Dina Khapaeva is the author of the new book The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture. She also has written Nightmare: From Literary Experiments to Cultural Project. She is Professor of Russian at the School of Modern Languages, Georgia Institute of Technology.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your new book, and how did you research it?
A: My first personal encounter with the phenomenon that I describe as “the cult of death” happened when I entered a huge retail store to buy a tutu for my daughter, and I was stunned by a new fashion line for newborns and toddlers featuring skulls, crossed bones, and the Grim Reaper.
Dumbfounded, I asked myself – has there been any other time in Western history whenmillions of mothers wanted to see their kids dressed as skeletons and covered with signs of death? We are surrounded by this fad in our everyday – big retailers routinely sell skull and skeleton patterned beddings, furniture, etc.
What's more, we are no longer surprised to be greeted by the Grim Reaper in pharmacies, let alone pubs and haunted houses all year around, or to have death studies included in high school curricula. So, the question that captivated me was: what does this fascination with death say about our popular culture and is this a unique cultural phenomenon?
Anthropological studies made me realize that the fascination with death has created new industries such as dark tourism, for example, and transformed funerals — this most conservative of rituals — on both sides of the Atlantic to the point that anthropologists speak about a revolution of burials.
How can we explain why, apart from all other extravaganza, people chose to wear jewelry made from the ashes of their relatives, not to mention so-called green funerals, cryonization, promession etc.?
It has soon become clear to me that anthropology or sociology cannot fully explain the reasons behind these changes, and that other sources are needed to understand them.
Obviously, the fascination with death, and especially with very violent death is remarkable in contemporary movies and fiction. It occurred to me that The Vampire Diaries, Twilight saga, True Blood, the Harry Potter series and the apocalyptic genre such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes may explain the nature of that cultural change.
All these narratives have several features in common: they deny the exceptional value of human life by showcasing how idealized monsters kill undistinguished humans or reduce people to food.
We should not underestimate the novelty of this image: in the entire history of Western culture, people have never been represented in arts as legitimate snacks for other species.
Q: At what point did this new "celebration of death" become common, and what do you see as the factors accounting for the change?
A: The cult of death is a recent movement that has emerged at the end of the 1970s – mid 1980s, and reached its full expansion in the late 1990s.
The aesthetic cause crucial to its formation was the Gothic Aesthetic.
This powerful trend emerged, in the 1980s and early 1990s, when two features overlapped in fiction and movies: murderous monsters became first-person narrators with whom the audience was expected to identify, and their plots and set ups were designed to immerse the audience into a nightmare trance.
Gothic Aesthetic promoted the normalization and idealization of monsters and the denigration of humanity in contemporary popular culture.
Two philosophical ideas are at the intellectual origins of the cult of death: the critique of humanism and the rejection of human exceptionalism.
In the late 1960s-1970s, these ideas were best expressed by the French Theory, the animal rights movement, transhumanism, and posthumanism. By the 1990s, they penetrated the popular culture and became fashionable cultural commodities.
I consider the tragedies of the 20th century an important historical premise of the cult of death. The experience of the totalitarian regimes and the crimes against humanity brought about a deep disillusionment with human beings, their culture and civilization.
It compromised the Enlightenment belief in human nature and the human race as the one uniquely moral species, and created favorable preconditions for a disappointment in humanity on a large scale.
I think it is important to specify that the rise of the cult of death in the past thirty years cannot be explained away by the decline of religion, which dates back to the 18th century.
Q: One of the themes you examine is the popularity of Halloween in the United States especially. How have celebrations of Halloween changed over the years?
A: Let me begin by saying that in the 1960s Halloween was considered by anthropologists as a dying tradition. Today, as we all know, in the U.S. this festival is second only to Christmas in terms of spending on decorations. It flourishes in Europe, Russia, South Africa and Hong Kong.
Why has this remnant of death-centered Celtic agrarian ritual become one of the largest American holidays in the third millennium?
The popularity of Halloween in America rose in the mid-1970s - early 1980s, when the urban legends about poisoned “treats” given to children by strangers, and the abduction and murder of young children as part of Halloween rituals created a nationwide panic.
In parallel with these urban legends, which were proven completely fake, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) started a new trend of horror movies. The rise of Halloween’s popularity is unequivocally related to the anti-humanist and anti-modern origins of that festival.
The Halloween costumes and decorations, which have been growing more and more horrific every year, offer one more proof that Halloween, which allegedly involved human sacrifice, was re-invented to promote a denial of the exceptional value of human life as a fashionable commodity.
Q: You also look at the phenomenon of Harry Potter. How do J.K. Rowling's books fit into your thesis?
A: One of my chapters is focused entirely on the seven books of the Harry Potter series. I explain the enormous success of the Harry Potter franchise by these books' ability to express new attitudes toward humans, humanity, and human life that originated in Western culture in the late 1980s-early 1990s.
The series was among the first to combine the main features of Gothic Aesthetic: they feature a plot that imitates nightmares; and wizards, nonhuman protagonists, who despise humankind, those repulsive Muggles, as an inferior race.
Most importantly, Harry Potter – a wizard disguised as a bespectacled boy -- amalgamated the features of the latest, most prominent, and most marketable character types that had just entered the pleasure market in the 1990s: maniac, vampire, and serial killer.
The Harry Potter franchise offered a new commodity -- a violent death of the main protagonist – as a groundbreaking entertainment for children and adults alike. It also suggested new attitudes to death to its audience.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: The fascination with violent death is intimately related to neo-medievalism, which I consider a social and political expression of the new attitudes to people spread by the cult of death.
Medieval allusions are omnipresent in vampire sagas, the Harry Potter series, Game of Thrones, etc. To my mind, they represent a specific form of distorted historical memory. So, my new book, Neo-Medievalism: A Social Project explores the meaning of medieval allusions in American and Russian cultures and politics.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb