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date: 04 December 2020

Corpses, Popular Culture, and Forensic Sciencelocked

  • Ruth Penfold-MounceRuth Penfold-MounceDepartment of Sociology, University of York, UK


The dead body has a history of being a source of fascination for the living, with ancient narratives relating to mysterious corpse powers that have fed into how the dead are portrayed and consumed by society. Corpses are graphically visible within the 21st-century West (namely America and Europe) in not only news coverage of natural disasters, war, and human-inflicted trauma but also, most prominently, popular culture. Popular culture will be interpreted here to refer to the ideas, attitudes, images, and texts within the mainstream of a given culture (specifically Western) from the 20th century onward that reflect products and activities that are aimed at the taste of the general masses of people. It is often considered “low culture” or unsophisticated, as it is synonymous with consumer culture and mass consumption; however, it can offer a space where new meanings can be made and explored by subverting or overturning taken-for-granted ideas. The manifestations of popular culture are varied, but the main focus here will be on film and television, which are largely unavoidable and visually vivid as a form of entertainment. Consuming the corpse within popular culture is dominated by portrayals of corpse parts via organ transplant mythology, the undead (zombies and vampires in fantasy and horror genres), and the authentic dead (fake corpses played by actors or mannequins most often used in crime procedurals and detective fiction are part of the forensic science process). Viewing death within the fictional context of the undead and forensics has made the corpse, particularly the opened and violated corpse, into an acceptable entertainment commodity. Accusations have been made that these dead bodies within forensics-based television shows and films border on pornographic in that they seek to be shocking and deviant while meeting the expectation to be entertained by violated, wounded bodies. However, we are no longer shocked. We are acclimatized, and the undead and the authentic dead within forensic science in popular culture have been central in this process. Death and the dead are safe when consumed through popular culture, which provides us with a softening lens. Popular culture portrayals particularly of forensic science enable distance between the dead and the consuming viewer. It is a point of safety from which to explore death and human mortality.

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