The psychology of death anxiety is a subject of special interest for me, but I've only recently begun to refer directly to death anxiety in my blog posts. Earlier in the week, I identified death anxiety as a common theme in critically-acclaimed television dramas.
Today I was thinking about the last three movies I've seen: Memento, Margaret and You Can Count on Me.
I've known about Memento for a long time, but didn't watch it until earlier this month. The other two films were recommended by a friend. In Memento, murder was an animating issue. For those who haven't seen Memento, here's a plot excerpt from Wikipedia:
Leonard has anterograde amnesia and is unable to store recent memories, the result of an attack by two men. Leonard killed the attacker who raped and strangled his wife (Jorja Fox), but a second clubbed him and escaped. The police did not accept there was a second attacker, but Leonard believes he is called John with a last name starting with G. Leonard conducts his own investigation using a system of notes, Polaroid photos, and tattoos. As an insurance investigator, Leonard recalls one Sammy Jankis, also diagnosed with the same condition. Sammy's diabetic wife repeatedly requested insulin injections to try and trigger his memory, hoping Sammy would remember the previous dose. He did not and as a result she fell into a coma and died.
It's a brilliant film, and I highly recommend it.
The next film, Margaret, was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. From the plot description:
17-year-old Manhattan student Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), whilst shopping on the Upper West Side, interacts with bus driver Gerald Maretti (Mark Ruffalo) as she runs alongside a moving bus; he allows himself to become distracted whilst driving leading to a fatal accident, in which a pedestrian (Allison Janney) is hit by the bus and subsequently dies in Lisa's arms.
As the narrative unfolds, we watch Lisa's misguided, destructive and increasingly frantic efforts to master her sense of culpability for the pedestrian's death.
Lonergan, a life-long New Yorker, began his work on the script prior to 911, but the profound national death anxiety triggered by the attacks, most acutely experienced in NYC, lead Lonergan to include 911 reactions in the final script. Whether Lonergan would articulate it this way or not, the reactions represented various manic attempts at mastery of death anxiety stirred by the attacks. These reactions run parallel to Lisa's own frantic efforts to manage acute death anxiety triggered by her role in the accident.
I should also mention that Margaret is a seriously flawed film, but through no fault of writer-director, Lonergan. The recently released, three-hour director's cut--the version Lonergan intended for audiences--is considered a film masterpiece by many critics.
The other film, also from Lonergan, is You Can Count on Me. This is the beginning of the Wikipedia plot description:
As children, Sammy and Terry Prescott lost their parents to a car accident.
The accidental death of the parents, in the opening sequence of the film, forms the backdrop for the siblings' adult relationship. Nice film, engaging, liked it but didn't love it.
I should also note that death anxiety can be at the heart of any film genre. And while evidence of our problematic attempts to master death anxiety reach far beyond the realm of film, deeply into the sprawling fabric of our lives, discussion of the role of death anxiety in our lives is often neglected at the expense of insight. Understandably, we would much rather talk about the vicissitudes of sexual desire.
Not that sex is unimportant to understanding ourselves and others. For example, sex is quite appropriately a significant part of the discussion of the priest abuse scandal and cover up, but to more fully understand what lies beneath the institutional dynamics that supported and protected abusers, we must look further at the problem of death anxiety that was triggered within the institution. I'll get to that subject in a future post. My intention won't be to attack the Catholic Church. What we see in the Catholic Church is actually a maladaptive pattern of manic threat-response that is repeated, again and again, within individuals and across institutions throughout the world.
I expect to write a few more posts on death anxiety, but I will only be able to approach the subject in small, non-linear increments. Don't look for persuasion or proofs. Instead, look at your own associations to the subject of death. Concerning yourself with deliberate, rational processing can get in the way of spontaneously arising associations that can lead to deeper insights.
An example of one of my associations: the thought of newspaper obituaries occurred to me. Next comes the image of my mother reading The New York Times obituaries every day when I was a child. The habit itself was a bit troubling and the subject of puzzlement for me. She seemed riveted by the details of listings. Taking a short-cut to a possible interpretation, my mother's reading of the obituaries was part of her own effort to manage death anxiety, which was an anxiety that mirrored my own fears. How could I handle awareness of my own mortality if my mother was just as frightened as I was by death? Not very reassuring when matched against earlier parental, bedtime assurances that neither ghosts nor amorphous monsters would drag me into the abyss of terror during my sleep.
I hope I'm not losing all of you with these posts. If you would like to check out a more organized, educational framework to approach the subject of death anxiety, I'd recommend:
Ernest Becker's, Denial of Death
Psychoanalyst Robert Langs: Article free online (bases and types of death anxiety).
Robert Langs, Beyond Jesus and Yahweh
I have not read, but recommended to me:
Irvin Yalom: Staring at the Sun: Overcoming Terror of Death
For a quick look at social psychology research on the subject check out this documentary, available for free on Hulu
The documentary won many awards, but I found much of it boring and overwrought. And one of the experts had a delivery that sounded too much like Jeff Spicoli or Beavis or Butthead (I never knew which is which). But if you can get through the boring parts and tolerate the tone and delivery, your effort will be rewarded as the film covers some important ground.