A hooded figure appears before you. Maybe their face is obscured by shadow, or maybe an eyeless skull peers out at you. The appearance of a Grim Reaper (or similar psychopomp) can only mean one thing: Death has arrived and your life is over. Death (the biological end of your life) is scary and bound in uncertainty! But is Death (the figure) so bad? They’re not the reason you’re dying — they’re just here because, for some reason, you’re dying.
Sure, Death’s work uniform and slicing scythe can look ominous, but they’re neither monster nor villain. Death’s not beholden to our human constructs of good and evil, so let’s stop treating them like a scary monster and start appreciating their hard work. It’s about time we afford Death the respect they deserve.
It’s Just a Job
There’s a reason why Death has appeared in a suit and tie almost as often as they’ve taken the form of a hooded, scythe-wielding Grim Reaper Looking for examples? Check out Death (Julian Richings, who has portrayed Death more than once in his career) in Supernatural (2005), Vincent (Henry Rollins) in Deathdealer: a Documentary (2003), or even Louis (Danny Aiello) in Jacob’s Ladder (1990). Death is a textbook lawful neutral figure and the ultimate bureaucratic cog in the machine, putting souls to rest like an accountant filling out spreadsheets. Their job description is simple: maintain the universe’s homeostasis by culling lives when they are fated to die.
It’s not a pleasant job by any means, but it’s an essential one — and if someone’s gotta do it, it’s better that it’s done by a non-human entity who is detached from human morals and doesn’t approach the task with a sense of doing good or evil. Consider scenarios like Dead Like Me (2003), where some humans are tasked with becoming grim reapers after they die unless they’ve reaped a target number of souls (and unreaped souls will rot inside a living body): the fumbles and missteps prove that the responsibility for controlling life and death should not be left to humans (whether living or ex-living).
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“[Death’s] job description is simple: maintain the universe’s homeostasis by culling lives when they are fated to die.”
In many depictions, Death isn’t unsympathetic to human distress over their own deaths or those of their loved ones. In Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921), Death (Bernhard Goetzke) has no control over when it is someone’s time to die, but he takes the time to help a young woman (Lil Dagover) in the only way he can when she pleads with him to spare her lover — he tells her stories.
Death also isn’t above enjoying the odd distraction from their daily grind. Most famously in The Seventh Seal (1957), Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is able to stave off the end of his life for a little while by challenging Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a game of chess — even though he concedes to Antonius that “no one escapes me.” The idea of Death playing chess predates The Seventh Seal and can be found in Medieval artwork (Bergman identifies a 1480s church fresco by Albertus Pictor as his particular influence). Since The Seventh Seal, we’ve seen Death take on challengers in all sorts of games, from Clue, Battleship, Electric Football and Twister in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) to badminton in the Oscar-nominated parody short The Dove (1968)…but their game of choice in most iterations of this trope seems to be chess.
There Are Fates Worse Than Death
We fear the Reaper when it’s our time to go, but keep in mind that, compared to other options, dying isn’t so bad. Cheating Death seems like a pretty sweet deal, sure, until we have to deal with the consequences. Even if we imagine a scenario where there are no consequences to you cheating Death: you get to live forever (hopefully without aging into a husk, also hopefully without an innocent having to lose their life so you could go on living). Now what?
You get to watch your loved ones age, get sick, and die. And if Final Girls have taught us anything, survivor’s guilt (not to mention PTSD) really sucks once you make it to the sequel — so why would you choose that fate when the spool of your life’s thread has come to its end? The only narrative perk I can think of is that maybe you’ll live long enough to see yourself become the villain in someone else’s story, if that’s your thing. Just remember that Death’s job is about maintaining balance, and your selfish immortality isn’t worth tipping the Earth’s scales into chaos.
“In many depictions, Death isn’t unsympathetic to human distress over their own deaths or those of their loved ones.”
The Final Destination franchise shows us again and again that avoiding a fated death will inevitably lead you to an even worse death experience to restore order. Dying in a fiery plane crash is, assuredly, an awful way to die, but it’s arguably better than watching your friends get picked off one-by-one in painful, improbable accidents (and to eventually be claimed by one such Rube Goldbergian sequence of events yourself). Final Destination‘s Death is easily one of the most monstrous-seeming depictions of Death in horror, given that the deaths feel almost vindictive in their violence. They feel like kills. That said, depending on which instalment informs your sense of Final Destination canon, Death‘s victims just might be experiencing the deaths they were always destined to have — unlikely horrible incidents and all — set in motion thanks to premonitions that might have actually come directly from Death. This perspective shift turns Death‘s “kills” into a series of especially gruesome work assignments.
Romero’s zombies show us another way in which losing death can doom us in horror. By Dawn of the Dead (1978), we understand that “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth”. When a virus prevents the dead from dying like they should, we end up with an infestation of the undead that grows unchecked. If Death is at work during this scourge of zombies, then they’re definitely overwhelmed and it will take more than the intervention of one entity to bring society back to a place where people can safely live, die, and thrive.
We Need Death
We already have to deal with the consequences of having an overpopulated planet; we don’t need to add not dying into the Earth’s catastrophe cocktail. We already see the strain that longer human lifespans (thanks to medical progress) has on our planet’s natural resources, not to mention social infrastructures. We also have a number of organisms, decomposers like worms, bacteria and fungi, that feast on dead and rotting organic matter, often to produce nutrients necessary for other organisms to thrive. Without Death, we wouldn’t have worm poop (or the flowers that grow from worm poop). Makes you think.
To put it more poetically, I want to borrow a part of Jamie (Amelia Eve)’s moonflower speech from The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020):
Humans are organic. It’s a fact. We’re meant to die. It’s natural. Beautiful. And it all breaks down and rises back up, and breaks down again, and every living thing grows out of every dying thing. We leave more life behind us to take our place. That life refreshes and recycles, and on and on it goes. […]We leave more life behind to take our place.
So, thank you Death, for your bad-ass role in keeping the world in check, and clearing the way for new beauty to emerge…even if you have to look really scary while you’re doing it.
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