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Death Personified






In life, there’s only one thing that is completely certain: death. Since the beginning of time, death has been symbolised in almost every culture around the world in many different forms. The figure of the grim reaper is based on the Greek God Chronos but was given cultural significance by the Black Death during the 14th century. Ever since then, the physical embodiment of death has been a recurrent feature in art and films.

      The Danse Macabre, aka The Dance of Death, is an artistic interpretation of death from the Middle Ages, consisting of paintings, stories and music relating to people from all walks of life and celebrating the spiritual unity brought about by the end of life. Paintings which depict the Danse Macabre date back to as early as 1425 and were prevalent in popular culture throughout the 15th and 16th centuries; 1874 saw the concept transformed into a famous piece of music by Camille Saint-Saëns, nowadays associated with the tv show 'Jonathan Creek'. 

      The 1921 Fritz Lang film, Der Mude Tod, aka Destiny, was the first to feature death as a tangible force. The film was released in the US under the title Behind the Wall and was an example of romantic German expressionism about a woman’s grief driving her to desperation as she tries to reunite with her dead lover. Destiny has 'Death' presented in the form of a mysterious hitchhiker who rides into town and erects a literal representation of the divide between life and death, in the form of a wall. Lang’s Metropolis (1927) also features Death in human form, becoming the second film to depict it as such.

      Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) has a medieval knight converse with Death during the game of chess that they play while the black plague consumes him. Death is shown in the guise of a pale-faced monk and part-way through the film, the knight and another man enter a church where the Danse Macabre is being painted, telegraphing the film’s final scene.

      The Masque of the Red Death (1964), starring Vincent Price and directed by Roger Corman, is a fine example of a film which takes the Danse Macabre and makes it literal. The AIP film is based on the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name from 1842, which nods to Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (the protagonist being Prince Prospero) by presenting Caliban's 'red plague' as the virulent contagion that features throughout. Death is characterised by a pendulum-clock on the wall of Prospero's castle, as well as the midnight guest who invades the 'Masque' to claim his victims.

      The most famous film franchise in recent years to depict Death as an unstoppable force of nature is the Final Destination series. Death isn’t personified as such, despite the notable ambiguity that surrounds Tony Todd’s character, who turns up as a mortician stating clichés about Death’s plan and how 'only new life defeats death'. Death shows itself as a manipulator of the elements: wind forced through a tiny crack to knock something over or to blow out a gas light; water trickling from a ruptured fish-tank over an electrical wire and towards an unsuspecting person’s feet. Something mundane suddenly becomes threatening, as if it were part of Death’s plan.

      Final Destination was born out of a cross between an unmade X-Files script entitled 'Flight 180' and the 1955 British film The Night My Number Came Up. The latter was directed by Leslie Norman and written by RC Sheriff (The Dam Busters) and follows a Royal Air Force officer who dreams about a plane crash, the details of which begin to unfold in his reality. 

      The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling adapted a short story by EF Benson called The Bus Conductor into an episode of the hit tv show in 1961 and titled it Twenty Two. The plot follows a woman who has a recurring dream about being taken to a morgue in room 22, before finally going to board a flight with the same number. You’d be forgiven for thinking this might also have been an influence on the Final Destination franchise; the Benson story had previously popped up as one of the episodes in Ealing's Dead of Night (1945), which adhered more to the original's phantom bus conductor.

      A fear of death is a predisposition we all possess in one way or another. Whether it is featured in old folk tales or personified on film, death has a way of haunting us. Some films present death as a metaphor for the fragility of life, whereas others show it as the most terrifying stalker that one can imagine. Monty Python, predictably, even lampooned it in gloriously over-the-top medieval guise as the unwelcome guest at a dinner party in The Meaning of Life (1983)! But of all the frightening fiends in the field of horror cinema, Death is and always will be the real monster, because He comes for us all in the end.