The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture

Dina Khapaeva
Popular culture has reimagined death as entertainment and monsters as heroes, reflecting a profound contempt for the human race


The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture investigates the emergence and meaning of the cult of death. Over the last three decades, Halloween has grown to rival Christmas in its popularity. Dark tourism has emerged as a rapidly expanding industry. “Corpse chic” and “skull style” have entered mainstream fashion, while elements of gothic, horror, torture porn, and slasher movies have streamed into more conventional genres. Monsters have become pop culture heroes: vampires, zombies, and serial killers now appeal broadly to audiences of all ages. This book breaks new ground by viewing these phenomena as aspects of a single movement and documenting its development in contemporary Western culture.

This book links the mounting demand for images of violent death with dramatic changes in death-related social rituals. It offers a conceptual framework that connects observations of fictional worlds—including The Twilight Saga, The Vampire Diaries, and the Harry Potter series—with real-world sociocultural practices, analyzing the aesthetic, intellectual, and historical underpinnings of the cult of death. It also places the celebration of death in the context of a longstanding critique of humanism and investigates the role played by 20th-century French theory, posthumanism, transhumanism, and the animal rights movement in shaping the current antihumanist atmosphere.

This timely, thought-provoking book will appeal to scholars of culture, film, literature, anthropology, and American and Russian studies, as well as general readers seeking to understand a defining phenomenon of our age.

"Her meticulous and gracefully written cultural critique unearths the historical roots of many aspects of popular culture. If widely read, it will provoke a new conversation about the particular ways we in the 21st century are obsessed with death, that eternal focus of human fear, struggle, and fascination."
Los Angeles Review of Books

“Dina Khapaeva’s book is a striking illustration of what thinking in the humanities can be at its very best. Starting out with the detailed description of a very unlikely situation in our cultural present, i.e. the tension between a general denial of death as existentially inevitable and a ‘neo-gothic’ fascination with death as a multifaceted object of entertainment, she develops a plausible and then increasingly convincing hypothesis. In her reading, this configuration becomes the symptom of a radical and historically new leveling of the traditional hierarchy between humans, animals, and things. I have never followed ‘riskful thinking’ practiced in a more productive way.”
—Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Stanford University
“Khapaeva’s book is a deeply thoughtful, clear account of how our culture deals with death, bringing it up close in new literary, film, ritual, and folk art forms. However disturbed we are, we cannot look away, and Khapaeva asks if we have perhaps slipped too deeply into these new kinds of macabre fascination.”
—Melvin Konner, Emory University
“Taking on the darkest themes of the contemporary nightmarish fascination with death and the undead in Russia and America, Dina Kapaeva moves beyond sociology and psychology to demonstrate how the fictional representations of vampires and other monsters in literature and film undermine central concepts of humanism. Rather than simply a celebration or sublimation of violence, the current cult of death reduces the relevance and centrality of human beings, rationalism, and religion. Lucidly written, her exploration is full of original insights beautifully revealed in investigations of cases from the Twilight Saga to Harry Potter. ”
—Ronald Grigor Suny, University of Michigan
“Khapaeva explores an intriguing issue of Western culture today—namely, the focus in electronic media and popular fiction on non-human figures and the devaluation of humans. She also explores the linked fascination with death, which she associates with ‘a gothic aesthetics,’ a literary tradition that extends back in time over the past two centuries. She has a new view of these developments. She argues that they originate intellectually in a critique of European humanism and the rejection of human exceptionalism. She stresses the key role of French theory in this but also extends her argument to include proponents of animal rights, who put animals on par with humans. She notes the appeal of recently fashionable ideas of posthumanism and transhumanism in this this respect. The book is stimulating and the topics of much current interest, and I expect the book will attract a large intellectual readership. Khapaeva has made an important contribution to the study of contemporary mass culture, to the analysis of attitudes and practices linked to death, and to the comparative study of American and Russian cultures over the past couple of decades. The work speaks to current dilemmas in Russian and American political as well as cultural life.”
—Jeffrey Brooks, Johns Hopkins University
"Why is modern culture, both in Russia and the West, so obsessed with death? Are monster-obsessed fantasies such as the novels about Harry Potter and his Russian imitator, Tanya Grotter, or blockbuster films such as The Night Watch, really so innocent? Dina Khapaeva's fascinating and thought-provoking book asks big questions and offers an exhilarating race through unexpected and instructive areas of modern culture,  from thanatotourism to Halloween cookies. The analysis, based on a wide knowledge of contemporary cultural theory and philosophy, is accessible yet original and challenging. An impressive achievement."
Catriona Kelly, Professor of Russian, University of Oxford, New College

Dina Khapaeva is Professor of Russian at the School of Modern Languages, Georgia Institute of Technology.

Praise / Awards

  • "Khapaeva has written a bold and provocative book...her book allows for a productive reading of the contemporary cult of death."
    --The Polish Review
  • "[Khapaeva] definitely grabs the attention of the reader. Hopefully, this book will appear in Russian!"
  • "I found the general historical sweep of her argument convincing, and the
    book useful as a compendium of death imagery and death-related works, mostly in the United State."
    --The Russian Review
  • "Khapaeva leads the way in mapping out not only the origins of a cult of death but also the commodification of death via popular literature, film and television, ... Khapaeva’s work confirms that death is not the end, it is only the beginning, and nowhere is this more evident than within popular culture and the emerging cult of death."
  • Named one of Forbes (Russia)'s most-anticipated non-fiction books of 2020

Look Inside

News, Reviews, Interviews

Read: Dina Khapaeva in Project Syndicate Link | 1/24/2019
Read: Dina Khapaeva in LA Review of Books Link | 12/26/2018
Read: Dina Khapaeva reviewed in LA Review of Books Link | 10/31/2017
Read: Dina Khapaeva article on neomedievalism for Project Syndicate Link | 1/2/2018
Read: Dina Khapaeva featured on Campaign for the American Reader Link | 6/6/2017
Read: Dina Khapaeva featured on Discover Society Link | 6/6/2017
Watch: Dina Khapaeva "Food for Death?" interview on Link | 5/4/2017
Read: Dina Khapaeva interview on Deborah Kalb blog Link | 4/29/2017

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 264pp.
  • 5 halftones.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2017
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-13026-9

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  • $74.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2022
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-03894-7

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  • $29.95 U.S.

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  • cult of death, humanism, human exceptionalism, French theory, animal rights, transhumanism, posthumanism, Twilight Saga, Harry Potter, dark tourism, death rituals, Halloween