Captivated by Death

This essay first appeared in the July 1996 edition of Crisis Magazine.


Millions of Americans sit out their lives in darkened rooms, enthralled by the gasps and groans, cries and screams, and by the accompanying images on the screen. Our free-market system is designed to provide efficiently that which people desire and for which they are willing to pay a price. Instead of condemning it, perhaps we should examine why people desire this particular commodity.

Entertainment was always obsessed with sex and death, but while sex is easy to depict and always titillating, waiting around for people to age and die is neither easy to depict nor titillating. An even bigger problem was that younger people tend to have sex, while dying is generally done by the aged. This makes it hard to hold a plot together. The solution was violence because it made death more controllable. Death could now be produced on schedule. It made for more cohesive plots because now the same people who had sex in one scene could die in the next.

Entertainment is not unique in its obsession with death. Elsewhere, too, death exerts a morbid allure. Cars slow down as they pass an accident. Even little children, sensing a death in the family, innocently but persistently question in order to probe what they sense to be a giant mystery. Nobody hears of an aircraft accident without contemplating the passengers’ terrible final moments. Death involuntarily intrudes on most people’s thoughts during a day.

Nor is entertainment unique in its obsession with sex. No aspect of the Internet receives more attention than its concupiscent corners of cybersex. Children seem almost intuitively aware that asking questions about sex is nothing at all like asking what ever happened to Aunt Agatha’s grand piano. Men ruin their lives for a few minutes of it and women glory in the power it confers upon them. Malcolm Muggeridge famously wrote that sex is the only mysticism that materialism offers. I think he was half right. The other great mystery of materialism is death.

Simply identifying sex and death as the essence of mystery is stating the obvious. After all, imagine the indifference with which audiences would greet a whodunit that contained no whiff of either sex or death. Imagine a middle-aged cast of nobody but smart and witty women surrounding Jessica Fletcher while she conducts a thrilling search for the miscreant who stole the salt shaker. As true as this is, it fails to offer any clue as to why people do find sex and death both fascinating and mysterious.

Carl Jung wrote that the old Latin name for alcohol, spiritus, reflected its ability to provide an illusion of spirituality. Alcohol can appear to eliminate the limitations of physical reality. People who feel shackled by physical reality often turn to alcohol because their souls yearn for the infinite.

All humans want more than they have. A marketplace exists because resources are finite while a human soul yearns for the infinite.

Animals cared for in a zoo require only food, shelter, and medical attention. Treating welfare recipients in the same way makes them feel caged and often discontent because a human soul yearns for the infinite.

A child prefers a playmate to a computer program because any program, no matter how complex, is finally knowable and ultimately limited. This does not apply to any person.

A great salesman becomes great by understanding all human nature, including his own. He loves working for commission because his soul yearns for the infinite.

Ironically, people reject the best avenue for grasping spiritual reality when they reject religious faith. They are making a choice to remain in the grip of materialism. This simply means that they experience little or nothing in their daily lives that is not constrained by the natural limitations of physical matter. They have chosen not to relate to anything they cannot see, touch, eat, or wear. Their life is, well, limited.

Thus their only glimpses into a transcendent eternity are the transforming moments into and out of physical life. Conception is the magical moment that brings matter into existence, and death is the moment that bids it farewell. People are captivated by sex and violence because their souls yearn for contact with the infinite.

Hollywood manufactures sex and violence, legitimately in my opinion, because that is what the market wants. People want it for the same reason that folks outside Seattle use instant coffee. It is what you do when you cannot obtain the real thing. The real thing is regular contact with the infinite through the wonderful world of religious faith.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin


Daniel Lapin (born 1947) is an American Orthodox rabbi, author, public speaker, and heads the American Alliance of Jews and Christians. He was previously the founding rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, California. and the former head of Toward Tradition, the Commonwealth Loan Company and the Cascadia Business Institute. Lapin currently hosts a daily television program with his wife Susan and provides spiritual advice to people through his website.

  • Sarto

    Mmm, maybe. An interesting thesis, though. I think of the hardworking loggers I have known for years. All week in the woods, risking their lives with huge weights and heavy machinery. Then all weekend drinking and partying with drugs. Not all of them do this; there are a lot of church goers in this little town. So they find God. But the others? Back to work on Monday. Is their life anything more than a haze? It would be good to think that they had a glimpse of God once in a while.

  • David

    An astute observation by the rabbi.
    People are fascinated by issues beyond their control.
    They may feel that by watching these scenes, they hove some form of control.
    Yet many prefer to avoid God.

  • A very astute observation and it makes me see people who watch TV too much in a new light.

    I mean it only makes sense that people who are areligious, but still made of the same noble stuff as we are, are still irrepressibly drawn to mysticism. Most people are for mysticism but against the actual mysteries and for interesting stories but against true ones.