolic in the film, and are thought to be a brainwashing tool of the elite [“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (Wizard of Oz)]. When Bill goes to the Rainbow costume store, there is an upper level, an a lower level (which is called ‘Under the Rainbow’). What should be noted is that the store’s main sign that says ‘Rainbow’ is situated between the upper and lower levels, but there is no ‘in-between’ floor. This resembles the idea of Alexander’s band, which in itself is pretty fascinating. While I’ll have to watch the film again to note the following points, I’m pretty sure specific scenes highlight certain colors (I remember orange curtains, a blue room, and of course the main bedroom of Bill/Alice is white/pinkish- there’s also the memorable scene where Alice lays next to Bill’s mask and the room seems to glow violet).

Speaking of this mask, where did it come from? If the party was real and the orgy was a dream, then perhaps Bill’s orgy dream really did effect his waking life. In reverse, the fact that the mask as an object made it back to ‘reality’ suggests that the orgy was real and the party was fake. Whatever you believe, it’s clear there’s some split happening here, whether it’s dream/reality or one singular event seen from two different perspectives. The number two is prevalent in the film. The Rainbow shop owner accepts not one but two hundred dollars. Bill an Alice have their daughter two years after being married. The password is Fidelio- Beethoven’s two-act opera. If you noted the subtle Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There reference, you’ll remember that this Lewis Carroll sequel was divided into two books.

Some interesting connections & symbolism:

The main character of Beethoven’s opera is ‘Leonore’, while the focus of many Poe poems is a woman named ‘Lenore.’ In the opera, Leonore rescues her husband; in the film, a woman rescues Bill. In Poe’s The Raven, a bird tells the narrator that Lenore is ‘nevermore’ as it rests on top of a pallas (Athena); in the film, the woman who rescues Bill is led out of the room to become ‘nevermore’ herself, with the image of a raven (mask) above her head. A famous riddle from Alice in Wonderland is “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”. Leonore translates as ‘shining light,’ which is a rough translation of what Lucifer supposedly represents. Lucifer is connected with the planet Venus (Morning Star). Stemming also from the name ‘Helen’ (aka Helen of Troy), Leonore could equate to a beautiful woman.

The 8-pointed star (or wheel) present at Ziegler’s party is thought to represent chaos, as well as being a sign of Venus (the second planet from the sun- referring to what I said above about the number two). According to several websites, this wheel symbolizes how material things manifest from ether through our intelligence. In relation to the film, this could represent why Alice seems obsessed with her own beauty (Venus) while also explaining some of the peculiar events (For example, the orgy could have happened to Bill in reality as a result of Alice dreaming it).

Lastly, The Holy Infants Embracing, a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, depicts two infants- one with eyes open, one with eyes shut. This resembles the shot Kubrick chose for his film cover. In addition, supposedly the painting features two brothers, two cousins, or even two sisters embracing- this may mirror the planets Venus and Earth, as Venus is often called Earth’s “sister planet.” What’s more, Kubrick’s cover seems to show Bill’s character wrapping his hand around Alice. There are only three fingers visible, but it appears we are seeing his right hand, with a ring on the ring finger of this right hand (as opposed to the common American tradition of wearing a ring on one’s left hand).

This film could also be viewed as an analysis of Scientology.

Overall, this is a mindblowing film with many layers that proves that truth is often stranger than fiction. I urge you to share your thoughts.

Published by Lucy Tonic

Prose/Poetry Writer Movie/Music/Book Critic  View profile

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2 thoughts on “Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” & Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”

  1. Very good article! We will be linking to this particularly great post on our site.
    Keep up the great writing.

  2. I enjoyed your article. I am interested in your analysis of the toy store scene where Bill and Alice leave their daughter to wander amongst the toys. She seem to be led away by to older men.

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