From Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’ to ‘It Follows’: Tracing the Evolution of STD as Metaphor

When Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts — whose main characters include adulterers, syphilitics, and, worst of all, cowardly priests — first premiered in 1882, it elicited an uncannily perfect critical response. The play, which is a virulent attack on the hypocritical moralities of the devout Victorian Norwegian bourgeoisie, had detractors competing to embody that which it critiqued: the surprisingly uncritical rush to stifle public (and blasphemous forms of private) sexuality. These responses to the play were so condemnatory that you’d think Ibsen had catapulted used, syphilis-smeared condoms into the audience.

The Daily Telegraph deemed it a “mass of vulgarity [and] coarseness,” while The Daily Chronicle gave it the label of “revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous.” The review continued: “Justification of the former term would involve a more detailed explanation of the relations of three of the characters towards each other than we care to enter upon.” Amusingly, in their opinion, “the only really respectable individual in the piece [is] Pastor Manders,” who’s actually just the cog-like disseminator of the moral codes that break each character — and make them break one another. In the play, the final “ghost” (a term initially used by conflicted matriarch Helen Alving to describe the unsettling recurrence of dead moments and the continuing proliferation of dead ideas) to haunt the Alving household arrives in the form of the aforementioned STD — in the very visible, physically detrimental aftermath of a shunned discourse.

After almost a century and a half, it’s safe to say that we’re no longer in a time when the majority of the theatergoing population would see Ghosts as blasphemous — most social liberals would, rather, view the play’s indictment of marriage and religion as apt. So, watching Richard Eyre’s exquisite — and excruciatingly sad — production at BAM (which stars the masterful Lesley Manville, of Another Year, and Billy Howle as her disease-afflicted, bohemian painter son), I wondered why this ghost that commandeers the play’s last moments is still, so many years later, so very haunting.

'The Knick''s Abigail, after receiving a turn-of-the-century skin graft
‘The Knick’s’ Abigail, after receiving a turn-of-the-20th-century skin graft

It’s unsurprising that syphilis — now easily remedied — is no longer the focus of contemporary narratives about the horrors of STDs, and the societal injustices they often put in sharp relief. When someone has syphilis now, you think, “Oh, that’s annoying, you better get some antibiotics” rather than, “Oh, that’s horrible, your brain will become ‘soft’ and you’ll spasm and possibly have to be euthanized by your mother,” as is the case for Ghosts‘ character Oswald, who inherited the disease from his clandestinely philandering father. If you’re looking for recent depictions of syphilis (and I don’t know why you’d be looking, per se), the closest you’ll get is a period piece — Steven Soderberg’s The Knick. Like Ghosts, it features a character wronged by — and now noseless because of — sexual secretiveness. It’s the literal ugly face that resulted from turn-of-the-century Western civilization’s failed attempt at the public erasure of sexuality.

Onscreen depictions of AIDS, too, have largely been relegated to period pieces. Canonical depictions of the disease — Angels in AmericaThe Dallas Buyers’ ClubThe Normal Heart — are often set during the era when it afflicted the most, well, white people. AIDS is still a huge threat, but predominantly to populations in developing countries, around which Hollywood — and mainstream art, in general — usually fails to focus. So now, with test-vaccines allegedly forthcoming and the ever-so-expensive, goofily acronym-ed PEP and PrEP already on the market, anxieties around the most threatening STD of the 20th and 21st centuries seem to have dulled among those who make and consume mainstream culture. But while the physical threat has softened, the idea of the STD actually has a new kind of potency: thus the success of the very recent horror film, It Follows, in which sex leads characters to occasionally see a pursuant, shapeshifting ghoulie that’ll eventually kill them, unless they spread the disease to the next unsuspecting one-night-stand.

Maika Monroe as Jay in 'It Follows'
Maika Monroe as Jay in ‘It Follows’

The horror derived from It Follows — an immediately canonized work of STD horror — isn’t one born out of a repressive society, but rather out of a sexually open one. Though life-threatening STDs are becoming an increasingly slighter worry in developed nations, and particularly among the bourgeoisie of those nations, the nonchalance and “sex positivity” with which urban liberals treat contemporary sexuality is evocative of abstract horrors — ghosts, let’s say, of former representations of real STDs. What is really exchanged, and what is really lost on and inside a person when we fuck them without knowing them — without the intention of ever knowing them? Sex is often now predicated on the hot idea that you’ll never have to undergo the grueling journey of understanding someone, of getting mentally inside them — desire for an unknown that will remain unknown is now more fulfillable than ever, but thus, inevitably, is fear and distrust therein.

In Ghosts, the STD is a very real affliction that’s compared to a ghost because of the secret way it travels — in this case down a bloodline — and then appears years later, inducing fear and destroying lives. Now, the most potent STD horror that culture has to offer up is, by contrast, in the form of a ghost that we can only compare to the real, fleshy but (allegedly) historical, threat. All Ghosts‘ syphilitic young protagonist wants throughout the play is to see “the sun.” As he has an attack in its final moments, and as his brain turns “soft” and he’s infantilized on the spot, he can only repeat the words “the sun,” “the sun,” “the sun” — that thing which he’s complained the opacity of his culture has so consistently blocked, that thing that’s led him to where he is. Now, at least among the ever-increasing number of us who are “comfortable” with casual sex, sexual sunlight shines so brightly that the less physical worry has turned into a more abstract one, as seen in It Follows: something more like an actual ghost.