One pervasive way our culture’s intrigue with death is manifested is through crime thriller novels. On TV, at the movies, and in literature, we devour the scenes and experiences of violent and mysterious death. Somehow, consuming death in this way doesn’t seem to affect us emotionally; it always seems unreal, distant, untrue to life.
This may be because scenes of death in these thriller novel narratives simply aren’t portrayed accurately. Thriller novelist and publishing consultant Joanna Penn recently interviewed former homicide detective and Coroner turned author Garry Rodgers, who offered some tips to writers for conveying death in a realistic manner through their novels.
But maybe that’s not what readers want.
Do we prefer the distance of unrealistic death, crime, and murder scenes in thriller books and movies?
Gruesome crime scenes and jolting experiences with death in popular entertainment certainly help perpetuate our cultural view that death is an unwelcome, unpleasant, and altogether dirty event in one’s life. As mentioned in Penn’s interview, death is often portrayed as more quick and more violent than it really is, by writers who don’t understand the natural process. A limited description of the crime scene in books and movies can lead to an almost sexy portrayal of death and crime, without any discussion of the emotional impact on those, like Rodgers, who so closely experience death every day.
Do thrillers that shove death in our face so blatantly and vividly actually help us to ignore the reality of it? By painting it as a something so unbelievably violent, painful, and gruesome, we’re able to write off death as unreal — thinking comfortably, “That will never happen to me.”
But what about the reality that death is, in fact, a natural and not necessarily unwelcome or unpleasant step in every life?
Certainly, I’m not claiming any fault on the part of the authors, writers, and directors who bring us these stories. Instead, I’m seeking to invoke some thought in the reader or viewer. A lot of discussion suggests that violence and death in contemporary entertainment harden us to these realities. Might they actually be shielding us from the true reality of death as a natural part of life?
Read more from Garry Rodgers at his blog Dying Words, where he shares provoking thoughts on death and crime writing. Follow Joanna Penn at her writing, publishing, and book marketing blog The Creative Penn, and (thoughtfully) check out her thriller series ARKANE at JFPenn.com.
For a discussion of violence desensitizing youth to death, see Antal Polony’s post “Violence in Video Games“.
What do you think?
How does the popular portrayal of violent death effect our cultural understanding of the real thing?Photo of Stephen King books by Arjen Toet (Creative Commons)
Photo of ‘Pentecost’ billboard by The Creative Penn (Creative Commons)