Let's think about death.
Stop, wait. Hear me out. I know you spend 98.7% of every day doing whatever you can to keep the reality of your mortality at bay, but this is going to be a lot of fun. Because we’re gonna talk about what happens after death in popular media. But to do this right, we need to briefly visit the concept of death positivity.
In 2011, mortician and author Caitlin Doughty founded The Order of the Good Death, an organization that seeks to cure the anxiety and denial surrounding our cultural approach to death, and to educate the public about after-death care. To remove the myths and mysteries surrounding death, Doughty and her colleagues encourage frank discussions about death with dying and grieving family members. In a video titled, “Why Are You Afraid of Death?” on Doughty’s YouTube channel, Ask A Mortician, she covers the seven main sources of these anxieties. She lists them as: fear of causing grief to one’s loved ones; fear of not being able to care for those left behind; fear of pain, fear of not finishing projects or work; fear about who’ll care for your dependents; fear about what happens to your body after you die; and fear of what will happen to you if there really is a great beyond.
So, how does any of this play into science fiction or fantasy in pop culture? No other genres have so thoroughly explored the idea of what comes after the final bow, mostly because the subject itself is fantastical. But how death-positive are science fiction and fantasy afterlife scenarios? And when it comes to dying, which fictional hereafter is the most death positive?
Content warning: Suicide is going to come up in our list.
What Dreams May Come
There would be no way to write a list like this and not include the 1998 Robin Williams tear-jerker that takes place in a kind of Franken-heaven cobbled together by author Richard Matheson for his 1978 novel of the same name. What Dreams May Come ponders death, grief, and loss from numerous angles. From the nightmare of losing a child to the tragedy of suicide, the movie lurches from one tragedy to another as we follow Chris (Williams) from his acceptance of his own death to his daring rescue of his wife, Annie (Annabella Sciorra), from hell following her suicide.
What Dreams May Come seems to answer all of the big questions Doughty proposes in her video. When Chris dies, he’s worried about his wife, but his spirit guide, Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) explains that trying to communicate with and heal the pain of the living only causes them more pain and reassures him that he doesn’t need to worry about his loved ones on Earth. We’re never shown any scenes of Chris in pain as he’s dying, despite the fact that his death is truly gruesome. We have no indication that he witnessed anything happening to his body post mortem, and the concept of the afterlife is mostly gentle. One could argue that Chris’s failure to deliver Annie’s paintings to her gallery opening (the errand he was running when he died) is some kind of unfinished business, especially since her paintings become a communication tool between the two soulmates, but this isn’t depicted as a negative.
Possibly the only way this movie fails to reassure the audience that our fears of death are unfounded are in the scenes of hell, which in the film, at least, is based heavily on Dante’s Inferno. While it depicts hell as a potentially temporary fate, there’s still the heavy-handed message of suicide and damnation, so based on the scale I just made up based off the death video, I give What Dreams May Come a 6 out of a possible 7.
Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey
Did you know that What Dreams May Come was written by the father of one of the Bill and Ted franchise’s writers? Chris Matheson’s father, Richard Matheson, is the novelist and screenwriter responsible for both What Dreams May Come and the time travel classic Somewhere In Time. So. Now you know that.
The afterlife in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey is pretty much a cut-and-paste Christian concept of death. There’s a Hell complete with lava and Satan and psychological tortures based on their worst fears. There’s a Heaven, where everyone wears white and walks around in a state of peace and enlightenment all the time. And there is, of course, a Grim Reaper who inhabits a Limbo-like state and who can be reasoned with via board game challenges.
OK, maybe that part isn’t quite so traditional. But Bill and Ted are able to communicate with the living via seance, possess the bodies of the living, and affect things on Earth so that they can protect their loved ones and escape death entirely. And that’s really what the entire movie is about: the denial of death as a permanent state. Since the primary plot is motivated by Bill and Ted’s fears of what will happen to their loved ones and music career, and since the film contains scenes that depict our mortal anxiety of the hereafter, I can only give Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey a 4 out of 7.
“There is one simple, horrible possibility that has never occurred to anyone throughout human history,” Dr. Chang, (Andrew Leung) warns Clara (Jenna Coleman) and the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) before revealing that death has, for all of human history, been truly nightmarish. “The dead remain conscious... The dead remain fully aware of everything that is happening to them.”
Record scratch, please. What does he mean, “never occurred to anyone throughout human history?” Everyone thinks about that! All the time! And if they hadn’t thought of it before, great job, Doctor Who, you’ve traumatized them. And they’re probably mostly children. Here’s to 60 or whatever more glorious years.
Yes, in the two-part Doctor Who story “Dark Water/Death In Heaven,” The Doctor and his companion Clara learn that the entire concept of a human afterlife has always been what amounts to a soul-collecting external hard drive rigged up by the villainous Time Lady, Missy (Michelle Gomez). Anyone who has ever died in all of human history has been “saved” to this drive...and can feel everything that happens to their dead bodies. In fact, the first message anyone has ever been able to retrieve from the drive is the panicked voice of a man pleading, “Don’t cremate me!”
