Final Destination and the Triumph of Death
If Wes Craven’s Scream (self-aware, essayistic, bursting with humor and ideas) represents a culmination of the slasher movie, and it certainly does, then the Final Destination franchise is an epitaph. As epitaphs go, it is uncharacteristically grim, but grimness is fitting for a pithy sentence on the tombstone of slasher films.
And let no one doubt: slasher films are dead. The Saws and Conjurings and Paranormal Activities supplanted Freddy and Jason and Michael Myers. Despite reboots, remakes, and exercises in nostalgia, no new killer-of-teens has captured the popular imagination.
If Scream deconstructs the slasher movie, Final Destination combs the rubble, withdrawing only the most necessary elements from the scrap, and cobbling them into something hideous and unforgettable. Final Destination even dispenses with the killer. In his place is the invisible force of death itself. Instead of a stabbing, skewering, or crushing at the hands of a masked maniac, victims have the flowers of their youth snipped by Rube-Goldberg monstrosities.
Gone, too, is the Final Girl, and any semblance of morality along with her. If any victims survive, we know it is not virtue that saves them.
The charge of nihilism misapplied to Friday the 13th Part 2 could be justly directed at Final Destination, but Final Destination’s nihilism is not of the empty, materialistic variety. It is that of a hopeless, Cthonic fatalism. It is a Dance of Death, a memento mori, crafted not to remind viewers of judgment and eternal life, but engineered to rob this bare existence, precarious and brief as it is, of anything but dread, but anticipation of the abyss.
To this end, Final Destination retains, even amplifies, the ritualistic, repetitive structure of slasher films. With the killer and the moral redacted, it takes on a character far bleaker than that of its ancestors.
Final Destination enlists its victims as participants in the ritual by introducing a peculiar motif. There is, we are told, an order in which victims are meant to die. If this order is shuffled—if, say, victim 4 perishes before victim 2—the entire process could be circumvented.
Of course, if this worked, there wouldn’t be any sequels.
Fans of the franchise are aware of what will happen to anyone in death’s crosshairs. We see the characters’ schemes for what they are: desperate, irreverent, and featherlight blows against an omnipotent opponent.
These poor souls are hopelessly outmatched. They fear it, but fans know it.
The Final Destination movies, unlike their predecessors, are wholly consistent in their worldview. The slasher movie has been seen as an articulation of Reagan-era Americana. The Final Girl, eschewing sex and drugs and ultimately escaping with her virtue, and her life, intact, is supposed to be an example for all of us.
There is, of course, a blatant hypocrisy here. So many of these films are filled with nudity, seemingly designed to trigger the very kind of lust they suggest we avoid. The repetitive plots, punctuated by moments pornographic or gruesome or both, have a narcotic effect. And anyone who’s ever smoked a joint before a movie can tell you that these pictures are far better stoned.
The slasher movie, in other words, encourages the impulses it criticizes. In Final Destination, there is none of this paradox.
With few exceptions (Scream comes again to mind), slasher franchises don’t tend to have the same protagonists in their sequels. Typically, we meet a new batch of teenagers for each installment. But we don’t watch for the kids—we watch for the killers. It’s never really about rooting for The Final Girl: it’s about watching her friends get dispatched.
The killer is the hero. To make these films more palatable, and to cushion the viewer from any awareness of guilt (for slasher movies, after all, are cinematic comfort food), the victims are seen as “deserving it” for their misbehavior.
Final Destination is far more disturbing, for its invisible hero is merciless and undiscriminating. It is also prophetic in its anticipation of hopelessness that pervaded American culture in the wake of 9/11.
Final Destination and Millennial Nihilism
A Dream of Plague
French dramatist Antonin Artaud, in his essay “The Theater and the Plague,” makes some haunting observations on the nature of catastrophe. He recounts an “astonishing historical fact” recorded in the archives of a Sardinian town.
The viceroy of this small Mediterranean island dreamed he was infected with plague, and that the disease was bringing his community to ruin. He’d heard rumors that this scourge was moving westward, and took the dream as a sign.
Soon, the Grand-Sant-Antoine, which had sailed from Beirut, requested to dock. The viceroy, despite the skepticism of his fellow citizens, ordered the ship away from his island, even threatening to fire on them should they ignore his demands. The crew of the Grand-Sant-Antoine acquiesced, landing instead at Marseille. There, the plague wrought the awful destruction that the viceroy feared would come to his island.
