You Can’t Cheat Death: The Philosophy of Final Destination
Within the walls of a horror film, anything can happen, most times things that aren’t entirely realistic. If a sadistic, masked killer is after you for days, months, even years, cutting down everyone around you, but leaving you unscathed, you can call yourself lucky. Death was coming, but was somehow subverted and it passed over you, safe to see another day. This leaves the audience filled with questions, such as “How could this happen? In real life, you’d be dead.” This very question, this very idea of death, is the exact detail that sets the Final Destination films apart from all other horror films. The character’s cannot cheat death, because it has a design, and from the moment the movie begins, you know that no one will be left alive.
Symbolic Representation of Death
It all started with Flight 180 to Paris. This simple number became a recurring theme and bad omen in the first film, and all sequels after it. The horrific plane crash, killing all of the passengers on impact, made that number a modern “666,” a number that was avoided at all costs. The number 180 is recurring in all of the films, as it is put on a kind of pedestal of being a symbol for “horrific, freak accidents” that paved the way for the survivors to die one-by-one. Other numbers that are synonymous with “luck” or “omens” pop up alongside the number 180, for example, the number 8 as a symbol of an 8 ball in billiards or a magic 8 ball, a toy that tells your fortune or fate, are continuous symbols that recur.
In numerology – the belief that there is a relationship between numbers and coinciding events – tells us that the numerical coincidence of the number 180 in the films is a death warning or omen while at the same time, the number is unable to be explained rationally when it is seen again and again and again. In the following films, the number becomes coincidental that is should be a part of an event that is supposed to be the cause of a major mass fatality, but the presence of that number cannot be explained.
In each film, there is a recurring song, albeit creepy, that signals that something bad is about to happen, another character is about to lose their lives unless someone intervenes. In the first film, it is Rocky Mountain High by John Denver, to which the protagonist in the first film, Alex, states “he died in a plane crash” which is something that would make anyone hesitant to step into the cabin. It happens again in the second film, utilizing the inherently scary song, Highway to Hell, by AC/DC. The third film takes the creepiness a step further with the song “Turn Around, Look at Me” by the Bee Gees simply because the first verse reinforces the victims in the film being stalked by death to the tune of:
There is someone walking behind you,
Turn around, look at me.
There is someone watching your footsteps,
Turn around, look at me.
None of these songs, however, compare to the follow up in Final Destination 5, with the featured recurring song “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. If there is any song that is blatantly about death, it’s that one. The only question now is when they’ll incorporate the song “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in one of the films.
A great example of this comes from one of the first scenes in the debut film, when Alex is interacting with his parents, saying that he keeps his travel tag/receipt from his previous flight on his luggage because it is “good luck,” since there was no plane crash. Alex believes that if the tag is removed it’s bad luck, thus insinuating that because of this change, fate has changed and therefore the plane will crash.
This ideology is similar to sports fans, for example, who believe that, because they wore a certain hat or t-shirt when their favorite team won a big game, that if they wear that hat or t-shirt again, the team will win again. It’s considered luck, and, more technically, superstition: a widely held, but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event. Some more commonly held superstitions that represent bad luck are things such as walking under a ladder leaning against a wall, or breaking a mirror. Another nod to the superstition of wanting to own symbols that are affiliated with luck happens in the second film to the victim who wins the lottery purchases a horseshoe ring, probably as a gesture to keep his streak of luck going – only to have the ring fall down the drain of the sink, causing his wrist to become stuck, thus causing the fire destroying all of his things, only to die shortly after evacuating.
When Alex, from the debut film, approaches a desk to get his plane ticket, there is a strange coincidence that occurs: apparently the departure time for the flight is the same as his birthday, 9:25. Realistically, this would mean nothing, but Final Destination finds a way to make it seem like yet another bad omen. Unpacking this instance a little more, as the audience knows that he is meant to die on the flight, the departure time representing his birthday, it is suggested that his birth and death will go hand in hand (both things really aren’t that different, especially when used as symbols in film and literature).
Noticing coincidences, like those mentioned above, are, more scientifically, noted as “synchronicities” or indicators of an invisible network that connects everyone and everything. In the films, the visions of death connect everyone, strangers or friends, due to that single event that is supposed to happen. Taking that further, they are all connected to each other within the tight web of death’s plan or design. Each protagonist is given specific advice, telling them to pay attention to the coincidences and vision, and that they could be the difference between life and death.
This is one of the more obvious symbols in the film, coming about as a warning to the characters in the films. A spontaneous lightning storm is not seen as a natural storm, but a malevolent presence that will bring about death, or death’s arrival. Another, stranger occurrence, is the presence of a stray breeze that usually occurs indoors – again, meant to be a warning of impending doom. This use of the weather is actually a huge theme that sets the Final Destination films apart from all others, as death is not perceived as a real life killer, but instead, it is an unstoppable force of nature that is intangible, and thus, out of anyone’s control.
Something that probably everyone has experienced before, if you’ve had a dream and are suddenly living the moment, or a feeling of familiarity, like a moment has happened before. However, in the films, deja-vu is limited to the protagonist, who has an actual premonition of an accident, actually living that moment before it happened. That being an extreme case of deja-vu, extreme enough that it makes the protagonist fear for their life and thus causing a ripple effect by disrupting death’s plan. The aspect of deja-vu is presented as the initial “vision” or “premonition” that the protagonist has in each film. The vision is coupled with the feeling that the protagonist has somehow seen or lived that moment before, and they immediately act to prevent it because of this strong feeling of deja-vu.