Knowing that the afterlife in Doctor Who has always been hellish, painful, and terrifying certainly doesn’t make one feel better about death, especially when you consider that after the destruction of the hard drive, there really isn’t an afterlife at all. This episode feeds into the fears of what will happen after death, both to your physical body and to your consciousness, and with regards to the pain of dying. It ticks almost every fear box, once you factor in the “unfinished business” of the newly deceased Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), leaving it with a score of 3 out of 7. On the other hand, maybe a message that drives people away from alternatives like embalming or cremation and straight into natural burial (an option championed by Doughty and her organization) should give it some bonus points?
Remember the darkly whimsical and ironic waiting room purgatory dreamed up by Tim Burton back when there were still people working with him who had the power to pump the brakes? What an interesting and cool place.
OK, except for the part where anyone who ever completed suicide is punished with an eternity of office work, but there don’t seem to be standard punishments or judgments for any other kind of death. Of course, when you die, you could be trapped in your house, surrounded by nothing but an endless waste of sand and vicious sandworms that, for some reason, can kill you even though you’re dead. And then there’s the part where you can easily be exorcized and die while you’re already dead and go to an even worse realm where you just kind of float in an endless void, moaning in pain for all of eternity.
Oh, and speaking of pain, you can still feel it, even when you’re dead. How that works, I’m not entirely clear; Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) can pluck out their eyes and literally pull off their faces, but when Barbara’s finger gets pricked, she reacts as though it hurts?
I used to think this was the greatest great beyond. Now, I’m not so sure. Not only is death physically painful, but it’s boring, full of bureaucrats, and not even free from death anxiety despite the fact that you’re already dead. On top of that, Adam and Barbara spend the entire movie bemoaning the fact that they haven’t finished the tasks they were working on when they died. Adam even worries about the disposition of their bodies, painstakingly moving around the miniature funeral he throws for them in his intricate model of the town. And when they’re not worried about what will happen to them, they're freaking out over what will happen to Lydia (Winona Ryder) if they double die.
Of course, if you’re Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) you can get around some of the nonsense. But that means you have to live on the fringes of society and eventually get eaten by a sandworm.
Beetlejuice gets a 2 out of 7.
The Good Place
Where does one even start to examine life after death in a show that takes place almost entirely postmortem? And which throws the viewer for so many loops? Like Beetlejuice, The Good Place depicts the afterlife as one bureaucratic headache after another. Human souls are subject to judgment based on arbitrary point totals. Nobody has actually gotten into the Good Place in 500 years. Every single person who has died since the Renaissance has been condemned to an eternity of torture.
So, that’s a big negatory on assuaging fears of what will happen after you die. There’s also the fear of pain to take into account. Though the deaths of the main characters are gruesome and humiliating in the extreme (smashed by falling objects, suffocation in a safe, run over by shopping carts and a truck), we accept these deaths as somewhat instant for the first two seasons. When we arrive at Season 3, however, we see Jason (Manny Jacinto) panicked and struggling as he suffocates during his ill-conceived, snorkel-and-whippets aided robbery plan. So, death in The Good Place universe can be horrible and painful, though it’s unclear if the characters actually remember that part. And if you can’t remember physical pain, does the experience of that pain actually matter later? That’s really a question only the Grim Reaper and anesthesiologists can answer.
As for the fear of causing grief to loved ones, that’s somewhat present in Eleanor’s (Kristen Bell) worries that no one cared that she died. Though it’s a self-focused version of that anxiety, it’s there. Mindy St. Claire (Maribeth Monroe) notes that she created a successful charitable foundation, indicating that one can keep an eye on their unfinished projects in the afterlife, and Chidi (William Jackson Harper) laments never finishing his magnum opus, an interminably long philosophy text. So, that anxiety still exists. But no one seems to care much about what happened to their physical bodies after the Big Chill, nor do they worry about who is caring for any dependents (perhaps because they don’t have any). As a result, The Good Place scores a 3 out of 7.
No matter what scale or philosophy we use to examine pop culture tropes about death, our species will probably never stop coming up with new artistic ways to grapple with the unanswerable questions of our own mortality. Maybe it’s horrific that we have to exist with the knowledge that we’ll someday die and that we have no control over when or how it will happen. But it’s also something of a blessing: that fear becomes the wellspring of the very stories that we use to comfort ourselves. We can take refuge in the pastoral fantasy of an oil-painting version of heaven, or soothe our anxiety with a comedic afterlife where one’s ultimate fate is negotiable. We can take heart that some not-so-bright dudes can ultimately cheat death or see that even a near-immortal alien with boundless intelligence is sometimes confused and angered by the impermanence of life. Or, we can enjoy the absurd spectacle of an eternity of the same bullshit, different, endless day. These fantasies all us to explore the concept of our species’ greatest unknown without having to meditate on the eventuality of our own respective demises.
Perhaps in that way, science fiction and fantasy are the most “death positive” genres of them all.