When death becomes light entertainment

It's the one experience that can induce a thrill of fear and awe, and remind us how good it is to be alive
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The Independent Online

Entertainment has become a rough and ugly business of late. Having tweaked the public's sadistic impulse with the various forms of humiliation provided by reality TV shows, showbiz has now raised the stakes with the promise of the ultimate voyeuristic thrill - death.

This weekend offers a couple of piquant treats for those of a morbid disposition. In Florida, a veteran heavy metal group called Hell on Earth have announced that a real, live suicide, performed on stage by a terminally ill volunteer, will form part of their act. Previous routines, which have included naked women mud-wrestling on stage and feeding live rats into a meat-grinder, have apparently become a touch staid and predictable.

Over here, Channel Four will be putting on their own little suicide show, offering us the chance to see a man put a loaded Smith and Wesson pistol to his head and pull the trigger. Admittedly, only one of the six chambers will contain a bullet but, in Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette Live, the said Mr Brown has promised that he will only use "sophisticated psychological techniques" in order to avoid blowing his head off. After a viewer has loaded the pistol, he will put it to his temple and keep pulling the trigger until he senses that he has reached the live bullet. He will then fire it into the ground.

Derren Brown is an illusionist and this seems to be his big break into the big-time. Having noted that a creepy American will be making $5m by locking himself up in a Perspex box and apparently risking death by starvation, Derren and his people must have recognised that self-harm was big this season. One hopes that some sort of trickery will see him through the show.

The idea is vulgar, unpleasant and demeaning to viewers, so the obvious home for it was Channel Four, the organisation which is partly behind the Blaine stunt and which, plummeting ever downwards from respectability to lowest-common-denominator tawdriness, has excelled itself with the Russian roulette idea. Not only is the programme a breach of basic standards of taste, a tacky and unpleasant freak show, but it is also mind-bogglingly irresponsible. At a time when violence and the spread of firearms is an acknowledged problem, a national broadcaster has elected to screen a jolly mass entertainment based on the excitement, danger and glamour of gunplay. The bewildered senior police officer who dared to suggest that the show "sends entirely the wrong message" has been ignored.

Will it grab the viewers? Of course it will. Just as thousands of people have gathered to watch the man in a box at Tower Bridge, no less than 12,000 viewers applied for the privilege of loading Derren Brown's pistol. As the sleazy people behind the programme no doubt recognised, an obsession with death is in the air - a desire to look it in the face, flirt with it.

The logical explanation of this, like many other developments in the worlds of pleasure and entertainment, is the mind-warping effect of satiety and boredom. What were once the wilder shores of love and sex are now the mainstream; forms of voyeurism that were once regarded as dangerous and forbidden are now available on the latest reality TV show. But death remains the big one, the one experience that can induce a thrill of fear and awe, and remind us how good it is to be alive.

There may be a historic, millennial pattern to all this. A century ago, a significant part of the decadent fin de siècle sensibility of the time was a romantic obsession with the "slight rapture of death". A hundred years before that, the end of the 18th century saw the publication of a number of novels with a pronounced necrophiliac theme. Bored young aristocrats were said to have experimented with auto-asphyxiation as a way to sexual pleasure. Body-snatchers did a brisk trade and there were rumours of "infamous violations" by one observer. "Under the pretext of study, certain persons, not content with the bodies that are given to hospitals, also steal dead bodies from cemeteries and commit on them everything that impiety and debauchery might inspire." One of the reasons why public executions drew such huge crowds was that they were accompanied by a public holiday and orgiastic merrymaking.

Perhaps, having once researched in unhealthy detail into this subject for a novel in which a mortician was a central character, I am reading too much history into contemporary events. Yet it seems possible that we are experiencing our own moment of decadence and necro-chic.

First triggered by the death of a princess five years ago, which was followed by an ecstatic orgy of grief, it has now become a part of light entertainment, stimulated by the japes and stunts of a burnt-out rock group, a couple of opportunistic magicians and those beady, exploitative programme-schedulers from Channel Four.