Valar Morghulis: Images of Death in Sci Fi and Fantasy

Valar Morghulis: “All men must die.”  All of human culture grapples with this unavoidable fact, from Game of Thrones to millennia-old world religions.  Death looms large in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic. Wars, executions, gods of death, and even the walking dead  all play key parts in the drama.   Martin’s  infamous for killing off beloved central characters, which instills a unique sense of realistic danger into his fantasy.

But Martin is definitely not the first to seem to fixate on death in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy.  The genres have a preoccupation with death.  This is seen most clearly in the sub-genre of apocalypse.

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day

In the modern era, sci-fi took over the religious genre of apocalypse to give us pictures of global disaster that come not from divine wrath, but from human hubris.  The Day the Earth Stood Still and Terminator 2 are classic examples.  But the fear of death is most perfectly reflected in the sub-genre of zombie apocalypse.  The living are pursued by the rotting corpses that they will inevitably become.  In succumbing to the zombies, our heroes become death personified.  In defeating them, they defeat death itself.

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The Walking Dead

Fighting death itself provides a world of thematic possibilities.  Dawn of the Dead shows us how human will can be deadened by consumerism; The Walking Dead asks us to examine what makes life worthwhile in the face of hardship; farces like Zombieland provide us with the catharsis of seeing death defeated in increasingly bizarre and sadistic ways.

“All men must die,” the zombie apocalypse reminds us through a  horrific vision of  the rotting corpses that we are all destined to become.

But another fantasy genre asks, “Must they?”

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True Blood

The vampire is the other side of the coin.  It personifies our fear of death not by showing us a horrifying, walking corpse, but by fulfilling our death-denying fantasies.  The vampire is eternal youth and beauty.  And the vampire is always seductive.  They tempt us because we too have a desire to cheat death.

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Dracula

Yet vampires are horrific because their immortality and beauty is ultimately a lie.  They have not escaped death, but in fact thrive on death.  In order to live forever, the vampire mythos tells us, we must become death.  There is still no escape from the reality of mortality, and to attempt escape is to become a monster.

This is all quite grim, and makes it seem like sci-fi and fantasy don’t have a very healthy relationship with death.  But I would argue that the genres also provide us with beautiful pictures of the inevitable. “After all,” says Albus Dumbledore, “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter does not give us answers to what lies beyond the veil, but it shows us that the preoccupation with escaping death leads us to miss out on life.  In the wizarding fairy tale “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” we see that it is impossible to escape death, but that we can find peace in being able to “greet Death as an old friend” when our time comes.

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The Lord of the Rings also provides beautiful imagery.   In the film version of The Return of the King, Gandalf says:

The journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it…White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

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The Return of the King

But for my money, the most creative picture of death comes from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.  In his graphic novels, Death is personified as a friendly goth girl.  

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This unlikely picture of Death fits so perfectly because she is both older than the universe and as young as today, she simultaneously personifies the final End to all things and a mysterious beginning to what may or may not be Beyond.

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In volume 7 of the series, Brief Lives, Death encounters a man named Bernie, who has magically lived for thousands of years.  She tells him something that gets to the core of her character, and  humankind’s experience of her.

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“You lived what anybody gets.  You got a lifetime.”

Death isn’t something to run to, or to run from.  But she’ll be there for all of us.

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Sandman doesn’t give us easy answers about death, but it shows us that it’s not something to be afraid of.  She greets us not with a hood and scythe, but with black eyeliner and a friendly smile.

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All men – and women – must die.  But first, we get what everyone gets.  We get a lifetime.   

Friday (Late Night Double) Feature – Monsters!!!

Monsters….

There are many types…Some that are monstrous on the outside, and others that are more so on the inside. They are all horrifying, scary, and gut wrenching. Each in their own way has a means of reaching into our souls, into our darkest fears and fantasies, and making us keep the lights on.

Sadly, many of our classic creatures of horror have lost their edge. They’ve been repurposed, repackaged, and have lost the edge that made them the reason that we stayed up all night. Vampires have become sexy, Frankenstein’s monster is used more for laughs, and Werewolves….yeah. They’re sexy too.

That is sooo not Michael J. Fox

So, for today’s feature I give you all two modern monster flicks that will remind you why we call them MONSTERS.

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Pan’s Labyrinth

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. Yes, this movie is in Spanish and has subtitles. If that’s your reason for not having seen this, either myself or another Promethean from the site will find you and punch you in the face.

Guillermo Del Toro, known for Hellboy and most recently Pacific Rim, wrote and directed this film; which had been a passion project of his for a while. Del Toro has always had a distinct visual flare that comes through in his creations. So, even in the most mundane of stories, he has a way of bringing out a more macabre edge.

This is fantastic flick set during the Spanish Civil War. A young girl and her mother move in with one of Franco’s generals in the hills, and the movie follows the daughter as she sees the horrors of the real world juxtaposed with the more fantastic creatures she sees.

I don’t want to get into the specifics of the story or some of the more magical elements, but despite the tame synopsis given above, there is a reason it’s a monster movie. In this case, the monsters are both creature and man.

Death totals remain debated. Antony Beevor writes in his history of the Civil War that Franco’s ensuing ‘white terror’ resulted in the deaths of 200,000 people and that the ‘red terror’ killed 38,000.  Julius Ruiz contends that, “Although the figures remain disputed, a minimum of 37,843 executions were carried out in the Republican zone with a maximum of 150,000 executions (including 50,000 after the war) in Nationalist Spain.”

So, as the young girl sees her world going into flames around her, she escapes into a world where she sees this guy…

Eye See You…

Like I said…monster movie.

Nonetheless, let’s move onto a more light hearted affair…for a horror flick.

Cabin in the Woods

I’m going to be frank about this; I am going to tell you as little as I can about this one, and you’re going to need to take me on faith. The pure joy of this film comes from seeing it with fresh eyes, and I would be doing a disservice to you if I mentioned anything beyond the basic premise.

Joss Whedon cowrote and produced this film with Drew Goddard who directed the piece. Both had worked on Buffy and Angel and wrote the script in three days. The idea was they wanted to subvert the horror/monster movie genre and turn it on its head.

They Did…

The premise is that some kids go to a cabin in the woods and like any horror cliche should, bad things start to happen to them. The twist is, from the first five minutes of the movie, the whole thing is being watched by some well dressed men in a control room. Who they are and what the kids go through is the main thrust of the movie.

This is a wonderful, modern take on the slasher/monster movie sub-genre of horror films. It is both simultaneously funny and terrifying. It will make you rethink every single monster movie, horror film, you have ever seen, and keep you up all night.

Yes, there are monsters in this movie. Like this guy…

He shows up in the first 30 minutes – Still no Real Spoilers…You’ll thank me later…

No, I won’t tell you why, but they are there. If Pan’s Labyrinth is the serious take on the genre, Cabin in the Woods is the polar opposite. It is one of the few movies in the genre that can be considered a game changer in many respects.

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So, with those two films I hope to remind you that monsters can still be scary, that they can still frighten us. Monsters are not there to be french kissed or crushed on. They exist to make us cry like little children and force us to rethink not using our old night lights. With that in mind, I bid you all adieu…

…also, this is the REAL Teen Wolf.

He’s soooooo dreamy….

Happy Halloween, Everyone.