Post Road Magazine #11

An Inquiry into the Psychological Roots of America's Death Fetish, or, Where'd You Hide the Body?

Steve Almond

Idon't own a TV. If I did I would get absolutely nothing done, because of my deep psychological dependence on TV. But this is a topic for another day.

My point is that I often go whole days or weeks without seeing a TV and so when I do, I'm struck by entire TV genres that have risen up in my absence.

The other day I found myself in front of a TV (a wide-screen sucker at that) and, in the space of maybe two hours I saw ads for the following series: CSI, Without a Trace, Cold Case, and CSI: New York City.

The basic premise of all of these shows, from what I could discern, is pretty similar: there's a dead body and the investigators have to figure out how it got dead.

So, in other words, we're talking about Quincy, ME only with cooler gadgets and hotter actors. (Not that Jack Klugman isn't hot in my book, I'm just saying.)

In most cases-and I think this is crucial-the bodies have been forgotten, overlooked, or otherwise misplaced. The best example I can cite is the promo for CSI: New York, which I had the pleasure of viewing approximately seventeen times.

It shows a woman on a bus nudging a fellow passenger, apparently a black youth dressed in baggy clothing, who is dozing. His baseball hat falls off and we discover that the kid is actually. . .a skeleton.

Now, I want to make clear that I have never seen any of these shows. I'm sure they're gripping and ingeniously written and expertly acted. But that's not why I find them interesting.

I find them interesting because they (and their massive popularity) strike me as a deep expression of the current national neurosis.

By which I mean that we, as a nation, are suffering from an odd form of survivor guilt. We are being told, almost constantly, that we are at war. We are aware, in abstract terms, that killing is being done in the name of our protection. Like the President, we see the casualty reports on TV. But we are not seeing any of the bodies.

This is the single most conspicuous aspect of our so-called war coverage. No bloody footage allowed, nothing that would make the reality of our military operations too apparent. The media isn't even allowed to photograph the caskets of the fallen.

It's as if the bodies of the Americans (not to mention the foreign combatants, not to mention the foreign civilians) have disappeared. . .without a trace.

Not only are the bodies gone, they have been stripped of any concrete narrative. Why? Because if we saw all those bodies, and learned something about the life that animated each of them, their deaths would become too real.

We might start to ask the appropriate moral questions that accompany pre-emptive military action. Namely: why did this person die? For what cause? Was that cause worth her death, and the anguish felt by her survivors?

In this sense, we can see the deluge of necro-investigative shows as a displaced psychic response, a kind of compensatory pantomime. While the military are engaged in an elaborate cover-up of all those bodies (with a friendly assist from our free press), our popular culture crafts shows in which intrepid, techno-equipped heroes start with a body, and uncover the truth about its death.

These programs are not concerned with morality, though. They are intended to deliver the viewer a sense of closure, of a job well done. They inoculate us against the senselessness of death by rendering death as a mystery to be solved.

I'm not sure I can convey the strangeness of all this.

But just imagine if a person from an indigenous culture with no access to media tried to take stock of our current historical circumstance.

She would find a culture completely insulated from the abundant by-products of actual killing and yet curiously obsessed with precise, artificial renderings of death.

Americans have always had a tremendous knack for self-delusion, of course. We were founded by self-deluders ("All men are created equal. . . except for my slaves") and we have been happily sustained by this pattern of denial.

But I do think the terrorist attacks of 9/11 raised our capacities to a new high.

All we heard about in the days afterward was the scope of the tragedy. Initial estimates, if you'll recall, were up to 40,000 dead at the World Trade Center alone. And yet, oddly, we were shown very few images of human carnage. For the most part what we saw was an endless tape loop: the collision, the collapse, the rubble at Ground Zero.

Again, to put it bluntly: most of the bodies simply disappeared. A psychic vacuum was created-one we're still trying to fill.

I don't mean to suggest that America's death fetish is premeditated, or even recognized. On the contrary, it's a powerful, subconscious effort to experience and tame the horror of death.

One might locate the same paradoxical impulse in a "reality" TV game show that subjects Americans to temporary states of starvation and disease when, in fact, these hardships define human existence in much of the world. But again, that's a topic for another day.

My concern here is with all these dead bodies-the real ones, the fake ones-and our profound national confusion over which is which.

Do we even know anymore?

The image that comes to mind when I consider this paradox is Lady Macbeth.

As you'll recall, she isn't the one who does the killing. She sends her husband to do the dirty work. And yet she goes mad anyhow, rubbing and rubbing at a spot of blood that isn't there, but was, and will be. •

Steve Almond is the author, most recently, of The Evil B.B. Chow & Other Stories. For excerpts of his various perversions, check out www.bbchow.com.

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