by Vyvyan René
cw: mentions of ableism, homophobia
The creature is grinding its face against the glass door, the reptilian gape of its fangs no more than a few inches from the camera on the other side of it. Salivating, tongue fully extruded, its jaws open and close convulsively.
After perhaps thirty seconds, the creature stops what it is doing, raises its head and looks directly into the lens. Its eyes, suffused with hate, are strangely vacant. In a sudden rush of aggression it claws at the door, which audibly rattles. This lasts only moments before it drops back to all fours and resumes its frenzied drooling and chewing. The video ends with a freeze frame of that moment of eye contact: that intense, fixated stare.
It would be difficult to overstate the horror this YouTube video has inspired in viewers, many of whom describe it as the most disturbing thing they have ever seen. The comments section abounds with references to undeath and Satanic possession, referencing The Exorcist, Pet Sematary, and Hitchcock. The creature is repeatedly described as a zombie, an evil spirit trying to gain entrance to the house, a source of werewolf and vampire mythology, even the Devil. For my part, it recalled Anne Rice’s description of Claudia, in which the source of horror is a profound and sinister disconnect between body and brain:
‘Her eyes had independent life, as if the body were possessed… a doll from whom someone had cruelly ripped the eyes and replaced them with a demonic fire.’
We are witnessing an act of erasure, so that the moment of eye contact is one in which the viewer gazes not at the infected creature but at the virus itself, as though sickness were an identity that displaces all others.
In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag writes: ‘The most terrifying illnesses are those perceived not just as lethal but as dehumanizing… those that seem like mutations into animality’. And yet, divorced from all natural instincts, this animal’s species seems oddly ambiguous. Does anybody know if this is a wolf or a fox? Even the person who posted the original video is unsure. I can confirm without doubt, one YouTuber jokes, that it’s a badger. We are witnessing an act of erasure, so that the moment of eye contact is one in which the viewer gazes not at the infected creature but at the virus itself, as though sickness were an identity that displaces all others.
In 2018, rabies became an identity. A satirical post in which the writer describes themselves as ‘rabiosexual’ — someone who desires to contract and/or spread lyssavirus — appeared on Tumblr. Those who identify as rabiosexuals, the post claims, are oppressed by the privileged ‘healiosexuals’ (i.e. those who are not sexually attracted to rabies).
It didn’t take long before other Tumblr users, failing to get the joke, began posting outraged comments that attempted to ‘educate’ rabiosexuals on the real life dangers of the virus, or condemned them for bugchasing and snowflakery. This only fanned the flames. Soon rabies had its own flag (modelled on the six-stripe pride flag in shades of red, beige, white and grey) and its own hashtag: #rabiespride. Though the original post has since been deleted, the hashtag it spawned is alive and well.
Only a disease as notorious for identity erasure as rabies could become the figurehead of such a bizarre micromovement.
#rabiesprideis the ultimate refutation of Sontag’s injunction to resist viewing illness as metaphor. Rabies is the Swiss army knife of satire; it can be used for any purpose, from hitting back at transphobes and ableists (RABIOSEXUALS ARE VALID!) to black humour (I like my women like I like my coffee…. with foam!) to trolling anti-vaxxers (It’s fucking heartbreaking to know i might never be fully rabid because my parent might have vaccinated me as a child, when i was too young to know, too young to have a say in it). Only a disease as notorious for identity erasure as rabies could become the figurehead of such a bizarre micromovement.
What does it mean to take a degrading and nightmarish virus like rabies and transform it into an aesthetic, a movement, an identity? It can be partially explained by the human desire to make the incomprehensible relatable, and the terrifying funny. But it is also, more significantly, a political act that associates the effects of lyssavirus on the brain with the identity loss that stems from erasure of crip and queer identities. The creature gnawing at the closed door is starting to seem more relatable.
Because rabies is largely incurable, stories that depict it typically culminate with the rabid animal being destroyed. Not only does this reinforce ableist notions about being ‘better off dead’, but the action of putting the animal down is often framed in a way that reinforces heteronormative messages about gender roles; for example that men should suppress their feelings and do what is necessary, as in Old Yeller, or that a mother should sacrifice herself to protect her child, as in Cujo. Both dogs have become symbols, their faces — dull-eyed, foaming — superimposed over the rabies pride flag.
Despite the real-world horror of the virus, it’s surprisingly easy to see the appeal of rabies as metaphor — one with a 100% success rate if untreated, which not only attacks but infects a healiosexual status quo.
Photo by Peter Lloyd on Unsplash
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