OCTOBER 31, 2017
DINA KHAPAEVA has written a wonderfully interesting book about a subject most of us would rather not think about, much less devote years of our lives to studying: death. Hers is, fundamentally, an anti-death book. Wait, don’t stop reading — it’s not a live-forever diet, yoga, or genetic engineering manifesto. Rather, it’s an attempt to help us save ourselves from a new cultural cult of death. Khapaeva warns that our culture in general, and young people in particular, are succumbing to the temptation to dwell with death rather than in life.
She believes it’s a revolution, and in a sense it is. She poses an interesting question: “Why […] in this time of unparalleled longevity in the West, do we observe […] an obsessive fascination with death?” I’ll argue that the answer may be contained in her question. But first, what is the evidence for the revolution?
After tracing the origins of death-centered thinking to certain French intellectuals, Khapaeva details “the commodification of death,” pointing to turn-of-the-century transformations in funeral rites, the popularity of horror and slasher movies, the cultural spread of zombies and vampires (in a section titled “The Bloodsucker: A New Aesthetic Ideal”), and the rise of Halloween to the status of a major American holiday second only to Christmas in public displays. In her view, these “could be regarded as a sign of the breakdown of the ‘social glue’ […] [and] may express growing disappointment in human collectivity and frustration with the idea of belonging to any human community.” They are, she concludes, part of a “cult of death” that “expresses a nascent cultural paradigm — a profound contempt for the human race.”
Halloween is a case in point. “What motivates Americans to fill their homes and yards with horrifying images of death? […] Why did Halloween, this remnant of the death-centered agrarian rituals of the druidic Celts, come back into vogue at the turn of the second millennium?” Khapaeva relates it in interesting ways to the simpler trick-or-treat custom brought here by Irish immigrants and (in contrast) to the Día de los Muertos, which some Mexicans see as threatened by Halloween. My child psychologist-wife (Ann Cale Kruger of Georgia State University) says that we have gone in our lifetimes from children scaring adults (“Trick or trea-eat!”) to adults scaring children (making them tread a gauntlet of gravestones and skeletons to get their unhealthy and potentially toxic candy).
Harry Potter comes in for extended treatment here, having “outsold everything under the sun.” Voldemort, “the sinister wizard […] is also half-dead,” and wants Harry’s blood to ensure his own immortality, so he is basically a vampire too. “Harry will learn in the course of […] this seven-volume-long nightmare how victimhood feels and will realize that he cannot escape a violent and horrific death, even though this ultimately brings him immortality.” Instead of the good-against-evil saga that has entertained scores of millions, Khapaeva sees “the culture of nightmare consumption, which presents violent virtual death as fun for the whole family.”
Having raised my children partly during the meteoric rise of Harry Potter, I have to say that his saga struck me as funny, and if my kids hadn’t been laughing too I wouldn’t have allowed him into their lives. In retrospect, I have more regrets about their exposure to bad prose than to violent mortality. I do see Khapaeva’s point about desensitization, and frankly I have never quite gotten the adult fascination with vampires and zombies. When I was told I couldn’t use “The Twilight of Male Supremacy” as the subtitle of my last book (my psychologist-wife again) because a whole generation would think it was about vampires, I was stunned that the word “twilight” no longer meant what I’d always thought it meant. Apparently it now belongs to the children of the night.
But I see more continuity than Khapaeva does between these 21st-century phenomena and the death fascination that took many different forms in different cultures during different eras. Consider the vodou practice and zombies of Haiti; the display of corpses on platforms in some Native North American cultures; Tibetan Buddhists feeding corpses to the birds; Hindu cremations of widows with their husbands in suttee; ancient Egyptians embalming pharaohs and building pyramids over them; and Victorian death portraits and masks.
The Elizabethans not only gathered regularly to see people beheaded, they enjoyed seeing them drawn and quartered or burned at the stake. Beheading was compassionate but humiliating, and to add insult to injury, famous heads were displayed for some time at the ends of pikes on London Bridge. If you crossed the Thames to see a Shakespeare or Ben Jonson comedy, walking past those heads was part of the pre-theater entertainment. As for the Histories and Tragedies of that great era of the drama, these then-equivalents of film and television reveal if anything an even greater fascination with violent death. Ditto the Bible, the Iliad, and the epics of all ancient civilizations.
Khapaeva discusses some of these, but considers (for instance) the Victorian “cult of death” as being “as distant from today’s ‘pornography of death’ as could be.” Maybe so, but I see more continuities than do many cultural anthropologists, culture historians, and literary theorists. I would tend to frame what is happening now — which Khapaeva describes eloquently and thoroughly — as a new manifestation of a universal human fascination with death.
In a sense, the obsession with death is a hallmark of humanity. Neanderthal burials have long been central to the argument that they were human, and the 2015 discovery of the much less evolved Homo naledi was fascinating in part because of evidence that they disposed of their dead by dumping them through a channel into a deep underground cave. Anthropologists viewed this as the most human thing about them.
Cannibalism, we now know, is both ancient and culturally widespread. And a new field called archeothanatology explores mortuary practices for what they say about cultures. (The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial , edited by Liv Nilsson Stutz and Sarah Tarlow, is a landmark.) Working forward from ancient burials reveals many varieties of fascination with death. So our current one is our version, not something new under the sun — except to the extent that we are uniquely us, just as the Neanderthals or the Elizabethans were uniquely them.
In trying to understand this latest fascination, I would look for underlying changes in the human situation that might have had important effects. I would point to a decline of religion in the West; now, the fascination with death, formerly expressed through religion, has found new outlets. And the decline in mortality and the increase in lifespan may also be viewed as a cause rather than a paradox. Lingering deaths in old age — what Hamlet calls the “calamity of so long life” — have become a grave ethical dilemma. What horror could be worse in the end than the one so many of us will face: a decrepit body without a mind trapped in an unwanted “life” that we can no longer end and no one will end for us. Perhaps we who will linger on in quasi-living states, a long hard burden on our children, are the real “undead”? The young of today, whose grandparents and great-grandparents are in that state, have my permission to take up any kind of fantasy that sublimates a horrific reality.
As for children, it’s an interesting fact that folktales have been consistently cleaned up for almost two centuries, even by the Brothers Grimm in successive editions of their collection, and much more so in modern Disney-esque versions. Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, questioned this trend, arguing that children have violent fears and fantasies anyway, and darker stories shared with parents can help them tame their own internal demons.
All that said, Khapaeva has raised important questions. Her meticulous and gracefully written cultural critique unearths the historical roots of many aspects of popular culture. If widely read, it will provoke a new conversation about the particular ways we in the 21st century are obsessed with death, that eternal focus of human fear, struggle, and fascination.