Death Becomes Us – Robert Miller

‘The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.’ S. Freud

In his essays ‘On Humour’ Freud describes humour as a mechanism, an involuntary process in which the ego spontaneously creates in order to avoid traumatic experience. He gives the example of the criminal that is being led out to the gallows, the criminal expresses ‘well the week’s beginning nicely’.  As Freud states, ‘the ego refuses to be distressed’ and in fact flips the traumatic experience into one of pleasure and therefore maintains some form of control by producing a defense or coping mechanism. Freud continues to assert that the ‘emotional expectancy’ (162) of the observer/listener in subverted and the unexpected jest by the doomed criminal ‘turns into humorous pleasure’. This coping mechanism reminds me of the idiom ‘you can either laugh or cry’ amongst other variants and how we often turn to humour as a way to cope with trauma. We, in an unexpected act of defiance refuse to be distressed.

An overt expression of trauma and comedy can be seen in ‘Death Becomes Her’ (1992) which is jam packed with physical and emotional trauma yet, we are encouraged to laugh at the characters misfortune, and we oblige. Basically, Madeline and Helen partake in a potion that promises everlasting youth and beauty but also immortality. Caught in a love triangle with Dr. Menville they plot each other’s demise however, neither can die. A myriad of gratuitous disfigurement ensues.

We are viewing the traumatic experience of others, albeit within the realm of fiction however, we are amused. Dark comedy can be a way in which we explore trauma through catharsis, watching films that subvert ‘emotional expectancy’ and provide us with ‘humorous pleasure’. A way in which we evoke the process of humor to cope with aspects of trauma and mortality to which we are all bound.


Meryl’s best turtle impression.


Sigmund Freud, “On Humor,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth, 1955), 160-166.








One comment

  1. This is a really good example of the protective measures of humour. I think a certain deal of Death Becomes Her’s effectiveness as a humorous text and a comment on gender and beauty comes from the exact physical manifestation of inner wounds like you say: the women are able to remain alive despite their huge physical injuries, much in the same way one absorbs and internalises damaging narratives about youth and beauty.

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