They say death is hardest on the survivors, but one wonders how “they” could possibly know. At any rate, people often forget that Halloween, originally called “All Hallow’s Evening”, draws its origins from the Festival of the Dead. In keeping with the theme, our contributors have selected four oeuvres that deal with the Grim Reaper and his inevitable deed.
They say art always functions with death as a backdrop. As such, I’d like to contrast two works about loss, both short as if to underline the ephemeral nature of existence. The first is a short story by American author James Salter, whose prose has a quick, modernist flex to it and a lyrical quality that hasn’t been popular since before the days of Ernest Hemingway. Published in 2002, “Last Night” tells of the release we think death may bring and what happens when it all goes horribly wrong. Death makes us human but not always better for facing it.
My actual recommendation, which takes only marginally longer to watch than to read “Last Night”, is the first ten minutes of Pixar’s Up (2009). The short, silent montage says more about a life built together than many writers can in three hundred pages, but I selected it for its answer to the following question: then what? Without a firm sense of afterlife, do we just carry on, or do we hope for more? I can admire the craft in Salter’s story, but, now that I’ve got a daughter, I’d like to think the stance is more artful than true. Even in fiction, it’s harder to find hope in the face of death, and I’ll gladly tie a thousand balloons to my thin wisp of a home for more of it.
The Lovely Bones
They say my views on death have evolved along predictable lines. When I was a little girl, the song “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks made me weep for the potential loss of my parents; when I reached adolescence and fell newly in love, Jerry Zucker’s Ghost (1990) left me aching with the pain of never touching my boyfriend again; and now, as a thirty-something mom, the worst thing I can imagine is the loss of a child. This leads us to Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel The Lovely Bones, about a murdered teen watching over her family and friends from heaven.
Yes, I realise Peter Jackson adapted the story for the big screen, but I could never bear watching the movie. As with Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, once the emotional rollercoaster had run its course, I couldn’t even think of revisiting it. Reading The Lovely Bones that first and only time was a moving experience though. All the while coming to terms with her own situation, our dead heroine, Suzy, narrates every transformation her loved ones go through as they fall apart and then slowly rebuild themselves into stronger people. The stages of grief from denial to acceptance are made so clear in the hearts of the characters that, in the end, I couldn’t help but feel like things happen for a reason, even the bad ones.
Halloween II (2009)
They say the slasher genre appeals to adolescents because it allows them to get in touch with their mortality. However, scary movies that deal with death rather than treat it as a plot device tend to do poorly at the box office. Consider Rob Zombie’s much maligned Halloween II, a dead teenager flick that defies expectations by exploring the ramifications of its monster’s gruesome outbursts. Set one year after Michael’s (Tyler Mane) killing spree in the previous film, the remake shows its heroine Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) plagued with terrifying nightmares and hallucinations; her best friend Annie (Danielle Harris) skipping over her youth straight into the role of disillusioned matriarch; and their would-be saviour Dr Loomis (Malcolm McDowell’s) collapsing under the weight of survivor’s guilt.
In short, Haddonfield is a town in mourning, its trauma expressed in a myriad of dysfunctions. I particularly like the scene in which one of the victims’ father confronts Loomis at a book signing. Of course, Michael inevitably returns, but, even then, Zombie focuses less on the carnage than on its aftermath, such as when tragedy comes knocking at the Sheriff’s (Brad Dourif) door. Here is a rare slasher bent on reminding us that death means something.
FTL: Faster Than Light (2012)
They say death has no meaning in video games, but I beg to differ. Developed by Subset Games, FTL: Faster Than Light is a real-time strategy game in which you, the player, must safely advance your spaceship through various danger-filled sectors in an effort to warn the fleet of a rebel attack. As you venture through space, you must upgrade your vessel’s systems, find armaments, and gather a crew in preparation for the final confrontation with the rebel flagship, all the while subjecting yourself to these mainstays of the roguelike genre: randomly generated layouts and events, the absence of save points except to suspend play, and of course permadeath.
Short for “permanent death”, permadeath is what makes FTL: Faster Than Light so frustrating and yet so addictive. Imagine that your fully equipped ship is fighting one of the level’s last pirate vessels when one lucky strike on your shields makes you vulnerable to asteroids, resulting in your fiery destruction. Better yet, imagine that, after hours of pulse-pounding action, you have the flagship of the rebellion on the ropes when your ship runs out of missiles, leaving you a sitting duck. Moments like these hit you right in the gut and have you staring at the screen in complete dismay, anger, and sadness. Still, you immediately start another game because, like in real life, the journey is so worth it.