The first episode of CBS All Access’ limited series based on Stephen King’s novel “The Stand” premiered Thursday, and it couldn’t have come at a more apt time. The series follows a group of survivors after a superflu knocks out 99% of the world’s population, and it hits close to home as we face the very real, though not as fatal, coronavirus pandemic.
But the superflu in “The Stand” is known by a more casual, less scientific name: “Captain Trips.” If you’re wondering where that term came from and what it means, you’ve come to the right place.
The meaning and origin behind the phrase “Captain Trips” is never directly explained in King’s book. (It should be noted that the original version of “The Stand” was published in 1978, but King released a longer, updated version in 1990 that restored sections that had been cut from the original novel. The 1990 edition is the reference point for the series’ story).
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“Captain Trips” does, however, appear in the book as a colloquial phrase used by young people to identify the virus. The virus was initially created by a military biological weapons lab under the codename “Project Blue,” and is also referred to in a more scientific context as “Blue virus,” “848-AB,” “A-prime” and “A6.” Other colloquialisms used to identify the respiratory illness in the book include “the rales,” “choking sickness,” “tube neck” and simply, “the superflu.”
King has never directly spelled out the origin of “Captain Trips.” It also wasn’t explained in his original 1969 short story “Night Surf” that spawned the book, nor in the 1978 version of “The Stand” novel, in the 1994 television miniseries or in the “Captain Trips” comic book. The phrase is mentioned in the first episode of the CBS All Access limited series, but not explained.
According to some online sci-fi fan forums, the best explanation of where the phrase comes from is that it originated with the late Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, who was nicknamed “Captain Trips” because he was known for spiking people’s drinks with hallucinogenic drugs like LSD. The nickname has also been used to describe Alfred Matthew Hubbard, a pioneer of LSD in the 1950s who was dubbed “The Original Captain Trips.”
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Without an explanation from King himself, the most likely answer is that young people in the book began referring to the disease as “Captain Trips” because its symptoms can make a person delirious, resembling a drug-induced hangover. Another theory laid out in an archived Stephen King Reddit thread surmised, “I always thought it was because of the army = weaponised [sic] flu connection, captain trips and drops a jar of plague.”
Perhaps “The Stand” will eventually solve the “Captain Trips” mystery for us — keep watching to find out.
Episode 1 of “The Stand” is now streaming on CBS All Access.