A modern reader would likely attribute these events to coincidence, but Artaud does not. “This,” he writes, “inspires certain thoughts”:
The Grand-Saint-Antoine, which passes within shouting range of Cagliari, in Sardinia, does not deposit the plague there, but the viceroy gathers certain emanations from it in a dream; for it cannot be denied that between the viceroy and the plague a palpable communication, however subtle, was established: and it is too easy and explains nothing to limit the communication of such a disease to contagion by simple contact. But these relations between [the viceroy] and the plague, strong enough to liberate themselves as images in his dream, are all the same not strong enough to infect him with the disease.
Forms of Sickness
The essay proceeds to offer a brief survey of plague literature. Is the disease which the Grand-Saint-Antoine carried the same mentioned in Boccaccio’s Decameron? While much of Boccaccio’s account is in keeping with what we know of yersinia pestis, we also find this anomalous incident:
One instance of this kind I took particular notice of: the rags of a poor man just dead had been thrown into the street. Two hogs came up, and after rooting amongst the rags and shaking them about in their mouths, in less than an hour they both turned round and died on the spot.
And in both the Bible and Herodotus, Artaud notes, we find record of a “lightning-like appearance of the plague which in one night decimated the 180,000 men of the Assyrian army, thereby saving the Egyptian empire.” This devastation is anomalous for even the most virulent forms of the disease.
Artaud recounts other instances of the scourge, which coincide with political and social upheavals. That these species of disorder would occur conjunction is, he says, no coincidence. Historians in ages past, who “paid much less attention to morbid symptoms than to the demoralizing and prodigious effect produced on the victims’ minds,” may have seen more clearly.
We should have to consider the scourge,” he writes, “as the direct instrument or materialization of an intelligent force in close contact with what we call fatality.”
A Disease of the Soul
Artaud was not a doctor, and his analysis doesn’t need to be medically accurate to prove insightful. He is examining these cases on a level far deeper than the physiological.
If we read that the plague is “a malady that would be a kind of psychic entity and would not be carried by a virus,” the quibble that yersinia pestis is a bacteria in no way discredits the larger point. We ought not ignore this extraordinary thesis: there might be a psychic entity, “a materialization of an intelligence” connected to “what we call fatality,” that precedes or attends moments of historical disruption.
Artaud, in describing the symptoms of plague, notes its horrific effects upon a number of organs. He finds something curious: although the “gall bladder […] is full, swollen to bursting with a black, viscous fluid”; although “the flesh is hard as stone” and “the blood in the arteries and the veins is also black and viscous”; although on “the inner surfaces of the stomach membrane, innumerable spurts of blood seem to have appeared” and there is every indication of “a fundamental disorder in the secretions”; we find “neither loss nor destruction of matter, as in leprosy or syphilis.”
There is, however an exception—there are cases in which “the injured lungs and brain blacken and grow gangrenous.” This, he thinks, is a key to comprehending the plague’s true nature. Unlike the gallbladder, the intestines, or the stomach, the brain and the lungs, “the only two organs really affected and injured by the plague,” are “directly dependent on the consciousness and the will.”
If it is consciousness and will, more than the body itself, which plague attacks, earlier historians had good reason to focus on “the demoralizing and prodigious effect produced on the victims’ minds.”
The Final Destination films dramatize this very process, and, like the emanations that haunted our viceroy, visit us with a nightmare of the moral, spiritual, and political inversions that haunted the early decades of our century.
Final Destination, released in March of 2000, features an iconic and prescient opening. We are presented, a little over a year before 9/11, with a plane crash.
It is this crash that anchors the film, and creates the template for the franchise. It is telling that each installment of Final Destination begins not with a disaster, but with a vision that, like the viceroy’s dream, warns the protagonist of impending catastrophe.
Slasher films, which came to prominence in the 80s, articulated Americans’ fear of serial killers. Evil was embodied, in the popular consciousness, by figures like Richard Ramirez, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy. They are the reason you weren’t supposed to get in cars with strangers.
After 9/11, the national villain was recast. The terrorists behind 9/11 didn’t gain the public profile that serial killers were given. Bin Laden, of course, became a hated figure—but he didn’t fly the planes into the Twin Towers. Rather, he was a distant puppeteer, like Goldstein from Orwell’s 1984, seen only through grainy video footage.
Our fascination wasn’t with the individuals, but with the carnage they caused. The jihadi—whose ideology was as alien as his language—wasn’t the subject of true crime bestsellers. He wasn’t psychoanalyzed, and no miniseries were made on his life.
The celebrity status which some killers achieved was unavailable to him. No young women attended his trial, nursing a crush and sure that he’d been misunderstood. Most terrorists died with their victims, and many of those who didn’t were tried in shadowy FISA courts, where no cameras were present.
The terrorist, like force of death in Final Destination, is relatively faceless—he represents a disembodied threat, far broader and less predictable. It is telling, surely, that that we embarked on a “War on Terror” (not “terrorism” or “terrorists”) in the wake of 9/11.
