Hello and welcome to In Too Deep, where I over-analyse a certain section of pop culture.
Now as I was watching Lindsey Ellis’ video series ‘Loose Canon’ (and if you love what I do, go check it out, it’s a great series) she talked about the various incarnations of Death through popular culture, which got me thinking: Why is it Death is rarely seen as the bad guy? Seriously, think about it: When you get right down to it, Death (aka the Grim Reaper) is seen more as a benevolent than malevolent figure. Why is that? Well, lets find out.
First off, we need to come to understanding who this Reaper being actually is. TV Tropes uses the term ‘psychopomp’ (which itself comes from Greece, meaning ‘conveyors of the soul’) to talk about the being that takes the soul to the afterlife. So when I talk about ‘Death’ or the ‘Reaper’ in this blog, bear in mind I’m mostly referring to the concept of a being who guides us after we die, rather than the physical act of dying itself. More often than not I’ll also be talking about the personification of Death, rather than the nature of death. So with that out of the way…
Though there is one more interesting thing to note: More often than not, Death and Hades are seen as two separate things. Why do I bring this up? Well, because Hades (despite being the Lord of the Dead, and being similar to many interpretations of Death itself) is often more analogous with Satan than anything else. Case in point, the Disney version, where he was the bad guy. Again, go watch the Loose Canon episode on Hades, it’s fascinating to watch. Anyway, onto Death himself, who tends to be split into six different types of characters.
The Negotiator: Namely you play a game with Death in the hopes of staying alive. Popularized by the Seventh Seal, it’s a common enough idea that you’d challenge Death and either win or lose, depending on how the author views death. But why do we have this portrayal of Death in popular culture? Well it comes from the ingrained survival instinct all people have of not-dying. Everyone doesn’t want to die on some level, even if that level is ‘cannot kill oneself by holding one’s breath’. People who are living almost always don’t want to die (except in extremely tragic cases), since Death is incomprehensible. So we have the Negotiator in order to try and keep ourselves feeling comfortable. That we can reason with Death, or we can cheat Death, or we can somehow avoid Death because of how much we fundamentally dislike it. In many ways we do this everyday in a way of coping with life. You are always at risk of dying, but you rationalise it away about how you are probably going to survive something, hence why you should do it. You could die from food poisoning from whatever you eat next, but it’s so unlikely that you think you can ‘cheat’ death by not having it happen. So in many ways we’re constantly negotiating with Death in that we accept that everything we do involves the risk of dying, but we can’t not do it either. We’re constantly making deals, though at the same time we’re under the belief that we will always succeed when it comes to these deals (aka this thing won’t really kill me, no matter how likely it is). We like to think of Death as something that can be negotiated with because we spend our life pretty much doing that anyway.
The Bumbler: An off-shoot of the Negotiator is the Bumbler. Death the ineffectual, the guy whose not very good at his job. The likes of The Grim Adventures of Bill and Mandy and Family Guy explore this concept pretty well. Death is essentially someone who is bad at their job and is easy to laugh at for being so pathetic. So why does this portrayal of Death exist? Well, it’s easier to become less scared of something if you can laugh at it. It’s a natural human reaction: The more you can laugh at something, the less scarier it actually becomes. So we like to think of the Grim Reaper as an incompetent dunce simply because it makes the whole scary concept of ‘death’ slightly more reassuring. It’s hard to be scared of a loser now, isn’t it? But these interpretations of Death also exist as a way of challenging society’s views on Death. In some ways it shows that Death is not a bad thing, at least not in terms of malevolence. Instead it humanizes Death, it makes Death relateable, it makes Death more like us. If Death was just like us, he’d suffer from the same complaints we have. But mostly we like the bumbling Death because it makes us feel superior over something we ultimately have no control over. We’ve yet to be able to fully stop Death, and it’s somewhat inevitable that we’re all going to die one day. But by making Death this comic figure, we feel that we can conquer it in some way. That we’re better than it. So Death the Bumbler essentially makes Death less scarier.
