As a creature, I have a nicely developed fear of death. I don’t like thinking about death at all. Just the sight of a graveyard, or the ‘deaths’ section of the newspaper, or a living creature that will one day die often plunges my brain into jittery superstition. Like most people, I would probably risk my life to avoid thinking about the fact that my life is at risk. But all this careful aversion and ignorance is wasted when in the middle of my escapism in fiction I come face to face with the death of a fictional colleague. And a small helpless boy, and six friends. And my wife, and a country. And seven gazillion aliens.
For some reason people are dying all over the place in fiction. It’s as if nothing really matters enough in a story unless someone is dead over it. Why?
Most people are with me on the avoiding thinking about death front, in real life. We go to all this trouble to euphemise about it. We hire doctors to make and take responsibility for decisions relating to it. We avoid discovering whether we are at risk for it. We hate it when people we know die. We make up ridiculous stories about how nobody actually ever dies, but have just been taken to a new home. When death happens we cover it in a veil of official meaningfulness, and have a big ceremony, hoping to convince ourselves that it is a proper and meaningful symbolic event, not the disgusting and horrifying conversion of a person into a corpse. We much prefer to keep our minds on meaning and legacies than to remember there is a dead body lying around. We avoid actually planning this in advance though, because it doesn’t bear thinking about. And so on.
Yet scrolling through the channels it seems most movies have death as a plot element important enough to mention in the blurb. When a stoic government official in post-war Japan learns he has terminal cancer, he suddenly realizes he’s squandered his life on meaningless red tape…this stunning emotional drama recounts the events surrounding Joan of Arc’s 1431 heresy trial, burning at the stake and subsequent martyrdom…An easily spooked guy, Columbus joins forces with wild man Tallahassee to fight for survival in a world virtually taken over by freakish zombies…
The last book I read where people weren’t dying was Pride and Prejudice, which is kind of far into romance to have to go to avoid this phenomenon. If there are spare characters, they die. If there is a point to be made, it is made with someone’s death. If something is important, someone dies to flag it. Fair enough for war stories and action movies, but why should most stories be permeated with death?
Perhaps in some strange way we love death at the same time as fearing it? Like roller coasters, fear in a safe place might be enjoyable. We certainly pick up newspapers and magazines which boast the lowdown on horrific murders. Or perhaps we don’t especially love it, but are drawn to it in the same way that a herd of antelopes doesn’t love a lion’s roar, but nonetheless finds it engaging beyond anything the hell else they could possibly be thinking about. In the same way that it’s hard to be satisfied with romance as an understated implication after you get used to graphic sex, perhaps it is hard to be engaged by the danger of failing at some small quest after getting viciously murdered becomes commonplace.
For most, the answer must be the first – they just love hearing about death in controlled circumstances. Otherwise the fiction makers would probably clue in to general preferences and tend more toward avoiding death. Some people are more like the antelopes. They don’t hate it enough to just avoid going to the movies or to only read romance novels, but they are uncomfortable. You probably don’t care about them, because they are sissy wimps.
Perhaps in fifty years it will be impossible to give proper significance to anything on the screen unless it involves the ass-raping of small children. Do you hope to remain in the laughing majority then? Appreciating the deep significance of that boy’s assault, or the ironic reference to earlier atrocities, or just hooting at the huge number of rapes the hero conducted in a short time, and how dumb his victims looked? Actually there may even be people already who need a good hard rape scene to get their sexual kicks. Well I think your eagerness to see people’s lives ended is about as offputting.