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The Blood is the Life/Death: Queer Contagion and Viral Vampirism in the Age of HIV/AIDS

by Ethan Tussey

by Andrew Owens for IN MEDIA RES

Beginning in the summer of 1981, a smattering of reports began appearing across national newswires about a mysterious set of maladies that seemed only to affect young to middle-aged, and otherwise healthy, gay men. These gaunt, pallid, and wan blood-ailment sufferers were, like vampires, quickly reappropriated on screens across the country as a new, spectacularized shorthand for the phantasmatic amalgamation between queer identity and sexual pathology. One year later, on the June 17, 1982 edition of NBC Nightly News, anchor Tom Brokaw made this connection explicit by beginning a headlining story stating unequivocally that the “lifestyle of some male homosexuals has triggered an epidemic.” Reporting for the segment shown here, correspondent Dr. Robert Bazell noted, “researchers at the National Centers for Disease Control said they had found several cases where people who had been sex partners both had the condition. The scientists say this probably means they are dealing with some new, deadly sexually transmitted disease.”

As James Kinsella maintains in Covering the Plague: AIDS and the American Media, making this disease as “spooky as possible helped make AIDS a national issue, but it also fed on Americans’ fears and did little to inform them.” Kinsella’s use of the term “spooky” here is, I would argue, far from coincidental. Indeed, during the 1980s, the looming threat of HIV/AIDS played out across the American televisual imaginary as if it’s worst epidemiological anxieties culled from the frames popular horror texts (e.g. Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), Ubaldo Ragona’s Last Man on Earth (1964), David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977)) had finally been realized as a nightmare of epic proportions come true. The manifesting characteristics of HIV/AIDS, as David Skal details in his encyclopedic V is for Vampire, “weirdly echoed the classic motifs of vampire legends. A blood-borne, wasting malady appears, each victim capable of creating others through vein-puncturing or unconventional forms of sex. Science is baffled. Self-appointed moral guardians come forth, waving religious talismans, insisting that the affliction is the work of the devil.” By relying on formulaic conventions of the horror film, television news coverage of HIV/AIDS in the ‘80s aided in its colloquial construction as “gay cancer,” at least until the HIV virus was was officially named as such in May 1986.

HIV/AIDS and NBC Nightly News

A clip from the NBC nightly news

from NBC Nightly News (1982)
Creator: NBC
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey
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