The one thing we have in common is the certainty of our demise. Sure, we might die peacefully in our sleep at old age, but probably not. We asked a neurosurgeon, a forensic psychologist, a horror fiction writer and a horror film expert to speculate: How do nightmarish deaths manifest themselves in pop culture? What are the worst ways to experience death in real life?
Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D
Murder expert,professor of forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, therapist, consultant,author of 54 books
The answer to your question is complicated. Each person fears something that's individual to him or her, and each person has a pain tolerance level that could differ from others. Some would be in terror of being buried alive, while others might cite breathing water into their lungs, freezing, burning, or being slowly tortured or dismembered while alive. Some think the worst death is to be helplessly kept on life support and medicated for years as they waste away. I don't have an answer, because each person must answer this for him-or herself.
— IN 2013, JOÃO MARIA DE SOUZA was killed by a cow that fell through the roof. He was peacefully asleep next to his wife in Caratinga, Brazil when it happened. His wife and the cow were unharmed.
Horror and crime fiction writer, professor at at the University of Colorado Boulder
The most painful way to die, I think, is right after a betrayal. It doesn't matter if you're falling into a vat of needles or if Pinhead's come for you with his running buddies or if you're tied to an ant hill in the desert. Soul-pain hurts so much more.
This is why so many stories that hinge on survival use a deep betrayal as the final cut, as the big reveal. If the character can rally after that, then the physical battle that follows is really just compulsory, because the important fight's already been fought.
But there's also good ways to die, right? Dying as part of a sacrifice of some sort allows your neurons to brown out in a much more satisfying way. Take Kurt Russell's father-character in the Poseidon Adventure remake: he drowns, sure, which we've all heard's pretty brutal. And it looks brutal the way he drowns. But we know too that he's satisfied, that he's whole, that he knows this was for something better.
If you can go out as Sidney Carton, then, man, what else is there, right? But your neurons flickering out where the last thing jumping ahead of the failing light is "Why?," as in, "Why did this person I trusted do this?," that's pretty much the opposite of getting to be Sidney Carton, I think. What we want is wholeness at the end, rather that end involves Leatherface's chainsaw or something somewhat gentler, and a betrayal right before that, that brutally saps your death of that feeling of wholeness.
Associate professor of English and director of the Film StudiesProgram at the University of Pittsburgh
Horror films have been puzzling over this question for decades. What the creators and spectators of horror films know is that painful death is not simply a matter of preference for being eaten alive by ravenous piranha instead of rotting zombies. The most painful death is not a death of the body, but of something we might call the soul. This soul-death comes through being a complicit yet surviving witness in the awful death of others.
For example, Georges Franju’s French horror film Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux sans visage, 1960) presents us with Christiane, a beautiful young woman whose face has was horribly disfigured in a car accident. She must wears an expressionless white mask to conceal the wounds. Her father, a brilliant but ultimately maniacal plastic surgeon who caused his daughter’s accident, insists that he will restore her face. All he needs is a young woman with similar features whose face he can surgically remove and then graft onto his daughter’s. At first, Christiane is so desperate to have her face and life returned to her that she consents to participating in her father’s cruel surgical experiments. [*SPOILER ALERT*] But as the corpses multiply and her knowledge of the young women who are forced to suffer and die for her grows, she rebels against her father. At the film’s conclusion, with her father torn apart by the dogs he had used as tests for his human surgeries, Christiane wanders alone into a dark forest. She is free, but her soul is dead. The impression we are left with is haunting anguish – Christiane has witnessed the worst and paid the price in pain. In turn, we have become her witnesses.
The genius of the best horror films is how they insist that the pain of soul-death is shared between what happens on the screen and what is felt by the spectator, long after the film has ended.
Director of Neurocritical Care,Mount Sinai Health System and Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Obviously the most painful way to die is to undergo some form of torture, like what you might see on an episode of Homeland. There are all kinds of horrible scenarios… but I’m more interested in a day-to-day phenomenon that is much more real.
Unfortunately, we witness high tech deaths in the intensive care unit on a regular basis in the United States and much of the developed world. This scenario plays out again and again with people who are at the end of life, attached to ventilators and other machines that only prolong the dying experience and increase pain and suffering. It's simply too painful emotionally for decision-makers to switch the plan to comfort. The psychological defense mechanisms are intractable.
The solution to this tragedy will come from our ability as a society to accept our own mortality. The problem is the denial of death. The solution is to face this reality clear-eyed, honestly, and with courage and serenity.
About 100 billion people have died in human history.