Late last July, mindless social media scrolling led me to an ad for something called the Mysterious Doctor Plague. This turned out to be a plush toy of—you guessed it—an old-timey plague doctor, complete with a beak-nosed mask and a glow-in-the-dark lantern (the better to visit plague patients at night, presumably). I couldn’t decide whether I was repulsed by it or wanted to hug its rotund little body, a dilemma I resolved by tweeting out a screenshot of the ad along with the text “I mean …. I don’t NOT want this.” The response was overwhelming—hundreds of people replying that that they either loved it and had already purchased one or planned on getting one. Impulsively, I ordered one for myself.
In a weird year, a plush plague doctor seemed like a fittingly weird phenomenon. But, still, I was curious about why people were so drawn to this toy. I knew my own desire was rooted in my interest in medical history and the fact that the Mysterious Doctor Plague seemed to sit at a satisfying intersection of macabre, cute, and kind of funny, but I thought there must be more to it than that. In a different time, I would probably have laughed at the ad and kept scrolling, but the pandemic had made me—and a lot of other people—reevaluate my relationship with mortality. Was it possible that my fascination spoke to something deeper, some need to connect to the reality of death while also keeping it at a safe (and adorable) remove?
If you knew exactly what I meant by “a beak-nosed mask,” that’s because the words plague doctor conjure up an immediate mental image for most people, namely a man in a wide-brimmed black hat, a long black robe, and a birdlike mask. Ask the average person about whom they’re picturing and they might tell you that he’s “medieval” or related to “the Black Death,” although he’s actually neither. At the very least, most people will agree that he’s representative of a dim and frightening period in medicine. These mistaken beliefs are often amplified by the media, like when a Netflix Twitter account recently included a plague doctor entry in its list of “real-life horrors from the world of Medieval medicine.” But, in spite of—or maybe because of—these common misconceptions, this bird-faced bringer of death looms large in our cultural imagination.
The plague doctor outfit as we know it was invented in the seventeenth century by Charles de Lorme, a man that early modern historian Estelle Paranque describes in an article for Art UK as being “a talented physician who treated thousands of people during the reigns of three different French kings.” This means that de Lorme’s sartorial creation was a few centuries too late to be medieval, and while it was indeed designed for doctors caring for patients with the bubonic plague, “the Black Death” refers specifically to the pandemic that occurred in the mid-fourteenth century. But was the outfit really as crude as modern popular conception makes it out to be?
In fact, de Lorme’s creation is somewhat comparable to modern personal protective equipment. Although the conception of germ theory was still a few centuries away—the outfit was designed to protect against disease-causing “miasmas” (basically, bad air) instead of bacteria or viruses—many of the doctor’s ideas about how to prevent transmission would be familiar to us. The coat and gloves were made of waxed leather or canvas, giving decent protection to the doctor’s skin. The mask (often a balaclava-like garment that could be pulled over the head) covered both the mouth and nose and had goggle-like glass coverings for the eyes. The ensemble included a long cane used to examine patients so that the doctor could limit contact as much as possible. But, even with all these similarities to, say, a twenty-first century hazmat suit, there are elements of design that are at odds with modern scientific beliefs: for example, that beak-shaped mask, which, Paranque wrote in an email, “was due to the fact that they put in it lots of different ointments and spices in order to mask the bad odours of the patients affected by the plague. So obviously, on that front it is quite different from the masks we are wearing to make sure COVID doesn’t spread.”
Although the de Lorme outfit was used during a specific time and place—mostly France and Italy during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—in some ways, it’s become a more gruesome stand-in for the Grim Reaper, one associated specifically with outbreaks of deadly diseases. This is probably both because of the way the outfit—and the mask in particular—adds a grotesque, dehumanizing effect to the doctor’s appearance and because those wearing it were often literal harbingers of death. “When at the time people saw a doctor with the costume,” wrote Paranque, “they knew that someone was suffering from the plague and therefore that they might not survive, so ultimately the costume is linked to death and this is why it still intrigues and is remembered in our popular culture today.”
Listen to an audio version of this story
For more audio from The Walrus, subscribe to AMI-audio podcasts on iTunes.
All of that is true, yet something about the Mysterious Doctor Plague made me want to hug it, and based on my social media feeds, I know I wasn’t the only one who had succumbed to its charms. After admitting to myself that I wanted one, my main misgiving was that the producers of the toy, a US-based company called Squishable, might be trying to profit off of the mounting COVID-19 death toll. I was reassured when I checked Squishable’s website and read that they had originally designed it for Halloween 2020; at least it wasn’t intended to be a pandemic-specific product. But, until I spoke to Squishable cofounder Zoe Fraade-Blanar, I had no clue how important this fluffy little plague doctor has been for the company.
