"The Masque of the Red Death" (originally published as "The Mask of the Red Death: A Fantasy") is a short story by the American horror author Edgar Allan Poe. It was first published in the May 1842 edition of Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine.
The story concerns the attempts by a prince and his followers to shield themselves from a terrible plague which is devastating the surrounding area and to carry on living lives of pleasure. Their attempts ultimately prove futile.
The story has been adapted for stage and screen and has frequently been referenced in music and other works of literature.
The Red Death is the name of an infectious disease which cuases people to die within thirty minutes. Those who are infected bleed profusely form their skin, especially their faces, before they die.
Half of Prince Prospero's subjects have died from the disease but the Prince, a man of unusual tastes whom some believe to be mad, is unconcerned. He belives that his home, a former abbey which has been converted into a fortress, will provide him with adequate protection from the plague and he invites a large number of knights and ladies to join him there. After Prince Prospero's guests have arrived, bolts on the abbey's doors are welded shut, making it impossible for anyone to get in or out. There is sufficient food and drink for the Prince's guest and musicians, dancers, actors and clowns to entertain them. For several months, the Prince and the other nobles continue to live happily inside the abbey, while people continue to die from the Red Death outside.
Some six months after the arrival of Prince Prospero's guests, a masked ball is held for them. The ball takes place in a suite of seven rooms, each one of which is primarily decorated and furnished in one color. The first room is blue, the second is purple, the third is green, the fourth is ornage, the fifth is white, the sixth is violet and the seventh is black. Each room has a stained glass window of the same color as its furnishings, except for the black room which has a window of scarlet glass. There are no candles or any lights inside any of the seven rooms, the only light comes from fires in braziers in the hallway. The effect of the firelight coming through the scarlet window into the black room is so frightening that very few of the Prince's guests dare enter it. The black room also contains an ebony clock which makes a strange and frightening sound every time it strikes the hour. Each time that the clock strikes, the musicians stop playing and the guests stop dancing. After it has finished striking, all of those present laugh at themselves for being frightened by a clock. However, they react in the same way again when the next hour strikes.
When the clock strikes midnight, the twelve chimes make everyone pause for a longer time. They suddenly notice someone that they had not seen until that moment. Although many of the guests are wearing costumes which might shock, horrify or disgust many people, everyone is offended by the masked figure which they have just noticed. His mask looks exactly like the face of someone who has died from the Red Death. Prince Prospero orders that the person be unmasked and hanged the following day but the masked figure continues to walk calmly and slowly through the suite of seven rooms. Prince Prospero draws a dagger and chases after him. Arriving in the black room, the Prince grabs the masked figure and immediately falls down dead. The other guest rush towards the figure. They take off his mask but find that there is no face behind it. They realize that they are in the presence of the Red Death itself. All of the guests die, the clock stops and the fires in the braziers go out.
Gaston Leroux's novel The Phantom of the Opera contains a chapter in which the Phantom crashes a masked ball at the Paris Opera House wearing a skull mask and an elaborate red costume with the words "I am the Red Death which passes" embroidered on it in gold. In the 1925 silent film adaptation of the novel, the scene in which the Phantom appears as the Red Death is the only scene which was filmed in Technicolor in an otherwise all black and white movie. The Phantom also appears costumed as the Red Death in the 1986 stage musical The Phantom of the Opera and its 2004 movie adaptation.
The Masque of the Red Death, a horror film based on Poe's story, was released in 1964. The movie was directed by Roger Corman and stars Vincent Price as Prince Prospero. A sub-plot in the movie is based on "Hop-Frog", another short story by Poe.