How Do We View Death in Fiction?

The question of how death is handled and viewed in the horror industry popped into my head earlier this week as I eagerly awaited the release of The Strangers: Prey at Night (a sequel to one of my favorite scary movies). As a horror buff, I’ve read many articles detailing theories on why we enjoy horror movies (see reference below for a decent summary), but no one seems to really delve into how the deaths themselves are viewed in horror, or in fiction as a whole.

Why are we okay with reading a 500-page book or sitting through a 2-hour movie, bonding with and exploring various characters — only to have them killed off at some point. I realize it’s hard to equate fiction and reality, but it’s interesting to me that we can separate them so easily with something so universal and personal as death. Fiction can evoke emotion or instill ideas into consumers, so I believe it important to compare and contrast death in fiction and death in reality.

Separating Fiction and Reality

Most horror fans are aware (either consciously or unconsciously) of the “fakeness” in film. This is most apparent in campy B-movies such as Thankskilling, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, or Stippers vs Werewolves. These movies either have outlandish themes or poor production values such that we can easily say to ourselves, “This is a movie.” Other horror movies accomplish this awareness by having supernatural or comical overtones (see Rosemary’s Baby and Scream, respectively).

However, some movies, such as The Strangers, lack anything major that’s outside of reality. It features a relatively realistic set of characters, plot, and setting and has a paranoia-inducing ending. When I left the theater, I was scared by the realness of it, but even then, I can’t say I felt anything about the character’s deaths nearing how I feel when I hear of a death on the news or such. This isn’t a unique sentiment to scary movies. Non-horror movies such as Me Before You, A Fault In Our Stars, and Les Misérables are all seen as super-sad, relatively realistic, and dealing with death. Many people (myself included) bawled my eyes out during these movies, but I don’t think many could say they “grieve” the characters.

Where’s the Dividing Line?

I mourn the losses in the Parkland shooting, but I can’t say I sobbed upon hearing the news that day. Conversely, I cried in the the theater for fictional deaths, but I can’t say I mourn(ed) them. How can we be moved by fiction without further grief; why does the world grieve over complete strangers? I know some things that don’t always play into the second question — time (be it in the past or the present) and proximity (be it local or international). So what factors truly play in?

As discussed in the article below, there has been research done that compared disturbing documentaries dealing with death and horror movies. The results are surprising to me. Many people couldn’t handle the documentaries but could easily swallow the horror movies. I would be very interested to see the results in a study exposing people to a documentary played off as a movie or a movie produced as a documentary. Do people’s reactions change based only on the idea that something is real or not? Is the primary factor that creates the distinction between a “real” death and a “fictional” death the knowledge of which is which?

Reference article that sums up most of the theories regarding attraction to horror (I disagree with some claims made, but it’s the best summary I found):

The Psychology of Scary Movies

2 responses to “How Do We View Death in Fiction?

  1. Kike Afolabi-Brown

    Hi Jared! I really enjoyed reading your post! Immediately when I started reading this I thought of Game of Thrones. I low-key LIVE for the gory scenes and brutal violence in the show. This is partly because I’m fascinated by the incredible cinematography and attention to detail in the show but also how death and violence adds so much to it. But you’re right. Once death is no longer fiction, it strikes a totally different chord: one of empathy of course, but for me not necessarily grief or mourning. I’m never extremely invested in shows to experience grief but definitely a level of shock and disappointment? I do love though that you made the distinction between grief and mourning as it pertains to fiction and reality. It’s something I’ve never recognized before.

  2. Chelsea Leversedge

    Hi Jared, thanks for sharing your ideas on how we view death in fiction. At first I disagreed with your post because I myself have cried over the deaths of many characters too many times. But then I realized that although I was sad, the characters’ deaths did not have me grieving for days.
    So after reading your post, I was prompted to do a bit of research on my own and I was surprised by the culture surround TV deaths. Just in 2015-2016, there were 242 characters killed off, according to a Vox article (Zarracina, 2016). This high number of deaths could potentially add to the lack of grief from viewers as high numbers of deaths could lead us to be desensitized from death on the screen or in a book, as many of us walk into a horror movie or chic flick preparing ourselves for death.
    This topic also relates to the current discussion about children seeing violence on TV, in video games, and in day to day contexts. Who knows how finding a gory death ‘normal’ in Game of Thrones or watching doctors die left and right in Grey’s Anatomy could change how we (and children) react to death in real life in the future.

    Zarracina, J. (2016). TV is killing off so many of its characters that death is losing its punch. [online] Vox. Available at: https://www.vox.com/2016/6/1/11669730/tv-deaths-character-best

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