One Book, One Chicago Fall 2012
Death, Personified: A List
The Book Thief provides one of the most memorable portrayals of Death in recent memory. Here are more, from 18th century literature to current pop culture.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
Poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798
The Mariner and his shipmates are lost at sea until an albatross leads them to safety. However, after the Mariner kills the bird they are becalmed and run out of drinking water. When they finally see another ship, Death is on board playing dice with a corpse-pale female figure named Nightmare Life-in-Death. Death takes the 200 sailors, but the lady wins the Ancient Mariner’s soul so that he is plagued with guilt forever.
“The Masque of the Red Death”
Short story by Edgar Allan Poe, 1842
As a horrible plague rages outside, Prince Prospero shelters the nobility in his abbey and welds the doors shut to prevent anyone else from entering. Later they celebrate with a masquerade ball but become fearful and angry upon seeing someone costumed in a bloody shroud and a corpse mask. They confront the figure and pull away his mask but find nothing inside, realizing it is the Red Death himself.
The Seventh Seal
Film directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1957
In this classic film, actor Bengt Ekerot introduces the iconic dark-robed and hooded figure of Death subsequently parodied by many filmmakers. A medieval knight journeys home while the Black Plague ravages the land. Throughout the story he delays his own demise by playing a game of chess with Death.
“Dancing With Mr. D.”
Song by the Rolling Stones, 1973
Keith Richard lays a sinuous groundwork for Mick Jagger’s tale of darkly romantic trysts. He spies Mr. D. in a graveyard with a twisting mouth and jewelry of human skulls. Then he indulges in a danse macabre with a lady who has “black velvet eyes,” only later to watch her flesh dissolve as he realizes that she is Mrs. D.
“(Don’t Fear) the Reaper”
Song by Blue Öyster Cult, 1976
These heavy metal iconoclasts scored a hit song with a defense of Death featuring menacing guitars, eerie vocals and a darkly ambiguous message. Many people thought the lyrics, which mention Romeo and Juliet, alluded to a murder/suicide pact. However, songwriter Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser says he intended it as a metaphysical love song.
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
Film directed by Terry Jones, 1983
The Grim Reaper, played by John Cleese, arrives unexpectedly at a dinner party, scythe in bony hand. He is repeatedly interrupted by the stereotypical loud-mouthed American guests, while the very British hosts attempt to engage him in small talk.
Fiction series by Terry Pratchett, 1983-2011
Death is a well-drawn character who appears in 37 of the comic-fantasy novels about Discworld. Although he works for the Universal Death, Azrael, he farms out ordinary souls to his minions, claiming those of more important beings himself. He is an archtypical black-robed skeleton who rides a pale horse he calls “Binky.” Intensely interested in humans, he maintains a house replete with gardens, peacocks and a golf course—all fully described in the book Death’s Domain.
Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey
Film directed by Peter Hewitt, 1991
The classic Bergman film is satirized again when the excellent dudes trounce the Grim Reaper (William Sadler) at Battleship, Clue, Twister and NFL Super Bowl Electric Football. “His Royal Deathness” is then forced to join their airhead time-travel escapades and turns out to be a pretty “non-heinous” (good) guy.
Death: The High Cost of Living
Graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Bachalo, 1993
A teenage girl named Didi claims to be Death in this spinoff of the graphic novel The Sandman. She’s an attractive, perky Goth in tight black pants, with the usual job of escorting souls to the hereafter. However, she must visit Earth once a century to experience mortal life.
Meet Joe Black
Film directed by Martin Brest, 1998
Death (Brad Pitt) arrives to claim the soul of a millionaire who bargains for time by offering a vacation among the living. Complications arise when the millionaire’s daughter falls in love with the mysterious stranger. This is a remake of the 1934 film by Mitchell Leisen, Death Takes a Holiday.
Fox TV series created by Seth MacFarlane, 1999–2002 and 2005-present
Radio personality Adam Carolla is the voice of Death in eight episodes of this irreverent animated comedy. The iconic black-robed, scythe-carrying character has a grating personality and still lives with his mother. His pet dog, voiced by comedian Jimmy Kimmel, reaps canine souls.
Just a Minute: a Trickster Tale and Counting Book
Picture book by Yuyi Morales, 2003
When Señor Calavera, a skeleton dressed in a bowler hat, arrives to collect Grandma on her birthday she cleverly delays their departure by enumerating party preparations: she still has one house to sweep, two pots of tea to boil, etc. The distracted Señor Calavera stays for the party and leaves without Grandma. The calavera is a whimsical character popular in Mexican Day of the Dead folk traditions.
Dead Like Me
Showtime TV series created by Brian Fuller, 2003-2004
In this short-lived American-Canadian comedy series, Ellen Muth plays 18-year-old Georgia “George” Lass, a snotty slacker who is killed by falling Russian space station debris. She is posthumously recruited to the Pacific Northwest reaper team and reluctantly performs her duties while working out personal issues that carry over into the afterlife.
A Dirty Job
Novel by Christopher Moore, 2006
In this humorous fantasy novel, Charlie Asher is a neurotic beta-male whose wife has just died after giving birth to their daughter Sophie. He meets a pastel-suited stranger in the hospital and begins working with him as a minor death merchant, collecting souls from the recently departed and protecting them from forces of evil.
Keturah and Lord Death
Young adult novel by Martine Leavitt, 2006
In this romantic medieval tale, Keturah, a peasant girl known for her storytelling, becomes lost in the woods for many days. No stranger to loss, she easily recognizes Lord Death when a handsome lord on a black horse comes for her. Lord Death listens to her tale and offers to bargain for her life.
Death with Interruptions
Novel by Jose Saramago, 2008
On New Year’s Day, while sitting in her chilly apartment, death (she prefers a small “d”) decides to take a break from her work. Initially people are elated when no one dies, but they soon realize the myriad costs of endless life. When death resumes work, she is thwarted by a cellist with whom she falls in love.
Novel by Nick Lake, 2012
Shorty, a 15-year-old gang member in the slums of Haiti, sees his father murdered and his sister kidnapped. As he recovers from gunshot wounds, Haiti is devastated by the earthquake of 2010. Trapped in the darkness of the ruined hospital, he has vivid dreams of revolutionary hero Toussaint L’Ouverture and of Baron Samedi, the top-hatted skeleton who is the patriarch of death in Voodoo religion.