20 years ago, Final Destination taught us that death is less scary when you make it ridiculous
Our real-life chaos tends to play out slower, and it feels a little more mundane and manageable by comparison
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
This week, Devon Sawa reminded us of a crucial and important moment in history: 20 years ago, Final Destination was released (and ruined lumber trucks forever).
Final Destination was released 20 years ago today. <br><br>Remember that scene in the movie where I quarantined myself in that cabin so death couldn’t get me? <br><br>I’m doing that right fucking now, in real life!—@DevonESawa
Of course, this reminder not only gave us all an excuse to re-watch Final Destination in the midst of our self-isolation (what else are we doing, after all?), but it reaffirmed something I think we all already knew: horror movies can be surprisingly comforting. And as we've come face-to-face with a crisis none of us have ever confronted before, watching chaotic fictional events help us feel more in control of our own lives. Our real-life chaos tends to play out slower, and it feels a little more mundane and manageable — at least by comparison.
In the film, Sawa's character narrowly escapes dying by not boarding a flight that ends up crashing — and then spends the remainder of the film running from death, who's angry about being cheated out of the opportunity to claim Sawa as its own. Along the way, he's met with many near-misses and watches in horror as death picks off everyone who somehow managed to escape its grasp. And as each character succumbs to the fates that be, their demise is often horrific, gruesome, and even ridiculous, making what could be a truly upsetting premise seem more sensational, theatrical, and a lot less scary than it is if you think about it for too long. (Personally, I find anyone claiming that someone's death as being their "time" straight-up awful. What does that even mean? Says whomst?! And how dare anyone claim that we're at the mercy of forces outside of what we can see day to day? You don't know me! Get out of here! Leave me alone!)
But horror movies are a surprisingly effective balm for the pain and terror of uncertainty. In real life, there is nothing but the unknown; we have no idea how a dire situation might play out, and usually, the experience is far more mundane and boring than any of us thought it could be. Mind you, this doesn't make it any less traumatizing: instead, it's a strange cocktail of every bad feeling you could ever have, heightened by the stark reminder that you might actually feel this way for a very long time. Horror movies? There's a beginning, middle, and an end. Somebody rises to outsmart whichever villain is pursuing them, and even if the ending still raises questions, there's still a small sense of closure — some sort of finale that either leaves you satisfied or craving the next instalment. Watching someone get strangled to death in the shower in a freak accident, get hit by a speeding bus seconds after discussing the probability of being picked off by a vengeful death, or get beheaded by an oncoming train is much more entertaining than thinking about the many more realistic — and therefore more terrifying — ways that death may end up facing us in our own lives.
Whenever I'm even mildly stressed, I tend to watch the most serious or upsetting thing. On top of true crime documentaries or British procedurals, I watch The Shining whenever I'm feeling overwhelmed (because as anxious as I may feel, I figure at least I'm not stuck in a haunted hotel on a mountain with Jack Nicholson, who takes writing far too seriously). I also always watch Scream if it's on television (because nothing is scarier than a world in which you have to answer the phone), along with almost any 90s slasher (because I find comfort in iced tips and ribbed sweaters). After the movie, I always return to my fear and uncertainty and whatever other unpleasantness I'm trying to get away from — but for a few dozen precious minutes, I can pour it into a circumstance that isn't mine.
After the movie, I always return to my fear and uncertainty and whatever other unpleasantness I'm trying to get away from — but for a few dozen precious minutes, I can pour it into a circumstance that isn't mine.- Anne T. Donahue
I know this isn't a new coping mechanism because horror's unique brand of escapism spans literal centuries. I know that watching something terrible happen onscreen to people who are not real can be a necessary portal into stepping out of your own life long enough to take a breath. And I also know that when the movie ends, we are back in reality, back to being unable to control what's happening to us, and far from the cabin in which Devon Sawa tries to outsmart death. Horror movies aren't a cure for anything, but they're certainly a necessary reprieve — like an ibuprofen you know only gives you a few hours to exist headache-free before that migraine sets back in.
Of course, I would never suggest that horror movies and slasher films are the only avenue for using something very small to make sense of something very big. And I certainly don't suggest ringing in the 20th anniversary of Final Destination by watching it repeatedly (or at all) if movies about our lack of control might make your anxiety even worse. But there's value in submerging yourself in the worlds that exist in the realm of horror — in finding humour in over-the-top acting and what we all deemed to be terrifying once upon a time. (See: the 90s and 2000s, my favourite places to be.) It's necessary to step out and escape, even if the world you're escaping into is just a different sort of nightmare.
Especially since you can always leave if you want to, which might be the greatest thing about using pop culture as a safe place. If Devon Sawa outrunning death gets to be a little too much, you can just leave him and his friends at the train tracks and move on to The Great British Bake Off in peace.