The theme of “the stranger” when it comes to cinema, book, and pop culture in general, gives way to the idea that the stranger appears to give advice of guidance while also remaining mysterious and withholding any identity, making the audience question if this stranger actually exists or is simply summoned due to the events taking place. In the case of Final Destination, the legendary Tony Todd turns up as “the stranger” aka Bludworth and giving advice on how to possibly overcome or cheat death by understanding it’s plan or list. He is first found in a morgue, and later, in an old crematorium in the second film, being sought out by Clear Rivers. Despite knowing next to nothing about the man, it is understood that he appears when death tries to commit mass murder, and is disrupted. It is because of him that “death” is discussed, and seriously considered, as an independent and free-thinking entity or energy. Not a person, but an intelligent being that returns to living victims to tie up loose ends. It is described best by Todd in the premier film, stating that “disrespecting the design… could initiate a horrifying fury that would terrorize even the Grim Reaper – and you don’t even want to fuck with that MacDaddy.” Thus reminding the victims that no matter what is done, no one can cheat death, and it will demand respect in the most extreme and deadly ways. The stranger also comes in the form of the unreliable narrator, for example, no matter how much advice Todd’s character gives the victims, it never actually helps them in cheating death’s plan.
A new theme that is brought about in the third movie, probably because the digital camera became a popular piece of technology, made way for this very realistic aspect of photographic evidence warning of imminent death. The idea is that the photos of victims contain clues to their death, such as a word or an image, or even a gesture that the person in the photo is doing, before they die.
Explored even further, in the third film that prominently features a digital camera, the protagonist explains that other photos in history have indicators of how the person photographed would meet their end. This example, though, cannot be applied to reality, as there is not enough factual evidence backing it up, and was perhaps overemphasized for use in a Hollywood movie.
Philosophical Questions Regarding Life and Death
Final Destination brings about some philosophical questions, but more importantly, creates its own philosophy that only exists within the world of the story. These questions being, “Does death have a design or plan?”, “If you cheat death, are you immortal?” and from these two questions, even more questions of mortality can be unpacked, depending on what film is under discussion. In order to contemplate this philosophy, some more common questions must be explored.
Do we have free will?
With a strict focus on the Final Destination films, there is the appearance or the illusion of free will. However, in reality, everything that happens and all of the decisions made in the film seem to be for a purpose or part of a plan. This is proven when the protagonist has a “vision” of the future and disrupts it. Once again, free will may exist when the characters avoid death the first time by getting off the plane, or the roller coaster in the third film, but their lives continue on, and no matter what, they eventually die. This gives way to the idea that their actions and decisions are being controlled by something other than themselves and their own free will.
Does God exist?
In the first film, this idea is explored when a supporting character mentions that if the plane were to crash, it’d have to be a harsh God [sic] to take it down and kill everyone on it. If there are religious aspects within the film that cause the plot to move forward (because there are plenty of funerals that are attended) then it may be noted that most of the characters do not believe. There is no discussion that God is testing them, but there is certainly a malevolent presence that is causing the deaths on purpose. So, is all death on purpose, even if it appears to be an accident?
Does life have a meaning?
After the initial “vision,” the purpose of the protagonist is to try and help others stay alive. If they can somehow save everyone from dying, at least presently, they can reach the tip of their very own hierarchy of needs, perhaps developing their own legacy and gaining the ability to cheat death, at least for a short time.
The ever present question, “Does death have a plan or design?” can be applied to reality, the point of it being a philosophical question is that you cannot know the answer at any given time. One can only assume the answer based on contextual evidence and personal life experiences. If someone is meant to die a certain way, such as in the films, but that death is prevented, then they will die in a different way. This evidence theorizes that death indeed has a plan or design, as in the film, there is an order to who dies first, etc. If this is disrupted, then the same victims will die in the same order, but in different, and unnatural ways. The design remains in place, despite the way the victims die. Overall, the way of death doesn’t matter at all, but for the sake of cinema, the ways the victims die is more bizarre than the original way it was intended in the vision.
Immortality via Skipping Your Turn
This goes hand in hand with the “they’re going to die anyway” statement within the film. If you can prevent your death from happening, but knew it was coming, although not when, would you really want to know? And if you prevented your death once, would you really believe that you could become “immortal” at least within the films? Is being “immortal” within the films the same as not dying in a freak accident, (the idea being that death is getting back at you for foiling it’s plan the first time) but instead dying peacefully, in a more realistic way e.g. old age?
Suicide and Resuscitation as Disruptors
This was explored in both the second and third films, flirting with the idea of suicide as a way to sacrifice one to save many. If one were to sacrifice themselves to disrupt death’s plan, it seems that it would be taken as an offering to death in order to skip the other victims who are also meant to die. In reality, this kind of sacrifice would not skip any deaths, apart from the one caused by the character’s own hand.
Within the walls of the second film, the protagonist has a kind of epiphany within her visions, and sees her own death, caused by her own hand. She figures that if she kills herself, and then is resuscitated – cheating death in two ways – then she can foil death’s plan for her and the other remaining victims (if any remain). This doesn’t work, and her offscreen death occurs in a horrific way, showing that death neither forgives nor forgets, no matter how much time has passed. The protagonist believed that she was in control of her own “visions” and saw that it was fated that she kill herself and then be brought back, however, the audience realizes later that, in the grand scheme of things, she was never in control of any of her visions, and she was meant to save victims from imminent death, just so they could all die later.
To death, it’s just one big, unwinnable game. Even the cleverest of victims cannot cheat it.