Just as the characters of Final Destination are stalked by death, we were imperiled by terror—by fear itself.
When Will I Be Blown Up?
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?William Faulkner, Nobel Banquet Speech
As with the victims of plague, the War on Terror produced demoralizing and prodigious effects on the minds of Americans. Terror became our master, always lurking just out of view—ready to strike those who didn’t guard against it with the proper reverence.
In case we forgot to pay proper obeisance to the spirit of terror, a propaganda apparatus was developed to remind us. In 2002, six months after 9/11, the Bush administration implemented a ranking system, five color-coded levels informed us of the level of terrorist threat. Green, blue, yellow, orange, and red levels told us how afraid to be—from placid to petrified. According to Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Organization:
The directive also made it clear that information was intended to create incentives for action. Each level of alert was meant to trigger threat-specific protective measures by government agencies, private organizations, and individuals.
This system was criticized for being vague, and for its “lack of meaningful communication and guidance.” For the average American, an orange or red level didn’t translate into specific actions:
Public confusion was reflected in polls. A Hart-Teeter poll sponsored by the Council for Excellence in Government in March 2004 found that 73 percent of those polled were anxious or concerned about terrorism and 34 percent had looked for information about what to do in the event of an attack, but only one person in five was aware of state or local preparedness plans.
Was the project, then, a failure? Whether those who implemented it dissembled their real goals, or whether they were sincere in their assessment of the threat, is immaterial. This system allowed terror to spread like yersinia pestis, imbuing the abstract idea of terror with a more specific content. By generating awareness through fear, and by its apparent incapacity to direct potential terror victims toward helpful solutions, citizens became like the poor souls in Final Destination, haunted by a specter against which they had no defense.
The Ubiquitous Stage
In comparison to the plague, American deaths due to terrorism were localized and limited. We have, thankfully, not seen another attack comparable to 9/11. The disease was just as transmissible, but less virulent.
And those of us familiar with Artaud’s essay must wonder if Final Destination, like the emanations which visited the sleeping viceroy, was “the materialization of an intelligent force in close contact with what we call fatality.” It announced the arrival of a new kind of fear, and dismissed the possibility of escape.
Artaud, in an extraordinary passage, describes the inversion of all social forms that attends the plague’s physical devastation:
The dregs of the population, apparently immunized by their frenzied greed, enter open houses and pillage riches they know will serve no purpose or profit. And at that moment the theater is born. The theater, i.e., an immediate gratuitousness provoking acts without use or profit.
The last of the living are in a frenzy: the obedient and virtuous son kills his father; the chaste man performs sodomy upon his neighbors. The lecher becomes pure. The miser throws his gold in handfuls out the window. The warrior hero sets fire to the city he once risked his life to save. The dandy decks himself out in his finest clothes and promenades before the charnel houses. Neither the idea of an absence of sanctions nor that of imminent death suffices to motivate acts so gratuitously absurd on the part of men who did not believe death could end anything. And how explain the surge of erotic fever among the recovered victims who, instead of fleeing the city, remain where they are, trying to wrench a criminal pleasure from the dying or even the dead, half crushed under the pile of corpses where chance has lodged them.
Perhaps Artaud is right, and survivors are “immunized by their frenzied greed.” In seeing the frailty of every institution designed to protect them, those who remain might conclude that these social, religious, and political structures are empty show. Having emerged from such misery, they recast themselves.
There is, we read, a deep affinity between the stage actor and the plague victim: one runs “in shrieking pursuit of his visions,” while another scrambles after his feelings; one, having invented “for himself personages he could never have imagined without the plague,” performs before “an audience of corpses and delirious lunatics,” while the playwright’s characters are presented to a public “equally inert or delirious.”
Indeed, inertia and delirium have characterized our reaction both to the War on Terror and COVID. The overload of information, making it virtually impossible to feel, with confidence, that we’re able to determine truth, either paralyzes or drives us to frenzy. Our presidents, never trustworthy, are now reality-television stars or puppets too old to believably wield the office.
Life has become increasingly performative, and trust in our institutions has either plummeted or dissolved entirely. The recent pandemic only amplified these conditions: so much of our interactions were mediated through screens; we wore masks even when alone, acknowledging (if only tacitly) that they were more palliative than protective; we listened to Q, who promised that Trump had everything under control and would usher a new era of liberty and justice.
We have been subject, like the characters in Final Destination, like the victims of plague, to a “general and universal physical fear.” This fear is always inexcusable, and we have been convinced, to our shame, that living in its thrall is bearable—because we no longer believe, or we have forgotten, that we will be judged.