The Impartial Observer: Building off what was said about making Death being less scary, we have the Impartial Observer. The best example of this comes from the TV series Supernatural, where the Horseman Death utters the line â€œYou have an inflated sense of your importance. To a thing like me, a thing like you, well… Think how you’d feel if a bacterium sat at your table and started to get snarky.” Followed on by â€œThis is one little planet in one tiny solar system in a galaxy thatâ€™s barely out of its diapers. Iâ€™m old, Dean. Very old. So I invite you to contemplate how insignificant I find you.” The character himself is pretty interesting, but the concept is perhaps the most common portrayal of Death: Namely something so powerful that we tiny, insignificant humans don’t really matter in the long run. And, in many ways, this is quite comforting. Sure, it means that Death doesn’t particularly care about us, but nor does he hate us or acts maliciously towards us. We are but unworthy of praise nor scorn, so when we die it’s nothing personal, that’s just how the business goes. In many ways it takes the fear out of death, since it helps trivialise it and normalize it. It’s hard to be scared of Death the same way it’s hard to be scared of breathing or sleeping: It’s just something that you gotta do, once for most people, twice if they’re really unlucky. Since Death isn’t actively trying to kill us, it makes it a whole lot less scary. It’s just a fact of life, so since Death isn’t actively trying to hurt us, why stress about it any more than you have to?
The Bureaucrat: Partly related to the Impartial Observer we have the Bureaucrat, where Death is treated as more of a business than anything else. More often than not you get multiple Grim Reapers, all of who exist to carry souls from one life to the next the same way you have to fill out paperwork at work. Much like the Bumbler, this is one of the ways we humanize Death. We imagine that Death goes through many of the same struggles we go through, having to deal with terrible working conditions and obnoxious co-workers. All the pitfalls and downsides to having to work in an office are applied here as well, as well as any hatred the writer might have to corporations. Death exists as an agency, rather than a robed figure out to torment you. Being scared or angry at him is like being scared of a customer service rep. Once again, we trivialise Death in order to be more comforted by it.
The Caring Friend: As Terry Pratchett’s Death once said: â€œWhat can the harvest hope for, if not the care of the reaper man?â€ This Death is a rather interesting character, appearing in almost all but one Discworld novels, and often being portrayed as a sympathetic character (at one point remarking that he’ll be there to help when the pain gets too much to handle, one of Pratchett’s cleverer little jokes) who cares about what he does, even if most people aren’t overjoyed to see him (for, you know, obvious reasons). When he is the main character, the main theme of the story is that he tends to care a bit too much. Which isn’t a bad trait, all things considered. But, once again, this is us humanizing Death so we don’t fear him as much. By making him a little bit more relateable, we make him just that little bit less scary. It makes us feel better that, when we do die, it won’t be this horrible painful event. Instead it’d be rather peaceful and pleasant, with something nice to comfort us and guide us along our path. This version of Death tends to be the most common, somewhat, due to the changing views on Death. We try to think of Death as something that isn’t scary, just because that’s how the human mind will cope with it. And if Death turns out to be like the Discworld’s Death… I can’t say I’d be too upset.
The Inevitable: The final, and most common example, is treating Death as the inevitability that it is. That we’re all going to die, and the best way to find happiness is to accept it. Indeed, this is best seen in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where the third brother who tricked Death greets Death as an old friend. And that at the end of the day, despite all the scheming and the games, and the attempts to make Death seem nicer and more relateable, there is no stopping it. You will die. That is the only thing that you can be certain of. On some level it sucks, but that’s life for ya. So while rarely Death will be portrayed as malevolent, it’s less the Grim Reaper is malevolent and more that Death the nature of dying is malevolent. And even then, all it does is just kill you in a slightly worse way, depending how you view things. Final Destination mostly portrays Death as a balancing act, where everyone is suppose to die at a certain time and, if they don’t, they die slightly later to make up for it. Very few characters escape Death forever (since, presuming the character is mortal, they’re gonna die eventually). Death is gonna happen. How you react to it is up to you.
So there you have it. A look at the popular interpretations of Death and what they say about us. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.