On Death

Humans hate death. We are made immediately uncomfortable upon its mentioning, even in the first sentence of a blog post. We dread constantly that death might come knocking, and when it does knock, we often do not know how to react. Not very much in our lives is actually terminal. Graduating from (anywhere) is merely the beginning of the next adventure. Being fired from a good job- or geographically moving and uprooting all proximate connections- or experiencing a destructive natural disaster- is again, a neatly disguised opportunity. With every door that closes, another opens.

But death opens no doors. Death is actually terminal. Eternally terminal. We have very little in our own lives with which death can compare. Not very much in our lives is actually eternal— perhaps comprable to painting pictures of distant galaxies in remote corners of the universe or projecting wildly into the unimaginable path of the future– It is this unattainability that lends death its widespread fear, but also its allure.

We have a cultural fascination with death. This same institution that I have just described as so unnerving and unquestionable is featured in all types of media, all of the time. Hundreds of songs, movies, youtube videos, works of literature, TV shows and books prominently feature death. It is a common thematic idea present in an incredible array of media sources. However, this may be largely as a result of the grieving artists and musicians expressing the intense emotions that death so viscerally evokes. Death is a relatively common phenomenon- just a bit less common than birth. Thousands of songs and books and poems have thus been written on the subject, often initially as a venue for the grieving to express. This, then, is not the cultural fascination that is so fascinating, so I should say, rather—

We have a cultural fascination with crass, bloody, savage representations of death. We societally enjoy watching death up close and gruesome. Did you notice the incredible recent proliferation of vampire and werewolf books/TV-shows/movies? How about the literary trend best exemplified by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? The entire movie genre “horror” is essentially founded in the twisted manipulation of death and dead people. Frankly, I love horror movies. They’re fun and scary and get my blood pumping. Do I enjoy watching deaths on screen? I don’t know. Not particularly—as in, I don’t eagerly anticipate that scene in (spoiler alert) the Dead Poet’s Society and A Separate Peace where Neil and Finny die- but I totally get pumped to watch Achilles fight Hector or any scene in Lord of the Rings, and the fact that this site exists makes me think that we do often enjoy watching death. Why?

One important distinction should made clear: we do not enjoy seeing death. Most people cringe when they drive over chipmunks or witness a hawk tearing at a bloody squirrel carcass. Imagine seeing one man beat another man to death with a metal pipe, as you might have before in a movie. This is clearly a revolting thought. Yet, for such a disturbing image, death often blatantly permeates movies, TV shows, and other media sources. Interestingly, in comparison with other countries, death is often considered taboo in America. How can this make sense?

I (in particular) see death almost daily. I had this realization when I first started keeping praying mantids. Where else do you see death? Most people do not see death daily, or even monthly, though those who participate in hunting sports, soldiery, or other select professions may see death occasionally more often then laymen. However, I regularly see (and am endlessly fascinated by seeing) the life drain agonizingly from a cricket as it is devoured headfirst by a mantis. To anthropomorphize, the crickets are clearly in agonizing pain as their eyeballs are slowly consumed. Even so, I still get excited and gather people around and take pictures every time I feed the mantis. Why does death have such black allure?

I think the root of the allure of death comes from primal curiosity. We naturally are inclined to desire knowledge where we have none. However, as I previously discussed, death cannot be compared to any other aspect of our lives. I would describe death as cognitively unattainable, as we have no natural framework through which to understand its function and purpose. Natural framework lacking, we invented religion. How does religion deal with death? In addition to providing community, support, and guidance, religion elevates death, as best demonstrated by the concepts of heaven, or an afterlife. For thousands of years, humans would see death, hear religious doctrine, and feel comforted by having a framework through which to understand death.

Today, many people do not feel comforted by religion, and thus this answer of blind faith does not satisfy their curiosity. And so we search death out in order to study it, to do our own observation and assessment. I think much of our search is subconscious, as demonstrated by my lasting fascination with mantis eating habits, my proclivity towards enjoying fight scenes and horror films, and all societal extrapolations of these deathly trends. Markets reflect demand. Arguably all humans conduct their own familiarization with death, whether it be through writing, fighting, playing violent videogames, hunting deer, or cooking lobster.

Death sells. This much is evident from the success of all vampire-related drama (Read: crap). However while our fascination with death drives the market and provided the initial impetus, I think we are also informed by our environment to a great extent. The theory of engineered consent (which I wrote about here) says that statistics and strategic marketing can inform an audience into creating a niche market. Teens are shown images of scalding hot vampiric actors, and coincidentally, sales of most death-obsessed media forms skyrocket. The concept of a “scary movie” has been around since film was invented, but why is this attractive in the first place?

