Stories of Loss: Death and the Narrative Structure of Popular Movies

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Kobie van Krieken @Kobie

:classical_building: Affiliation: Radboud University

Title: Stories of Loss: Death and the Narrative Structure of Popular Movies

Abstract (long version below): This study investigates how death is portrayed in popular movies to advance our understanding of what movies communicate to the audience about the meaning of death, and what viewers simulate while watching death scenes. Sixty movies were analyzed on (1) the role of death in the narrative structure, (2) type of death, and (3) portrayal of death. Results show that death events tend to be attacks, tend to be explicitly portrayed, and tend to be story-terminating, indicating that death is typically seen as meaningful in relation to the past: it retrospectively adds meaning to the lives and journeys of people.


:newspaper: Long abstract

Research has shown that movies about death may help viewers to cope with their mortality and to approach death in a “safe” environment (Das & te Hennepe, 2022; Rieger & Hofer, 2017). These findings resonate with the idea that narratives function as a ‘flight simulator’ (Oatley, 2008). Upon entering an imaginative narrative world, audience members mentally simulate the social scenarios occurring in it (Black et al., 2021). This simulation can be seen as a preparation for when these scenarios might occur in real life (Van Krieken, 2018). Indeed, much like how a flight simulator improves flying skills, fictional stories might improve people’s skills to navigate social life (Oatley, 2016). In the context of death, movies depicting death can be argued to offer a virtual experience in which people can safely approach and simulate death and learn to assign meaning to death (Gibson, 2001).

It is yet unclear, however, what exactly viewers learn about death from watching movies and what they simulate while watching death-related scenes. Answering these questions is important because we rarely encounter death in our own, real life for it is typically handled in professional rather than private spaces (Jacobsen, 2016); the representation of death in the media is, thus, crucial to our understanding of death and feelings towards death (e.g., Clarke, 2006). This study therefore sets out to investigate how death is portrayed in popular movies and how movies assign meaning to death. It focuses on the role of death in the narrative structure of movies, because this reflects how death achieves meaning (Hagin, 2010): death can be (1) story-initial, in which case it is meaningful in relation to the future by altering or setting up new goals for a character; (2) story-terminating, in which case death is meaningful in relation to the past, either by revealing the truth or by making an end to evil; or (3) story-intermediate, in which case death is meaningful in relation to the past as well as the future.

The IMDB database was searched for movies (2012-2021) with a minimum of 10,000 user votes, using the keyword ‘death’. Thirty drama movies and thirty action movies with the highest viewer ratings were included. These genres were selected because they are stable, basic genres (Visch, 2007) and because they are among the most successful movie genres.

For each movie, the main death-related event was identified and analyzed on a number of variables, including: (1) the role of the event in the narrative structure (story-initial; story-intermediate; story-terminating; Hagin, 2010); (2) the event type(s) (funeral; afterlife; accident; threat; attack; self-harm; medical; conversation; and atural death; all yes/no; Schultz & Huet, 2001); and (3) explicit depiction of death (yes/no; Graham et al., 2018). Two coders were involved in the analysis (Krippendorff’s α ranging from .671 to 1.00).

Death-related events tend to be story-terminating (52%) rather than story-initial (30%) or story-intermediate (18%). Most death events were attacks (53%), followed by conversations about death (37%) and threats (23%). Accidents (5%) and self-harm events (10%) were rare, and there were no death-related events involving funerals or afterlife. Finally, death was shown explicitly in the majority of the movies (65%). There were no differences between drama movies and action movies.

In most movies, death is story-terminating and therefore meaningful in relation to the past (Hagin, 2010): it retrospectively adds meaning to the lives and journeys of people. This means that death is seen as the final station, whereas in real life, traumatizing events such as the death of a loved one can also be the starting point of new journeys, deeper interpersonal connections and personal growth (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996). This view of death was expressed in a smaller number of movies, in which death was story-initial.

Most movies included explicit death portrayals. While being absorbed into the story and identifying with its characters, viewers thus closely approach and simulate death. At the same time, viewers know that the story world is fictitious and that they can escape from it at any time (Gibson, 2001). As such, explicit death portrayals can be argued to provide social scripts for dying (Knox, 2006) within the safe context of a fictitious world.

Finally, results showed that movies tend to paint an unrealistic view of how people die: more than half of all deaths were attacks, whereas in reality most people die from medical issues or accidents (CDC, 2021). This contrast exemplifies the “widening gap and experiential differential between media/technological death culture and ‘real life’ contexts and temporalities of death and bereavement” (Gibson, 2007, p. 415).
This study advances our understanding of what viewers simulate while watching death scenes in popular movies, and what they learn about the meaning of death. These findings are relevant for researchers in the fields of narrative, media and film studies, and death studies.

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