Digital Psychopomp: The Online Personification of Death

Death as a character in art and literature has always fascinated me. Like many people, my first encounter with Death as a character was in Bergman’s 1957 film, ‘The Seventh Seal’ and its many parodies, culminating in the hysterical  visitation of Death in Monty Python’s ‘Meaning of Life’. Since before medieval times, Death has appeared in Western art work as the Grim Reaper, and of course possibly the earliest description of Death appears in the Revelations of St John, “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”

There are too many instances to cite them all, although the character of Death is usually portrayed as a skeleton, sometimes in hooded robes and carrying a scythe. The enigmatic face of Death is one which is often expressionless, sometimes with a fixed grin, usually hard, cold and austere. His role is variable, sometimes portrayed as architect, instrument,  judge, mediator or ferryman.

The portrayal of Death through medieval, renaissance, 18-19 century and modern culture may be seen in literature, visual arts and music. More recently Death has also been portrayed in online media through websites including Facebook, Twitter, Gaming and Blogs, most notably as an assumed identity. It is interesting to note the ways that Death is portrayed and also the reasons why. Death is used as a vehicle for humour, artistic expression, religious or philosophical expression, identity, threat, a call for help, understanding death. Death is sometimes portrayed as a sentient being and sometimes as a psychopomp.  So, what is online identity about?  How useful is the online personification of death in understanding the process of dying or the state of death? How different are the online personifications of Death to other artistic expressions or are they the same? Are there common themes, taxonomy, means of expression?

The Angel of Death or the Grim Reaper, appears in various depictions of Death as a sentient being. Most recently Death appears as a fictional character in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Death is also a character in Konami’s Castlevania video game series. The DC Comic Book Series, The Sandman features Death as a character, as do Marvel Comics. In online gaming Death appears as a character in both Malice and Final Fantasy V. In other literature and the visual media Death appears in Fullmetal Alchemist, South Park, Family Guy. Death also appears in an eponymous play by Woody Allen.

If there is anyone out there willing to share their experiences in the manipulation of Death as an online persona, I would be pleased to hear from you. I have some simple questions to put to you by e-mail. No data will be used in a disparaging way and your response will remain anonymous. If you would be willing to answer some questions by e-mail (taking up no more than 15 minutes of your time, please drop me a line at albinwallace@gmail.com.

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