Life: A Fate Worse Than Death
By: J. Knight
Genre: Horror

Death is bad. Returning to life is worse.

The first story that ever really scared me was "The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs. In it, an old woman uses a magic talisman in the form of a mummified monkey's paw to wish her dead son alive again. The horror arrives in the form of a knock at the door, her son, returned from the grave.

I read "The Monkey's Paw" in school, junior high school I think. I suppose it was deemed acceptable for impressionable youngsters because the "monster" is never seen, only implied, existing not as dangerous words on paper (we all know how dangerous words can be) but only in the mind of the reader.

Which of course is the best way to insure that an impressionable kid will scare himself silly thinking about it late at night as he's drifting off to sleep while the shadows on the wall dance and writhe and form themselves into witches and werewolves and unnamable, empty faces.

Death is scary, certainly. Sometimes I lie awake even now trying to imagine the world going on without me, thinking of people living their lives, making movies, writing books, and me not there to see it. Forever.

No wonder we've contrived various theories of afterlives and reincarnations where death holds no sway. The alternative, to fade out of consciousness into a blackness as dark and deep and empty as our memories of the world before we were born, is as intolerable as it is unimaginable. If there were no afterlife, we as thinking creatures would invent one. Our very sanity is at stake.

And yet....

There is one fate more horrible than death, and that is life without a soul.

One of the first films to truly terrify me is the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Again, it is a virtually bloodless work. All that is lost to the victims is their humanity. Memories and physicality remain, but the horror that is the "pod person" is so great, the phrase has entered the vernacular.

Another formative chiller was Village of the Damned, a movie about children with power uninformed by empathy or human compassion, children without souls.

Then along came George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and, much later, Stephen King's Pet Semetary and the remarkable Re-Animator film based on H. P. Lovecraft's "Herbert West: Reanimator." If these works are any indication, that knock on the door in "The Monkey's Paw" rightly inspired terror and dread.

Death is bad, no doubt. But the profane life that comes from resurrection eclipses mere bodily death, the sole exception apparently being Jesus Christ.

Personally, if I'd been around when that stone rolled back and a man pronounced dead three days ago stepped out, I'd have run for the hills. Dead should be dead. One man's miracle is another man's horror.

Is it a coincidence that the most enduring monster of all time, the vampire, is a being returned from the dead? Not to mention the Frankenstein monster, ghosts and even the endearingly cheesy brain in a fish tank (and its disembodied cousin, the head on a dissecting tray) of 1950s b-flicks.

All of which brings me to believe that while, yes, being skewered by Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees is enough to ruin your day, true horror lies not in death but in life, if that life is devoid of the qualities that make us human.

The New York Times (June 29, 2001) printed an article circulated by the Reuters news agency titled "Scientist Says Mind Continues After Brain Dies." In the article, British scientists maintain that consciousness may continue after the brain has stopped functioning and a patient is declared legally dead. The idea that a person's consciousness or "soul" continues even after the brain has stopped functioning is apparently gaining scientific credibility.

The article implies that such persons may be resuscitated and returned to life, and that this re-animation is A Good Thing.

I'm not so sure.

Accounts I've read of near-death experiences always include a reluctance on the part of the near-victim to return to the world of the living. Apparently, dead people would rather stay dead.

What do the deceased know that we who have never glimpsed the other side do not?

I guess we will all find out, eventually.


J. Knight is the author of Risen, a novel about (what else?) people coming back from the dead. He maintains a website at


© 2001 J. Knight. Permission to reprint is granted provided that the closing credit is reproduced in full.


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