In many cultures, the talk of death in conversation is considered taboo. Of course, people do talk about it in hushed voices, but usually use a metaphor to describe it. I think almost everyone knows what pushing up the daisies, bought the farm, or met the Grim Reaper means. Many people, including me, fear death, but it sure does not stop us from enjoying it through literature and the arts. It seems rather odd that something we fear so much would be a topic for entertainment. Ancient Sagas, stories by Dickens, Emily Dickinson's beautiful poems, the Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie mysteries and much of that we watch in TV and movies are just a few examples of our insatiable thirst for. well, you know, buying the farm where someone is pushing up daisies. You often hear people complaining there is too much violence and death in our modern literature and media, but seem not to notice it has been a constant theme from the dawn of history. I mean the story of Cain and Abel is not exactly a tale of brotherly love. This is one of the first stories I learned in Sunday School as a very young child. Most every American child knows the story of Bambi by the first grade, and no, not the story of the pole dancer. I don't recall that being taught in school.
Although few would come out a say it, unless they are insane, we love to be entertained by stories about death. People loved Alfred Hitchcock movies so much that there was a rush to install showers in bathrooms in the early 1960's. Gunsmoke was the longest running TV show in history. Although the same opening scene was repeated 12 straight years, Matt Dillon killing the bad guy to start the show all had us holding our collective breath. What if he missed? He never did and we all felt so happy to see the bad guy dead in the street. Our parents bought us toy guns so we could practice shooting bad guys in the streets. Then there was the TV show 'Combat' starring Vic Morrow and we got to see our soldiers sneaking up on a German to slit his throat with a huge knife. I know I wanted a huge knife as a child, but thankfully there were laws to keep these out of the hands of children. As I grew older, I always wondered what the German people thought of such shows. It was the 60's and there were lots of protest marches, but I never saw any German groups out protesting, but maybe they should have when Hogan's Heroes showed us bombing their trains causing untold death and mayhem. Thankfully, we had Sgt. Schultz and Colonel Klink to show us the softer side of being a Nazi.
I guess the memories of war caused a rash of movies and TV shows showing us brutally killing our past enemies who we now called friends. Well, you can't continually tell another culture that we love to see you dying and in the same breath say, 'Hey, why don't we have a nice Summer barbecue together.' I guess we had enjoyed seeing our new friends die enough and feared they would be put on the endangered species list. The theme of death did not go away. It found a new venue, which was Black Comedy. It seems strange now to see some of the early Monty Python skits making fun of Nazis. Most of these skits were very Black comedy as they often had death in the skit. There were a lot of anti-Nazi and anti- Japanese comedy skits that lasted well into the 70's on shows such as 'Laugh In' and Belushi's Samurai Swordsman character on Saturday Night Live. Many of these skits dealt with death in a softer Black comedy. Most Black comedies focused on Nazis and death was constant theme. This is especially true of Mel Brooks movies and the hilarious classic, 'The XYZ Murders.
Our taste for being entertained by death themes continues and I would estimate that 80% of the most popular TV shows is centered around someone who has bought the farm. Many of the legal and medical shows continuously use death as a central element to the story. In some shows, like CSI, NCIS and Monk, the whole format of the show is based on discovering who the killer is. We are fascinated and glued to our TV sets because we want to know about a death. These shows are very graphic, but none more so than some very famous past movies and literature. In almost every instance of all the above forms of 'death' entertainment I've mentioned, we are an outsider looking in. Often we are a dispassionate outsider looking in. That there is a death is the theme does not touch our feelings or seem in any way connected to our real life. We can be entertained without feeling any sense of loss or sorrow. There are very few TV shows or movies with death as a theme that clutch at our heart and affect our emotions. The TV show Cold Case can affect us and make us us look death squarely in the eye with sorrow. One movie stands out as one of the must gut wrenching looks at death I've ever seen. It is 'What Dreams May Come' starring Robin Williams. If you watch this movie, don't expect comedy. It is not a comedy. It is a serious look at life and the possibilities in an afterlife. If it doesn't make you cry, then you must be pushing up daisies.