Monthly Archives: March 2018

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

Dying in the Age of Social Media

Death is typically a private affair, with those in the US even making a private industry regarding the process of dying. People who are experiencing long and drawn out deaths are often hospitalized or placed into hospice care or into a nursing home. Death is distant for those who are alive, with the dying being handled by professionals. This is the way things have been in modern history in Western society. However, this may be changing. Recently, social media has become more popular than ever, with millions using sites such as Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Youtube. This has created public connections in areas that have always been respected as private, such as death and dying.

The surge of social media usage has not escaped those who find themselves in the process of dying. In fact, some of these people have capitalized on this market and have shared their stories and experiences in a non clinical setting. This has allowed a community to develop within the internet of those who can understand and empathize one another’s experiences. Having someone to talk to who is going through the same thing is perhaps easing the way for individuals who find themselves dying.

This phenomenon has also provided a surge in autopathography, or ill people who are writing their autobiographies, including their documentation of illnesses. The openness of these people who are dying is providing physicians and therapists with valuable information regarding their thoughts and feelings during their last days. While people may be reluctant to share their deepest thoughts with medical professionals, they often find it much easier to share with strangers who know what they’re going through. This can assist these professionals in treating the dying in all aspects of their lives, not just the purely physical symptoms.

The use of social media in death is also allowing families and friends more time and ways to grieve. As their loved ones are immortalized with profiles, blogs, pictures, and videos, they can revisit these things at their leisure and take comfort in knowing that they’re always there. Similarly, it provides distance, because while mementos kept in a home are constant visible reminders of what they’ve lost, having the ability to look at social media kept by loved ones after they’ve past requires the effort and the conscious decision to look at it.

However, this publicization of death has come with a drawback in that the dying are focusing more on publishing their experiences. This has raised concerns that they are possibly withdrawing from friends and family, in favor of virtual friends and robbing the family of the chance to say goodbye. While this is certainly a possibility, after all, death is about the living, not the dead, I think it is selfish to deprive people from access to those who understand the intimate details of their illness. If death is about those left behind, then the least we can do is make dying about those who are actually dying.

Waiting to Die

There is an episode of Grey’s Anatomy where Dr. Meredith Grey has a patient have a close call with death. Yet when she delivers the happy news that her patient has survived to the family, she is met with groans and disappointment. When I first watched this episode, I remember being appalled. How could beating death not bring about anything but celebration?

But after re-watching that episode, I realized that the family had every right to be disappointed. The woman had been fighting an illness and had previously had many ‘close calls’ with death, which left her exhausted and drained. She wanted to die and her family wanted to let her go, but medicine kept bringing her back. My question changed when re-watching this episode, and I wondered: when does our fear of dying become less of a fear and more of something to look forward to? And is having nine lives worse than having just one?

Looking forward to death is not just a plot twist in a TV show or something new for patients being sustained solely by medical advancements. Traumatizing injuries such as paralysis from the neck down or illnesses that deteriorate a person’s body such as ALS have lead to excruciating mental and physical pain for many patients. Yet medical advancements have allowed for patients conditions such as these to live on, with severe side effects such as suffering and keeping the person ‘trapped’ inside of their failing body.  This balance between medical advancements and patient comfort has initiated a discussion on assisted suicide, bringing up the debate of if patients have the right to die.

The argument for allowing a patient to die, or giving their physician the right to assist them if they are physically unable to, is one that focuses on giving patients the right to die with dignity. Being brought back to life multiple times by having ‘nine lives’, having drug after drug pumped into your system or feeling your  body deteriorate while still mentally cognizant of it is a terrible fate. These treatments can turn the will to live into a preference to die, showing that saving body at all costs does not solve everything. It is necessary to let patients have the option to die because it gives them the option of quality of live over quantity of life.

Although some argue that letting a patient die by their own choice, or assisting in their suicide, is against the Hippocratic Oath of “do no harm”, I believe it is the opposite. Allowing or helping a patient die when there is no hope of getting better is a way of reducing pain and suffering.  Once a patient has been labeled as having no hope for recovery or given a warning that they will die in however many months, I believe that the patient should have every right to organize their death on their own timetable.

From Heathers to 13 Reasons Why: Romanticizing Suicide

The 1998 film Heathers follows the life of Veronica Sawyer, the witty and contemplative protagonist who is disillusioned with the shallowness of high school and her ultra-popular, conventionally beautiful, and wealthy friends: the “Heathers.” The film became a cult classic for its use of sardonic, dark humor to illuminate issues of teen-bullying, sexual violence, and apathy.  Heathers was certainly subversive for its time, but concerningly enough, still provides relevant commentary on society today, particularly with media portrayal of suicide.

In the movie, following the “suicides” of several students in the school, Ms. Fleming, the school’s guidance counselor, gathers the student body in an assembly to publically mourn and express their feelings while local news reporters broadcast the event.  It’s a thinly veiled exploitation of the emotional vulnerability of the students and of the tragedy itself, and Veronica doesn’t hold back on pointing it out:

“These little programs are eating up suicide up with a spoon.  They’re making it sound like it’s a cool thing to do!”

Twenty years later, it seems that Veronica’s important criticism has still fallen on deaf ears: mental illness and suicide continues to be romanticized in the media.  One such example is Netflix’s show Thirteen Reasons Why, which, as the title states, details the protagonist’s “reasons why” she committed suicide through a series of tapes she recorded before ending her life.  The show has been criticized in many aspects: it overlooks the sensitive nuances of mental health and simplifies Hannah’s suicide as a consequence of the actions of 13 people.  It fails to show viewers that therapy and/or medication can be extremely helpful and successful.  Most disturbingly, it shows the graphic scene of Hannah killing herself.  The viewer see everything: the cuts she makes, the agony she is in, and the blood.  Lots of blood.

Because it is well known that media portrayal of suicide has a strong influence in the public psyche, details guidelines on how to carefully discuss suicide.  It is emphasized to not describe the suicide method and to not glamorize the suicide, both of which 13 Reasons Why blatantly does.  Some have gone as far to say that 13 Reasons is a “suicide revenge fantasy,” in which Hannah gets to live on through her tapes and make her tormenters fully face the guilt and consequences of their actions.  What the show doesn’t show: weeks or months later, when the school moves on and forgets, and Hannah is still gone.  The devastating consequences it will have on her family and close friends for years and years.  The alternative life where she received proper professional help and slowly moved past feeling defined by her trauma.

Does this mean that we should completely refrain from discussing suicide?  Certainly not – Selena Gomez, co-producer of 13 Reasons, may have had the right intentions with raising awareness about suicide and mental health, but failing to consult mental health professionals resulted in a dangerous show that is far from a model of how to thoughtfully address mental health.  With that said, shows like Crazy Ex Girlfriend and Bojack Horseman are breaking ground with much more nuanced and honest depictions of mental illness; Crazy Ex Girlfriend displays therapy in a positive light while also exploring the mundane and difficult work that comes with addressing mental illness (and also handles a suicide attempt in a very non-sensationalized manner).  Bojack Horseman doesn’t shy away from the ugliness that wraps around the protagonist’s depression, self-loathing, and self-destructive decisions, while still portraying him as a painfully sympathetic character.  While these shows are certainly not perfect (and sometimes walk a fine line between provocative and problematic), I hope that future producers and directors look to them, and not shows like 13 Reasons, when tackling mental health and suicide in TV and film.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

Emory Resources:

Student Counseling Center (mental health concerns): 404-727-7450

Respect Program Hotline (24/7 sexual/interpersonal violence support): 470-270-5360