How Shows About Death Help Us Cope With Mortality

Summary: Exposure to death through media, such as films and series, can enhance one’s ability to cope with the concept of death. Participants who were prompted to think about death before watching meaningful scenes from films like Me Before You or series such as House and Grey’s Anatomy, showed a greater acceptance of death compared to those who did not engage in pre-viewing reflection.

This study highlights the role of meaningful media content in altering perceptions about death, suggesting that films and series can serve as effective tools for engaging with and learning about life’s finite nature. The findings emphasize that confronting death through storytelling allows individuals to explore and reconcile with mortality in a consequence-free environment.

Key Fact:

  1. Participants who thought about death before watching meaningful films exhibited a better understanding and acceptance of death.
  2. Meaningful media content specifically about death was more effective in changing attitudes than content about other endings or non-meaningful depictions of death.
  3. The study suggests that storytelling and emotional engagement in films can serve as a safe space to reflect on and learn about challenging topics like death.

Source: Radboud University

People actively engaging with death, for instance by reading about it, and then watching a film where that subject is central, learn to deal with death better.

This is shown by research by Enny Das and Anneke de Graaf from Radboud University.

This shows a man in a grave yard.
Respondents who watched non-meaningful films about death, or meaningful films about other forms of finiteness like the ending of a relationship, learned nothing about death. Credit: Neuroscience News

“It’s quite strange that we enjoy watching films about death,” explains professor of Persuasive Communication Enny Das. “Generally, people try to avoid death as much as possible, by not talking about it or thinking about it. But we willingly watch dramatic films where people die.”

Meaningful

The researcher had respondents watch ‘meaningful’ – that is, scenes that move you – from series like House and Grey’s Anatomy or the meaningful film Me Before You. One group was asked to think about death beforehand, while the other group was not.

“We saw that the group who had been given the task to think about death beforehand, had learned more about death afterward than the other group.” The first group had, among other things, a greater acceptance of death as part of life and was less inclined to avoid death.

Active fear 

Das: “The research shows that people do not automatically learn from meaningful films. You could say they prefer not to learn. Only when they feel the urgency, they learn from it.” This can happen when people walk past a cemetery, or when they are asked to think about death, as in this research.

Respondents who watched non-meaningful films about death, or meaningful films about other forms of finiteness like the ending of a relationship, learned nothing about death.

Consequence-free practice 

Why do people learn from films about death? Das says it has to do with the power of storytelling: by experiencing a story through a protagonist, you can practice and reflect on themes without consequences.

“Film is a perfect medium for learning about difficult, dangerous, or forbidden things. By empathizing with a protagonist, you can jump over canyons or harm people. The storyline in the film Me Before You, where (spoiler alert) a protagonist accepts that her loved one wants to die, teaches you as a viewer: death is still sad, but sometimes it’s okay.”

About this mortality and psychology research news

Author: Lieneke van Dijk
Source: Radboud University
Contact: Lieneke van Dijk – Radboud University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
When meaningful movies invite fear transcendence: An extended terror management account of the function of death in movies” by Enny Das et al. Communications Research


Abstract

When meaningful movies invite fear transcendence: An extended terror management account of the function of death in movies

Meaningful movies can serve as an anxiety buffer against the fear of death, unless death plays a central role in the movie. This invites the question what happens when death is central to a movie storyline.

The present research introduces and tests the so-called fear transcendence route, a second terror management route in which meaningful movies about death invite viewers to virtually confront and transcend their fear of death.

Two experiments (N = 206; N = 401) tested three preconditions for fear transcendence, that is, (1) death is salient in real life; (2) death is central to the storyline, and (3) the movie projects a specific meaning to death.

We assessed effects on fear transcendence, operationalized as decreased fear of death; decreased death avoidance; increased death acceptance.

Especially older viewers became less avoidant and more accepting of death when the preconditions for fear transcendence were met.

Meaningful movies about death can thus evoke fear transcendence.

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