The interesting question isn’t why so many filmmakers rely on the resurrection trope, but what effect this has on viewers and what this trope says about American culture in the twenty-first century.
In the 1973 book The Denial of Death, anthropologist Ernest Becker argues that human beings across cultures find ways of rejecting the idea that death has the last word. Societies construct myths, develop cultural practices, and invest in collective pursuits to overcome the anxiety about the inevitability of death. Ancient Greek codes of honor, Chinese practices of ancestor-veneration, and the construction of pyramids and ziggurats in the ancient Near East and Mesoamerica are all, according to Becker, instances of the same human psychological impulse to use collective meaning-making to deny the meaninglessness of death.
On Becker’s theory, religious conceptions of reincarnation or the afterlife are not exceptions to a general acceptance of death. Rather, these religious beliefs are particularly clear, codified expressions of the near-universal human phenomenon of rejecting and repressing the finality of death. In the absence of religious convictions, human beings undertake “immortality projects” and construct socially shared “illusions” to meet their psychological needs. Ever since the decline of religion as the unifying structure of meaning in Western societies—Nietzsche’s famous “death of God”—film and other art forms have increasingly facilitated these shared illusions.
We don’t need to agree with Becker’s more sweeping claims to recognize that he’s right about the pervasiveness of the human tendency to deny the finality of death, whether consciously or not. Seen through this lens, the resurrection trope in popular film and television serves a social purpose. Even if many viewers of these films don’t actually believe that people come back to life, repeated exposure to resurrections and pseudo-resurrections functions as a sort of secular ritual of denying death.
“Film Resurrections and the Denial of Death”
— Sightings: Religion in Public Life (@DivSightings) March 2, 2020