How Disney cartoons helped me deal with the fear of death
Packaged in cutesy animation, Disney films have allowed me to explore my fears in a safe space
04 Jun 2021
Content warning: mentions and descriptions of death
It’s hard to pinpoint when my fear of death first started, but I vividly remember being exposed to someone who told me they wanted to die at a young age. They said it so fleetingly, as though they were talking about the weather or discussing the news. I didn’t really understand what they meant at the time; how could I? At that age I’d barely processed the concept of death, but as an adult, the fear of it haunts me.
Of course, it’s not uncommon to be concerned about mortality, but having thanatophobia – an anxiety condition characterised by the excessive fear of death – throws my worries into a new dimension. What I find most terrifying about it is that one moment there might be people in your life, making plans, giving you hugs and asking how you are, and the next moment they’re gone and have disappeared off the face of the earth.
I worry about death so much that it’s become embedded into my daily routine. If the house phone rings after 9pm, I assume it’s news of an elderly relative’s passing. When I see several missed calls from someone with no explanation, I immediately think the worst. I suffer from nightmares of people dying in my arms that are so lifelike I wake up a hot sweaty, anxious mess, and if someone falls asleep beside me, I have to compulsively check if they’re even breathing. Every time I meet someone to hang out with, my intrusive thoughts whisper: “What if it’s the last time you see this person?”
“And if someone falls asleep beside me, I have to compulsively check if they’re even breathing”
Being a Hindu has also hugely influenced my thanatophobia; when someone from the community dies, their body is brought back home and the family performs rituals which involve walking around them and chanting prayers. People may think of it as a necessary grieving process, but the idea of seeing a loved one’s dead body has always terrified me. Plus, watching Bollywood movies with scenes where bodies are cremated has made me terrified of funerals. I have an active imagination, so whenever someone dies, I can’t help but picture haunting images of burning flesh and decaying bones. The thoughts are so physical, they seem to live in my stomach.
Recently however, I’ve found an unlikely coping mechanism – Disney films. My love for all things Disney stems from my childhood; when I was younger, I used to go to the knock-off Blockbusters near my family’s house to purchase a film for the week. My sister and I would always choose a Disney classic like The Little Mermaid and Hercules. I remember the films being filled with enough fantasy and colourful cinematography to distract us from the realities of homework and chores.
It turns out that they are still a great form of escapism. What’s more, recent Disney films like Coco and Soul deal with the topic of mortality really well and have even helped me to stop thinking about death when I start spiralling.
“There isn’t just one fixed way to think about death – after all, so many cultures and religions have their own interpretations of it”
Coco, for instance, follows Miguel, the young protagonist who accidentally crosses over to the ‘other side’ on the Dia de Los Muertes (also known as ‘The Day of The Dead’). From the very first scenes in which Miguel encounters them, the dead are portrayed as normal people living their life with all the hustle and bustle of the world of the living. It may seem odd to depict the ‘after-life’ in such a way, but it’s heart-warming to see Miguel’s ancestors all having fun together, and it’s a much nicer prospect than them simply dying and experiencing nothingness. It made me realise that there isn’t just one fixed way to think about death – after all, so many cultures and religions have their own interpretations of it.
The characters in Coco place importance on keeping the memories of the dead ‘alive’, which also made me want to use some of my time to think about the things that make me feel alive – like the feeling of stepping off a plane into a new country, or the smell of a new book in the library.
In contrast to Coco, Soul is vividly different in its representation of death. It centres around Joe, a high school music teacher who feels that he has never got his big break as a jazz musician. But just as it looks like this may finally happen, he suffers a fatal accident and dies, with his soul separating from his body and transported to another, abstract, realm. Feeling like he has ‘wasted’ his life, Joe tries desperately to return to his body so he can fulfil his dream.
“Packaged in cutesy animation and with their inevitably wholesome endings, Coco and Soul have allowed me to explore my fears in a safe space”
Soul’s more metaphysical interpretation of death meant that after watching the movie, I had more questions than I did at the start. Do souls exist (interestingly, this idea ties in with Hinduism as we believe in the atma (soul) leaving the body after death)? Can humans be reincarnated as animals (as happens to Joe after his soul is temporarily put into the body of a cat)? But despite not giving me the answers, Soul’s focus on the significance of life and the meaning that can be found in even the smallest of moments, encouraged me to grab life by the horns and live without fear of the inevitability of death.
Although I still suffer vividly with thanatophobia, watching these Disney films has provided me with comfort and relief. Packaged in cutesy animation and with their inevitably wholesome endings, Coco and Soul have allowed me to explore my fears in a safe space and feel less traumatised by the concept of death. I have also been researching how to deal with thanatophobia and scouring Reddit for advice has been a great help with this, as well as talking to people I trust.
I may have no idea what happens after I die, but that doesn’t mean this fear has to affect the way I live. As I’ve learned from watching Disney films, of all things, death is just the next step in the process.