We are taught to confront our fears. Our parents tell us that we can either spend our whole lives dreading something, or we can face it, deal with it, and get over it. We spend our whole lives dreading death, and yet the way this manifests is as a tendency to want to watch it, as if to get familiar or comfortable with it. We all want to be able to say “I’m comfortable with death,” so as to appear invulnerable. I have heard some of my friends who “watch a lot of horror movies” and regularly play violent videogames say that they feel “comfortable” or “numb” to death from media exposure. I would here like to interject my own observation on death: I, too, have watched many horror movies and played violent videogames for fun— I even see death on an intimate level on a daily basis— and I am absolutely and abhorrently uncomfortable with death.

We fetishize death because we are searching for familiarity, comfort, or some understanding of death from media, almost replacing religion in effect. It is ubiquitous and inevitable, as we all share a primal curiosity towards that which we do not understand. We hate thinking about death. It is unnerving, because it can and will happen to all of us. It may be the most certain aspect of each of our lives. Not everyone will go to college or get married or write a book or even try Chinese food- but someday, we will all die. At a most basal level, our mortality connects all humans in collective anticipation.

Do what feels right for you. Watch horror movies. Read Twilight. Get cozy with vampires, and think about how death serves best to put life in perspective for you. When confronted by death, do what feels natural. Watch some crickets get eaten on youtube. Eat some crickets yourself, or feed them to your younger brother or something. While it is important to recognize why and how we feel about death, I do not mean to cast judgement upon any death-related media (with the exception of vampire-related-literature (Read: crap). To each their own.

TL;DR: Death is universally frightening to humans, and has thus historically manifested as an attachment to religion, and in modernity, appears as a societal obsession with death related media.

Please feel free to comment, subscribe, and answer any of the unintentionally rhetorical questions I asked above. 

6 thoughts on “On Death

  1. Death the unknowable. Science, religion, philosophy, art, drugs, sex, love – all of these things are in different ways expressing an impulse to grasp that which is beyond us – sublime, transcendental, eternal. Ultimately every expression of “being human” (as we are often seen as the only animals perpetually aware of and obsessed with our own mortality) bucks impotent against the certainty of death; our own insignificance in the vastness of everything – universal Oneness – that refuses to be understood, to be rationalized, or to disappear. In the face of death we walk a tantalizing razor’s edge between fascination and horror. As you said, there is nothing else in this world that is absolute.

  2. I fear death most next to blood and heights and it’s something I’ve been trying to get over for a long time. I used to stay up all night, anxious with the thought that one day I will die. It’s strange to ponder. As kids, death was always just the thing at the end of the movie that happened to the bad guy. Then you understand what it actually is. The only thing I can hope for is that I will no longer be afraid when it does eventually come knocking. Brilliant post my friend.

    • There certainly is a disparity between how death exists in movies and comics and media, and what happens when you or someone in your life dies. I do think you and I will always be afraid of it, but perhaps we can learn to accept fear as something natural and thus acceptable. Thanks for reading!

  3. So many things happen in this world that we cannot explain. From coincidences, to karma, from miracles to tragedies. We all for answers to them because everyone has a fear more universal than death: the unknown. The unknown is un-quantifiable, we do not know how far it reaches, and it seems all encompassing. We turn to things like religion, for example, for answers to the things we do not know. We do everything in our power to believe in things, so that the unknown seems a part of a plan. But the harsh reality is, there is no plan. There really is no rhyme or reason to a lot of things that happen in the world. And Death is the thing that is the most unknown. That is why it is taboo, and we search for reasons to explain it but we cannot.

    I like to think of death like Shakespeare thought of it in Hamlet, as the great equalizer, which focuses me on things that I can explain in my life. Because focusing on the unexplainable can only lead to believing things that cannot be proven true.

    Thanks Alex, for helping me think about something that is very hard to think about.

    • The unknown is an excellent umbrella theme for this concept of familiarizing with the unfamiliar. If to personify death, we are more xenophobic than Americans after 9/11, and instead of having a government to yell at and multiple countries full of people to demonize, we are stuck conspicuously with nothing. No answers, nothing really to get angry at, no routes for release- after all of this discussion, Shakespeare’s got the right idea. I’ll stick to the explicable.

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