Katla on death as entertainment

I’m rather busy this week, so here you have a guest post from my mildly irate, judgemental and intellectually careless friend Katla. NB. We are only friends because we grew up in the same town.


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.

17 responses to “Katla on death as entertainment

  1. 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.

    Perhaps the antelope are fascinated by stories about lions, and how to avoid being eaten by them.

  2. …i want you to “pay” me time/money/attention….which works?

    1. “We’re all — mainly YOU — gonna die!!”
    2. Things are just fine and pretty darn ordinary.”


  3. It’s sad how much Katla and I have in common…

    People seem to be drawn towards the ‘horrific’ as long as they don’t feel directly endangered. Maybe it actually makes them feel relatively safe. Or, psychological abnormalities are especially interesting to us because our brains are wired to notice new information and even to seek out novel experiences. Since we realize that death is an important subject, a chance to gather information about this conceivable threat probably appeals to our limbic system, even if it offends our more socially aware frontal lobes.

    Perhaps we are just subconsciously over-valuing potentially useful knowledge.

  4. I find myself avoiding “misery porn” at the theaters — you know, the sadness-soaked, death-centric stuff that tends to be critically acclaimed oscar-bait. Biutiful (which I wrote about here) is a perfect example. A high quality film, no doubt, with a great performance by Bardem. But there is nothing to it except 2.5 hrs of suffering. I feel like something else needs to be served up with that suffering (a lesson? a plot?) in order for my watching it to be worthwhile, otherwise, I might as well just be watching the news.

  5. sleeprunning’s explanation seems adequate to me.

  6. Seems to me that since fictional characters are not real, every point in fiction has to be exaggerated to get across. So: heroes aren’t just a little bit better than everyone else in some little thing, they’re a lot better in everything. Villains aren’t just negligent or amoral individuals, they’re superhuman planners who are out to maliciously ruin everyone’s day just for the hell of it. And tragedies aren’t just things like a traffic accident making you late for your job interview, leaving you on your about-to-run-out unemployment insurance, they involve death.

    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?
    I doubt that there’s an ‘arc’ to this.

    This may be why people are so morbidly fascinated with real-life serial killers.

  7. Love the blog

    Its a quibble, but I think you’re confusing death with violence. Both are sensationalised in popular media, but they are very different. Does someone dying offend you, or them getting gruesomely eviscerated in 3D offendyou?

    Death is absolutely natural and normal, and is not something that should be shunned or discouraged. Indeed, fiction is a good place for people to address their feelings about a difficult, yet universal occurance.

  8. You have someone die early in a film or novel so as to establish your stakes. “Yes,” you are telling the viewer or reader, “people can die in this fictional universe, including the people you will be made to care about. They are playing for life and death here, however calm things may appear on the surface. Read on … ” It doesn’t have to be a major or even minor character that dies. You simply have to demonstrate early on that death happens here.

  9. I can’t see the “arc” here. Death has been popular in fiction at least since the Iliad, and I haven’t seen any upswing in either that or the least bump in the “ass-raping of young children” category.

  10. I don’t have any answer, but I ended up asking myself the same question a few days ago. I like hiking and spend lots of time outdoors. It may involve having fun with friends, sightseeing, asking myself about life or just minding credit card debt for a couple days. A few weeks ago most of my friends watched “127 Hours”. Everybody talked about how great that movie and the story behind was. I wonder why a story that involves that much suffering is “better and far more relevant” than a pleasant one. It almost predicates that important and unforgettable moments in your life are made from pain & suffering memories. What about the weekends where everything is just fine? Not worth enough to remember?

    Indeed, this is not the first time i make this question to myself. When I was a kid I wondered if my life was boring and lacked excitement because all the great adventures happened to kids with divorced parents. That was the lesson “learned” from TV series. Sadly, my parents loved each other a lot.

    So, I agree with Jens. I don’t see the rise in violence in fiction. But the phenomena is there. Maybe some people with a physical and intellectually calm life need their fix of “fiction troubles” to be happy, while some other are aware of real world troubles and are not in the mood for consuming more “suffering material”. But in the end, real or fictitious troubles make us think, feel, enjoy, suffer……….whatever that takes boredom out of everyday life.

  11. I assumed that the prevalence of death in art was more about exploring the contingency of human life—and thus the fountainhead of morality—in a way that emphasizes the emotions and doesn’t force me to do the things that the character does or experiences in order to get there.

  12. 2 separate answers:

    1. “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?”

    Because most writers don’t have anything interesting to write about. Having a character die is on the same level of cheating, as a writer, as writing genre fiction (“I’ve got nothing to say, so here are dragons / spaceships / vampires!”)

    2. This is not particular to death. It’s part of the larger question: Why do we enjoy the types of stories that we do? Every storyteller knows that a story has to have conflict, tension, and bad things happening to people whom we like. Why don’t we like stories where nice things happen to nice people? I don’t know.

    • I should have said, generic genre fiction. Most science fiction, and much of other genre fiction, has ideas, often ideas that can be presented only in genre fiction.

      (Although an equally large proportion of fantasy and science fiction is a different kind of cheating: Building an artificial world as an argument for a social system that couldn’t exist in the real world.)

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  14. You begin by saying that you have a well-developed fear of death, and this is why you dislike seeing it in fiction. Suppose that fear itself were important for compelling fiction: after all, how can there be exctiement where there’s no fear? Not for any good or satisfying reason. If fear is needed to give the hero’s predicament bite, then you will have a similar complaint regardless of what delivery mechanism is used; death is merely a particularly effective one.

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