'The Outsider' Episode 9: Spanish Flu and El Cuco’s contagious nature draw eerie parallels with coronavirus
One of the stronger suits of HBO’s horror miniseries ‘The Outsider’ lies in its subtleties. For one, it is uncharacteristic of horror storytelling to tease viewers with only the idea of a supernatural entity, never really revealing much even when one has reached the penultimate episode. The show is littered with small details that explain and foreshadow a lot. And there are instances when one can see themes emerge from stories, even if they seem insignificant at first glance.
One of those things happened in Episode 9. Andy (Derek Cecil) and Holly (Cynthia Erivo), visiting a nearby cemetery in Tennessee, come across the graves of a couple that died only days apart. While Andy thinks it was a case of death from a broken heart, Holly, on the other hand, deduces that their deaths were caused by the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Even as Andy refuses to believe that, insisting that the couple loved each other so much that they couldn’t live without each other, Holly is charmed.
Normally, such a scene would not mean much. But there are some real-life comparisons that emerge from it that make one think for a moment. The world, right now, faces a pandemic. The COVID-19 coronavirus that emerged in central China has killed more than 3,000 people globally and infected almost 89,000, with the vast majority of cases and deaths in China.
While not entirely as potent as the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918–19 -- it caused acute illness in 25–30 percent of the world’s population and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 40 million people -- the COVID-19 brings us to an interesting philosophical point. In The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum recently wrote about how and why the idea of pandemics affects us. She quotes Albert Camus’ 1947 novel ‘The Plague’: “A pestilence does not have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream that will end,” and explains how the fear of disasters and pandemics and epidemics bring out the true nature of human beings.
In his paper 'Stigma in the Time of Influenza: Social and Institutional Responses to Pandemic Emergencies', Ron Barrett discusses how stigma and fear can severely impede efforts to manage the spread of an outbreak of virulent influenza. In the context of that, one has to wonder, if the evil in ‘The Outsider’ is nothing but human nature itself, exacerbated and catalyzed by the idea of the mysterious El Cuco, whose method of functioning can also be seen as a disease.
El Cuco uses touch to spread itself. It scratched to gain control. It kills those around, sometimes actively, sometimes passively. For all intents and purposes, it is a contagion. A contagion of evil. And in all fairness, it is straight from Stephen King’s playbook.
‘The Outsider’ in its study of human nature casts a harsh glare on many ugly emotions. Rage, malcontent, suspicion, self-doubt. These are all energies to be careful of, for they spread without one realizing how. The threat of El Cuco might just be a figment of King’s imagination, part of old folklore and just general fiction, but negative emotions are contagious. And what this story does, through the device that is a shape-shifting creature, is spread this far and wide. It comes from fear and ignorance. Perhaps, the fear of El Cuco, but most definitely from the fear of what humans themselves are capable of.
Another quote from Camus’ novel is relevant in this context: “The evil in the world comes almost always from ignorance, and goodwill can cause as much damage as ill-will if it is not enlightened. People are more often good than bad, though, in fact, that is not the question. But they are more or less ignorant and this is what one calls vice or virtue, the most appalling vice being the ignorance that thinks it knows everything and which consequently authorizes itself to kill. The murderer's soul is blind, and there is no true goodness or fine love without the greatest possible degree of clear-sightedness.”
'The Outsider' finale will air on Sunday at 9 pm EST (8 pm CST) on HBO.