We blame screens. Think about it: how many of today’s problems began with, or are made worse by, people gaping at screens?
As with so many things—automobiles, for example—the dire eventual consequences were not evident at first. Now they are so ubiquitous that eliminating them all would be impossible. Just imagine the disruption that would entail. But, given the level of chaos we’re already experiencing, and likelihood that more is coming, it certainly won’t hurt to at least assess this problem.
In accordance with our conservative tendencies, we shall begin at the beginning, namely, the Dutch Republic in 1659. Two years after inventing the pendulum clock, the absurdly prolific Christiaan Huygens* crafted the first magic lantern: a box, an oil lamp, a glass slide, and some lenses, which projected an image onto a screen.
“In the beginning, [magic lanterns] were mostly used to project scary images, like Death or skeletons. Huygens’ first sketches of pictures that could be projected using magic lanterns were even a series of pictures of Death taking off its head. These scary pictures eventually became the core of horror shows called “Phantasmagoria,” which were very popular throughout the 19th century.” †
Not having evolved to any measurable degree in the intervening years, humans still found entertainment in death and mayhem following the invention of motion pictures.
In fact, the first hit movie ever—the Edison company’s 1903 opus “The Great Train Robbery”—ends with Justus D. Barnes, as a train-robbing outlaw, firing his Colt six-shooter directly at the audience.
Pretending to kill the audience never took hold, but over the ensuing 120 years, across many genres—from cowboy shoot-em-ups and war epics to gangster movies and TV cop shows—few things have more reliably drawn an audience than one human killing another. ‡
This leads us to suspect that there might be something going on here. Don’t take our word for it though. Let’s consult Ernest Becker, a leading expert on the topic of humans contemplating—or failing to contemplate—their own demise.
A nice Jewish boy from Springfield, Massachusetts, Becker would have been either 20 or 21 when, as a U.S. Army infantryman, he helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp. Following this memorable bit of military service, Becker became an administrator in the U.S. Embassy in Paris but soon began his true life’s work as a student and a professor of anthropology.
“In his 1973 book The Denial of Death,” his Wikipedia bio relates, “Becker came to believe that an individual’s character is essentially formed around the process of denying one’s own mortality, that this denial is a necessary component of functioning in the world, and that this character-armor masks and obscures genuine self-knowledge. Much of the evil in the world, he believed, was a consequence of this need to deny death.”
The Denial of Death was widely praised and has never been out of print. It won the Pulitzer for non-fiction in 1974, a few months after Becker’s death from colon cancer, at the age of 49.
His work is carried on by the Ernest Becker Foundation, founded in 1993. One aspect of that work is Terror Management Theory [TMT], the basic tenet of which is that the awareness of death “engenders potentially debilitating terror that is ‘managed’ by the development and maintenance of cultural worldviews.”
Faced with the knowledge of their own inevitable demise, humans attain “[s]ymbolic immortality… by being part of a great nation, amassing great fortunes, noteworthy accomplishments, and having children.”
Empirical research supports this theory. Experiments have shown that when a test subject’s awareness of death is elevated, it “intensifies their strivings to defend their cultural worldviews.” In addition, “non-conscious death thoughts come more readily to mind when cherished cultural beliefs or self-esteem is threatened.”
So, in short, most humans are scared to death of death, and do their best to deny it. Rather than facing their existential dilemma and dealing with it, they will emotionally bind themselves to something larger and more enduring.
One consequence of this arrangement is that when they perceive that greater thing as being endangered, it rouses the very terror they have been trying to suppress.
Let us now leave aside the theoretical, and return to our mundane, day-to-day world—if we dare.
Let’s flip on the radio and listen to Glenn Beck, Clay Travis, Buck Sexton, or Sean Hannity.
Or, we could add some visual razzle-dazzle, by tuning in to Fox News.
Not your cup of media? That’s too bad, because no matter where you turn, you can’t escape the constant fear-mongering. In any given hour on CNN, you’ll find an array of Republicans throwing additional barrels of napalm on the dumpster fire that is our national dialogue.
The GOP has more think tanks than we can count. Judging from their modus operandi, at least some of their brainiacs must be familiar with Becker’s work.
But even if they developed their strategy intuitively, it’s clear that the GOP has perfected the art of finding, collecting, and further terrifying those who are already scared to death of death.
* Among many other things, Huygens discovered Saturn’s moon Titan. NASA landed a space probe named Huygens on Titan in 2005.
‡ Imagine we knew the total number of all the individual killings in all the movies and TV shows that were ever made. Now take the number of all the showings, and the size of the audiences. Multiply them and we’d have the number of times one human watched another human pretending to kill a third. Just for irony’s sake, we’re guessing it would come to about 117 billion—equal to the estimated number of all the humans who have ever lived.