Blood Test

A Halloween showcase for the new PBS.

Dr. Steven O’Brien unlocks the mystery of the black death

Mystery of the Black Death opens with a sinister montage, focusing first on the livid face of a dying woman, her lips ripped open, wailing in pain. Dry ice then engulfs three wooden crosses. A rat twitches on moonlit cobblestones. An evil scientist, blue like a drowned man, glares at an obscure pipette, while around him swirl corroded skulls, dead flowers, worms, brooms, horsemen in hoods. At last a typeface glimmers, trembling and hallucinogenic: “Secrets of the Dead.” Made possible by viewers like you. Viewers like you. It’s Halloween on PBS.

On Wednesday night, our nation’s network premiered Mystery of the Black Death—an eerie story with some equally haunting politics—as part of its “Secrets of the Dead” series. The series is PBS’s polished answer to cable’s many slasher, Ripley-like documentaries. This episode treats a fascinating subject, with decent scare potential: the strange Europeans who, against all odds, did not contract the bubonic plague in its final phase, in the 17th century, and whose descendants, possibly, may be similarly immune to AIDS.

Liev Schreiber narrates, taking his job seriously. “The disease called the Black Death swept through Europe.Contact with the deadly plague meant almost certain death.”

He pauses. “Or so it was always believed.

What’s cool about PBS’s premise is that it inverts the usual or-so-it-was-always-believed scenario, turning our attention from despair to progress. Usually, on a show like this, the news that beats common wisdom is bad: What looked like a natural death was really foul play; a blooming garden concealed a secret cache of bodies. But in the case of the plague we already know the bad news: the 25 million Europeans who died in agony, the pathogen that did them in. Mystery of the Black Death puts the viewer on a quest to find the people who didn’t die. First it turns up records of those who lived through the infestation of an English village, and second it puts on camera their warm-blooded descendants.

The plague bacteria is believed to have entered Eyam, England, a laughably quaint hill-town in the north, on a blanket shipped from sick old Europe, where the plague began centuries earlier in a Sicilian port. The man who got the blanket noticed dots on his wrist, and soon he was dead. Soon the dread death doctor—the one with the beaklike mask filled with herbs and spices to protect himself from the airborne disease—was making house calls in Eyam, and finally the whole town was quarantined. Left to themselves, the Eyamers died. Or some of them died.

But 433—that’s half of Eyam—lived, even though they’d been trapped with the plague people! Researchers and historians began to wonder whether Eyam ever got the plague at all. Maybe it was livestock anthrax. But no: There was no telltale livestock die-off; records show that the farmers’ pig and cattle holdings were intact into the late 1660s and beyond. Thus, it was deduced, the black death had hit Eyam, and 433 miracle people had endured it. Hancocks, Furnesses, Blackwells, and more: These stalwart families lived on, and on, so that people with those names still populate Eyam. And when Steven O’Brien, a geneticist from the National Institutes of Health, swept into town to swab the inside of the descendants’ cheeks, many of them gave up cells fairly bursting with a special anti-plague gene, delta 32. It turns out the plague can’t touch them, just as it didn’t touch their foremothers and -­fathers.

Stateside, Steve Crohn, an admittedly promiscuous New Yorker who lost 70 friends to AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s, had been puzzling over his own good health. In 1996, a virologist pounded a Crohn blood sample with HIV—nothing. More recently, Crohn too got swabbed at O’Brien’s behest, and, lo, delta 32 showed up. “It’s not just dumb luck,” a scientist says. Crohn has the right stuff.

The show doesn’t connect the dots. (Was Crohn a Furness? Was his family even from Western Europe?) The Crohn discovery, does, however, make the show’s implications plain. And they’re a little bit unsavory, at least in old PBS terms.

The first hint comes in the interviews with the Eyam descendants and with Crohn. They all have glints in their eyes when acknowledging their magic delta 32, their death-defying endowment. And why shouldn’t they be pleased? The plague and HIV bounce off their white blood cells. They’re superhuman.

Mystery of the Black Death is a well-written, provocative, inventive show, appropriate to the holiday season. But it also reveals PBS’s tentative new ideology. In O’Brian’s words, “Poverty, bad hygiene, and overcrowding were irrelevant” to the spread of the plague. Instead, “there was something biologically different about those who survived.” What mattered, then, was something like grace: a God-given treasure that some have and some chumps lack. Genetic inferiority, and not social oppression, is what costs you your life. And with that, PBS backs off its famous social-conditioning bias and heads straight into superman science.

These kind of politics— the let’s-be-real concept that some people are just better— has its own exalted history, and it has certainly opened new doors for PBS. Who knows where it will go from here? All we know now is that this show isn’t just a Halloween anomaly. PBS has officially taken on the subjects that, until recently, were the province of the right-wing History Channel. Next up on “Secrets of the Dead”? Secrets of the Titanic, ancient Rome, the South Pole, and the Nazis—the full complement of topics that let talking heads expound on the streak of evil in human history, and how little the activists of the ‘60s and ‘70s (the PBS crowd, say) did to temper it.