Don’t Fear the Reaper: The Enduring Appeal of Dia de los Muertos in Popular Culture

from edication.nationalgeographic by Alejandra Gonzalez Ruiz
Picture by Alejandra Gonzalez Ruiz from education.nationalgeographic.com

 

 

There’s something compelling about Dias de los Muertos: the day of the dead. Most strongly associated with Mexico, but celebrated in many Latin American countries, this holiday, and its iconography, can be found around the world thanks to its celebrants taking it with them when they emigrate. Dias de los Muertos combines Aztec and Catholic traditions to create a two day festival that fascinates the makers of movies and video games alike.

To begin, there’s the recent re-mastering of cult classic adventure videogame Grim Fandango. This adventure game is set in the Land of the Dead, and the story begins on the Day of the Dead. As you solve the game’s puzzles, you explore the Land of the Dead, including a city designed to resemble both ancient Aztec pyramids and the Art Deco sky scrapers that loom over sin-soaked streets of film noir.

GrimFandangoRemastered001-660x371
Image from Double Fine Productions via wired.com

And then we have the The Book of Life, a charming animated movie about life, love, and death. The character designs are clearly inspired by traditional Day of the Dead iconography and the story takes place on the holiday.

The-Book-Of-Life-
Image from screenrant.com

 

Even the claymation classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas, makes use of Day of the Dead imagery—though not for the protagonist, Jack Skellington. But if you watch Oogie Boogie’s musical number, you’ll notice that the black velvet paint-covered skeletons that dance in his casino are drawing on Day of the Dead styling in their shapes and colours.

The Day of the Dead appeals to artists (and animators) because the main symbol used in the celebration, the skull, falls curiously between the familiar and the unfamiliar in mainstream North American culture. The designs used in the decorations, face paint, confectionery, and other forms of celebratory art all manage to turn the skull, widely known as the symbol of death, into a thing of remarkable beauty.

Consider the popular (and doubtless, delicious) sugar skull. In this edible art piece we have a recognizable, though stylized, part of the human skeleton. Those of us who do not study medicine, archaeology, or the mortician’s arts will likely never see the skeletal remains of a person in real life. This fact is likely why the skeleton carries so much cultural unease; if all unfolds as it should, you will never see the bones that exist inside your own body. Yet the brightly-coloured sugar skull hints at our mortality while minimizing our discomfort with it.

Picture by Roberta Garza from education.nationalgeographic.com
Picture by Roberta Garza from education.nationalgeographic.com

On top of the sugar and meringue base, each sugar skull sports brightly coloured royal icing in lines, swirls, flowers, and geometric shapes. Beautiful, edible symbols of death. Where else have you seen such a mixture?

While we’re not totally unfamiliar with more stylized, “friendly” skulls or skeletons, seeing outright beauty in the familiar symbol of death is disarming for most of us. We have some comfortable, cartoony bags-of-bones clattering about come Halloween—once again, Jack Skellington comes to mind—and the odd chibi skull on various fashion accessories. But it’s hard to be truly frightened by these boney fellows most of the time; they are too tame to invoke macabre thoughts. Still, even at its most frightening, our standard Halloween skeleton is far surpassed by the iconography of the Day of the Dead.

Beautiful depictions of skulls are hard to come by in most artistic traditions. Mourning jewelry (ornaments meant to honour the dead) is likely the closest art form that combines beauty and death—and even mourning jewelry did not always include a skull among the jet beads or the memoriam locket that held a lock of the deceased’s hair.

Image from jewelrynerd.org
Image from jewelrynerd.org

And, of course, mourning jewelry does not lend itself to the charming animated characters that can go on fantastical adventures on the big and small screen. But beautifully rendered skeletons do, and seeing skeletons as characters in their own stories allows us to consider the strangeness of fearing what we all know is inside us. As Danny Elfman’s band, Oingo Biongo, sing in their Latin-inspired pop-rock song “Deadman’s Party”: Don’t run away / it’s only me! / Don’t be afraid of what you can’t see.

By making the fearful beautiful we are reminded that all symbols can carry multiple meanings and can resonate with each of us in many ways. Richness can be found in all parts of the human experience, including the end.

 -contributed by Miranda Whittaker

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