Death can be a powerful narrative tool. We sob over the demise of a beloved character, cheer at the comeuppance of our favourite villain, or sit at the edge of our seats, shocked at deaths we didn’t see coming. Red Wedding, anyone?
All deaths are not created equal, however, and in a new study Kaitlin Fitzgerald from the State University of New York and team look at what makes certain fictional deaths so memorable. The team reports that although we find some deaths pleasurable — the long-awaited downfall of an antagonist, for example — it’s those we find meaningful that truly stick with us in the long-term.
Participants were first asked to think of a death scene from a narrative — film, TV, or other media. Those in the control condition then wrote about why the death they’d thought of was particularly memorable, while the other two groups were asked specifically to recall a death that was particularly “meaningful” or “pleasurable” and write about why they found it to be that way.
After writing about the scene, participants categorised the genre of the narrative they’d chosen, and indicated which emotions they felt in response to the scene. They also rated the extent to which they appreciated the narrative (how meaningful, moving or thought provoking they found it) and enjoyed it (how fun or entertaining it was, and whether they’d had a good time engaging with it). Finally, participants categorised the character as a hero, villain, anti-hero or anti-villain, rated the morality of the character and how much they deserved their death, and indicated how much they liked the character.
The results showed that “meaningful” and “pleasurable” deaths in fiction differ in key ways. Participants who had recalled a meaningful death were more likely to appreciate the narratives than those in the pleasurable condition, who were more likely to enjoy them. Those in the meaningful condition were also more likely to pick narratives from dramas or tear-jerkers, while participants in the pleasurable condition were more likely to pick deaths from the action genre, or from horrors or thrillers. The death of characters seen as moral, as heroes, or as less deserving of death were also more likely to be picked by those in the meaningful condition.
The relationship between morality and appreciation could be explored further, however. While the results suggest that the deaths of immoral characters are generally considered less meaningful, what about those whose morality is somewhat more blurred? Co-author Matthew Grizzard noted in an interview that, though both could very reasonably be considered villains, Blade Runner’s Roy Batty and Star Wars’ Darth Vader had come up several times as examples of meaningful deaths due to their redemption arcs. These moral grey areas could be explored further.
Overall, though, the study indicates that even when we’re watching a film or reading a book we can experience death as a meaningful and reflective experience. In particular, the team suggests that media deaths can help people process “disenfranchised” grief — grief for someone they don’t feel “allowed” to grieve for — with fictional characters acting as a conduit for repressed feelings. So while it might be fun when a schlocky Bond villain falls from the top of the Golden Gate Bridge or Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten by a shark, there are scores of other examples that speak to people on a level that goes far beyond entertainment, and that may even help them understand their own grief.