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Melissa Fite Johnson

I’m terrified of death. I’m lucky never to have courted it. Just the opposite: This pandemic has made me appreciate my life more than ever. Breakfast outside, coffee, a new book of poetry. A robin feeding her babies in the nest a few feet away. The dogs abandoning their own plans to join me for a nap. My husband holding me anytime I cry. 

            On-screen gore, I cover my eyes. Give me someone chasing someone at an airport. Give me a boom box outside a window. Give me love, predictable and problematic! Give me hope. 

            So why am I obsessed with the Final Destination series right now? 

            My friends selected one of these films for our first Zoom movie night months ago. I’d seen the first three before, found them silly and fun. But after watching it this time, I couldn’t stop replaying the deaths in my waking head, and I dreamed about my friend dying in a cross-country car crash. You’d think I’d request something light for our next pick, but I wanted to finish the series. I found each movie strangely comforting in a way I didn’t understand. 

            The more I ruminated, the more sense it made. The lesson of these films: you can’t escape death. These are slasher films without anyone doing the slashing. No villain watching from the shadows. No killer stalking the streets. No one to find and stop. Just the idea that when it’s your time, it’s your time. And when you’re gone, you’re gone. You can’t cheat it or outrun it. More than any other source material I tried—beautiful poems, scientific articles, press conferences, conversations with friends—Final Destination was helping me process my pandemic fears. 

            I used to find it depressing that these movies wipe out everyone. Now I find it honest, or at least in keeping with the despair I sometimes feel no matter how hard I try to stay hopeful. No false note, no “happiness” in the form of a lone final girl mourning her boyfriend and every friend she’s ever had. Unlike many who love the Final Destination series, I don’t revel in the elaborate deaths or laugh when one finally happens. I tense up, wait for the inevitable, feel relief when it’s over. It’s practice, in a small and safe way.

            Confront the hard truth: Whether now or in fifty years, everyone dies. The virus reminds me that the certainties I feel each day aren’t certainties at all. Eventually I will wake on my last day, a truth I might not know that morning. My husband will die first, or I will. My mother is 77 and immunocompromised, and I don’t know when I’ll get to see her again. I’m saying “when” like that’s a certainty. The virus reminds me it’s not. 

            Logically, I knew all this already. But I usually avoid thinking about it—which is a privilege, of course. 

            When you re-watch a Final Destination movie, you don’t remember anything about these characters when they first appear onscreen—except for how they die. It’s why they’re here. Oh, that’s nails in her head. That’s botched Lasik. That’s tanning bed, barb wire, uneven parallel bars. In the news each day, real-life deaths. So many people, not characters but people, remembered for their deaths and not how they lived. In this time of racial injustice, that’s heartbreakingly clear. I know so little else about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We have to seek out people’s full and bright lives for ourselves. We have to read obituaries for legacy and deed more than cause. Maybe the best reason to immerse myself in Final Destination is that it’s pretend. I can’t keep reading stories of people on ventilators or being shot in their beds. I can’t keep watching the President and police officers make cavalier decisions that kill the people they’re supposed to protect. 

            When people ask how I’m doing, I usually say I’m OK, and it’s usually the truth. I’m incredibly fortunate. My husband and I are both teachers and have been quarantining since mid-March. I’m scared to go back to school this fall, much as I love my students and my job, but I’ve been able to stay home longer than so many others. Each morning, my husband and I wake early and walk our dogs to the wetlands near our house, beautiful and restorative, reminding us there is still so much good in the world. 

            And when it feels like there isn’t—solace emerges in unexpected places. 

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