Covid realism and the spectacle of death

I noted while walking the streets this Halloween that the collective totems of horror and fear no longer primarily invoke the supernatural, but adopt an altogether more corporeal form.

Gone are the zombies, the vampires, the werewolves, supplanted by allusions to murderousness, serial killers, or even simply the concept of death itself. Crime scene tape barricading driveways. Lawns adorned with skeletons and coffins. Spilled blood streaking down doors, with threatening messages of “you’re next” and “keep out” scrawled out in it.

Such a shift is not limited to Halloween, but is observable throughout mass culture. For example, whereas a decade or so ago film and television was saturated with vampire dramas, today we may find platforms dominated by ‘true crime’ documentaries and podcasts: morbid, spectacular chronicles of killers and their victims.

Much has been written about what previous epochs’ ghoulish structures of feeling tell us about contemporary politics: parasitic, vampiric capital; zombification; spectres haunting Europe. What might this shift towards more ‘realistic’ symbols of collective anxieties signal? Perhaps that today we experience the hypnagogic nightmare of life and its representations dissolving into one another. The images we fumble for in our attempts to attain cognisance are losing their abstraction. There are no metaphors now, only the Real, the thing-in-itself. The disaster need not be imagined: it’s already here.

It seems that the terrors that pervade us in the present are ill-conceptualised through ghoulishness: more appropriate is a sober acknowledgement that banal, mass death and social murder now stalks our daily lives, the prevention of which remains a political impossibility.

What might this mean? Broadly, and bleakly: perhaps the political legacy of the coronavirus pandemic will be to help condition us for a state of permanent crisis, and inoculate us against the mental anguish of sublime, widespread death and societal collapse, just in time for ecological catastrophe.