No, it’s not a threat, just a friendly reminder about your own mortality which horror all too cheerfully helps you cope with on a regular basis. What separates us in many ways from other animals is the realization of our own mortality and the ability to make decisions based upon that knowledge. In horror, we tend to focus a bit much on the fantastic without stopping for a moment to think of the mundane. Horror in itself as a genre and cultural tradition is easily the most recognizable art within the spectrum of Death Positivity and the woman in horror that I’m writing about today is leading the charge in the Death Positive Movement.
Caitlin Doughty may be immediately recognizable to many as the host of the popular web series Ask A Mortician. A funeral director, crematory operator, funeral home owner (Undertaking L.A.), podcaster, author, and activist for the Death Positive Movement. A founding member of the Order of the Good Death, an organization of like minded people from all fields and walks of life around the world striving to destigmatize the concept of end of life, she has found herself as an unlikely champion of human rights on the subject and, even more so, an unlikely pick as a woman in horror.
And, like any pioneering woman in any field, she has had to contend with the expected trolling of people not only within the funeral industry, but in the larger community who don’t find her openness on the topic as refreshing as others. There’s also all of that beta male chauvinism that has to be fought off any time a woman tries to break out of a societal mold and, in the social media age, it seems to be an epidemic.
Caitilin adds humor to education in every video.
There’s a lot to cover about Caitlin so let’s start with her online presence. I came across Ask a Mortician about 2 years ago during a late night YouTube binge because, well, reasons. As a mortician and funeral director she has a wide depth of knowledge in physical, financial, and emotional aspects connected to death and dying as well as a wit and sense of humor that makes it difficult not to enjoy the videos she produces. Answering viewer questions, providing insight into funerary customs around the world, and giving information on green burial options as well as arguing for a person’s right to choose specifically how their remains are handled --which is a much bigger issue than you may realize-- she also talks about interesting historical facts and topics including the Salem Witch Trials, American mummies, and my personal favorite, the Cadaver Synod in which a pope in the middle ages had his predecessor dug up and put on trial in a bizarre kind of power move.
As an author, her books are engaging, entertaining, and informative with a depth of description, practical knowledge, and emotion that you likely won’t find anywhere else on the topic. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and From Here to Eternity pretty well cover almost anything you have ever wondered about the modern funeral industry as well as practices, customs, and experiences all over the world and in cultures you may never have heard of before.
Okay, so how in the hell does a funeral director fit into horror in any way?
I’m so glad you asked.
Death Positivity, the movement to destigmatize death and the customs and practices connected to it is an integral part of horror. The genre, as discussed in other editorials on our page, is nothing more than a vehicle to connect us to that inevitable end. The fear you feel from reading a scary story, from seeing a slasher flick or creature feature is connected to the concern it creates. You can’t tell me you never watched any of the Final Destination series and didn’t have second thoughts about plugging in a toaster or getting on a plane. Horror allows us to confront the most gruesome aspects of humanity, the most deep seated fears of the unknown and the unexplained, and to come to grips with those fears in a safe environment outside of ourselves. Sympathizing with a character allows in a horror story allows you to explore the fear as a third party observer knowing full well, despite that creeping sensation over your shoulder, that you are safe.
To be a horror fan in its truest form means to become death positive because you have grappled with notions of your own mortality, at least for a few minutes, and found yourself better for the experience.
Who knows, maybe this is a stretch. Maybe I’m just scraping the barrel looking for something beyond filmmakers to celebrate in horror culture but I don’t think so. Not with this. As Caitlin says at the end of so many episodes, a smile across her face “Remember, deathlings, you will die.” Like birth, life, and taxes, it is an inevitable part of the human experience and like our beloved genre and lifestyle, death positivity and acceptance can take away some of the sting.
Caitlin Doughty, though not really a horror fan or creator, is no less a woman in horror blazing a trail that connects with our own. Check out the Order of the Good Death, Ask a Mortician, and the Death in the Afternoon Podcast featuring Caitlin, Louise Hung, and Sarah Chavez (who we’ll be interviewing in an upcoming article soon).
You can find Caitlin's books --Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, From Here to Eternity, and pre-order Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?-- on Amazon and in bookstores everywhere.
Dan is an author, editorialist, podcaster, and horror culture & lifestyle correspondent from the Southeast. You can find Dan's stories at Danno of the Dead Blog and through PDI Press.