Squishable was launched in 2007, and it soon gained an online fan base for its quirky plush toys. Customers began offering their own suggestions for new designs, and Squishable responded by hosting a contest. Fraade-Blanar says the current inventory is about a quarter fan-made designs, and some of them can get pretty weird: a plush Cthulhu, a smiling slice of avocado toast, a corgi dressed as a football. Squishable typically releases a few hundred designs a year in small, limited-edition runs—though, if something proves to be popular, it will be restocked. In the case of the Mysterious Doctor Plague, it has already been restocked several times.
The plague doctor plush toy wasn’t a fan-made design, though—it came from a member of Squishable’s team, all of whom have backgrounds in illustration. The doctor was created in fall 2019, along with a few other spooky designs meant to debut in time for Halloween the following year, and after the designs were submitted to the factory that makes the products, everyone sort of forgot about it. Then, in the middle of the first wave of COVID-19, last spring, the company received the Mysterious Doctor Plague prototypes a few months earlier than expected. Squishable employees wondered if the toy would seem in bad taste given the current state of the world, so they did what they usually do when they’re not sure about something: they posted about it on their social media pages. The response was overwhelmingly positive—so much so that, when they first launched preorders, the traffic crashed their website. By the end of last year, Mysterious Doctor Plague products wound up accounting for 32 percent of their annual web sales, which had increased overall by 200 percent from the year before.
“Dark humour” is Fraade-Blanar’s theory on why the toy has been so popular. The company is based in New York, which was one of the first places in the US to be hard hit by COVID-19. “There were sirens every night. I had friends and coworkers who got sick. The Mysterious Doctor Plague helped us laugh at the situation and laugh at ourselves. Sometimes, these cute mascots help us humanize serious concepts or soften scary things.”
The Mysterious Doctor Plague isn’t the only illness-related toy flying off the (virtual) shelves during the pandemic. A company called GiantMicrobes, which makes cutesy versions of bacteria, viruses, and other medical-related things, came out with a plush COVID-19 virus. So far, nearly 200 people have left reviews on its website explaining why they bought one and what they love about it. Some are health care providers, some had bought the toy for coronavirus survivors, and some are apparently just microbe enthusiasts, but many describe finding comfort in seeing the virus rendered harmless and cuddly.
Susan Cadell, a social work professor at the University of Waterloo’s Renison University College who specializes in grief literacy, agrees that part of the appeal of the Mysterious Doctor Plague is probably tied to a desire to tame our fear of death. She also wonders if the fact that de Lorme’s plague doctor is both so distant from our present-day experiences yet at the same time relatable somehow aids in processing some of our feelings.
“Talking about death and grief is so taboo,” says Cadell. “There are obviously more of these conversations happening during the pandemic, and I’m curious if things like [the Mysterious Doctor Plague] are helpful. It might also feel emblematic of how much our knowledge has advanced, especially when it comes to medical science, so that might be comforting.”
From a more zoomed-out perspective, the image of a cutesy plague doctor may be part of a larger trend to combine dark, sometimes frightening imagery with adorable elements. In Japan, this style is known as kimo-kawaii, which is usually translated as “creepy-cute” or “gross-cute” and is seen as a subversive pushback against the adorable Hello Kitty–type characters that have been so popular in Japanese culture for so long. As Patrick St-Michel wrote for The Atlantic in 2014, the spirit of kimo-kawaii isn’t meant to be raunchy or vile but instead to “offer an alternative to the traditionally child-like definition of ‘cute.’” Looked at through that lens, many Squishable toys (and other similar products) fit somewhere in that tradition.
There is certainly something tantalizing about the push-pull feelings created by something weird or frightening made cute. It erodes the boundary between what we think we want and don’t want, what we like and don’t like. I think those feelings—along with the dizzying sense that maybe I didn’t really know myself as well as I thought I did—were ultimately what intrigued me the most about the Mysterious Doctor Plague. The toy is a reminder that pandemics do, eventually, end. Eventually, they grow so distant in the rear-view mirror that even the hallmarks of their horror can become comforting. It’s proof that even the grotesque can be sweet, a sort of jaunty spirit to guide me through these dark times. Plus, he really is so huggably soft.