Tragic films as an invitation to think about death

Date of news: 17 May 2021

Why are many people drawn to tragic films about death, a topic that is usually avoided as much as possible? Professor of communication and influencing Enny Das examines this in the project Beyond a Fear of Death. The project will soon expand beyond the walls of the university as well. ‘Nobody wants to talk about death, that's why I think it's such a fun project.’

Death is man's greatest fear. At the same time, people are drawn to films about death and tragedy. In her project Beyond a Fear of Death, communication researcher Enny Das tries to solve this paradox: do people use tragic films to temporarily escape their agony, or to accept it and rise above it? ‘Death has been completely removed from our modern culture’, says Das. ‘Cemeteries are located far outside the centre, we prefer not to see corpses. A lot of people have fearful visions about how horrible it is to die. Yet it is a part of life. The question is, can films help change our attitude about death?’

The prevailing theory in this area is the Terror Management Theory (TMT), which states that fear of death can never be overcome, but can only be suppressed. Das: ‘But why do people watch films about death? In this project my two favourite lines of research come together: research into moving, inspiring films in which death plays a role, and a dominant theory that states that people think about it as little as possible. I've never had such a project where I thought: I have to solve that puzzle.’

First results

The Beyond a Fear of Death project started in 2019. Das will shortly present the results of her most recent study. During an experiment, participants first reflected on their own death, or on the death of a loved one. A control group did not reflect. The participants then watched the film Me Before You, an English rom-com in which protagonist Will wants to end his life because of his disability, leaving behind his beloved Louisa, who is sad but accepting. Participants saw the story either through the eyes of Will (who wants to die) or through the eyes of Louisa (who is losing someone). Various questions were then used to test how people view death, whether they fear it, and to what extent they avoid or accept thoughts of death. ‘The results show that the film can positively influence attitudes towards death. People become less avoidant, less afraid. But… only if the fear of death was already salient and the viewer is a bit older. We don't know exactly how old, but for now I would say about 40 years and older. And it also turns out that the story has to really touch you emotionally’, says Das. ‘For young people it is counterproductive, they are even more afraid of death. They are going to avoid it even more. We found the same in the first study, in which we manipulated the ending of the film.’

Films as therapy

The results of the two studies indicate that the prevailing view of oppression from the Terror Management Theory is not the only way to deal with death. Tragic films about death seem to invite viewers to reflect on death. Das: ‘The problem with fear is that you stay away from it. And because you start avoiding it, you cannot get rid of it. I think films can function as a kind of not very confrontational therapy, because they are about someone else. By virtualising emotions in a safe way, you can practice a little with a difficult theme like death.’

Future experiments should further substantiate and deepen these findings. ‘For example, we want to investigate whether emotion is indeed a condition for changing attitudes, what is the difference between one’s own death and the loss of a loved one, and whether it is also enough if death is more symbolic, such as ending a relationship. I wish I had more hours in a day, I could name twenty more experiments that I would like to run’, Das says, laughing.

Art meets science

From June 8 there will be a new, exciting phase for the project, of which Das can lift a tip of the veil. ‘There will be an art meets science project about death at the Felix Meritis culture house in Amsterdam. In an art installation by Babs Bakels and Vibeke Mascini - a large hall filled with bone dust - people will undergo a radical Buddhist visualisation ritual that should help reduce fear of death. I'm going to measure that.’

The art meets science project This body that once was you will be discussed extensively in the VPRO radio program OVT on Sunday 30 May, during which participants will be recruited. In addition, an extra episode will be devoted to the project in the new VPRO podcast series Kassiewijle, which will be launched on May 27 and is about death. In both cases, Enny Das will participate.