Welcome to Elements of Story, a bimonthly column about narrative tropes, what they mean, and why they just won’t go away. In this entry, we discuss the significance of bodies that disappear after death.
So, you’re watching a movie and a character dies. What happens next? If they were a major character, maybe a tear-jerking funeral scene, complete with poignant eulogies and reaction shots of grieving friends and family. Or perhaps a montage of near and dear ones learning the terrible news. But if you’re watching a fantasy or more fantastical sci-fi film, it’s quite common for death to be punctuated by a vanishing act.
That’s right, we’re talking about disappearing corpses. Now, if you’re curious about what actually happens to the human body after you die, read Stiff by Mary Roach. There’s no science in this installment, which is actually somewhat unusual. We’re dealing specifically with corpses magicking out of existence in decidedly impossible ways.
The key to understanding the significance of why corpses disappear is identifying trends in who is doing the disappearing. Ultimately, there are two: one is a major trend and the other is a contrasting counter-narrative.
Most disappearing corpses are dead villains. The defeated Voldemort blows away like ashes in the wind at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2. Don Bluth’s animated feature Anastasia gives a similar, albeit decidedly more graphic, fate to Rasputin after the titular heroine destroys the demonic talisman that gave the villain his powers. When Eugene cuts off Rapunzel’s magic hair in Disney’s Tangled, the wicked Mother Gothel rapidly ages into a pile of dust. The list goes on.
As is often the case, there are both practical and thematic reasons behind the popularity of this trope. Practically, climactic battle scenes usually don’t end the moment the hero strikes the killing blow. There are still loose ends to be tied, reunions and celebrations to be had. No matter how evil the villain was, celebrating over a corpse can feel somewhat in poor taste, particularly for family-friendly content.
However, if the villainous corpse disappears, it opens up the scene for tearful reunions and sundry without a gory backdrop. For example, Anastasia can run to the aid of her injured beau, Dmitri, without Rasputin’s rotting corpse putting a damper on the aesthetic.
Thinking a bit more long-term, villains disappearing after death also means no one has to deal with the awkward issue of how to dispose of bodies no one wants taking up space in their family plots. All in all, the vanishing corpse trope is one that has some serious practical benefits.
Thematically, the trope of the vanishing villain corpse packs a strong ontological punch. It basically implies the lack of a soul. The sudden disintegration of the body — usually one powered by dark magic considered a perversion of life and natural order — indicates a sort of total annihilation.
The body falls apart the second its dark powers are defeated because that’s all there was, no soul left to face whatever afterlife or post-death existence there might be. As evil incarnate, they have forfeited whatever claims to personhood they might have had — to a soul or any sort of sacred human-ness that would demand respect.
“Thou shalt not kill” is one of the Ten Commandments, and its basic message represents a moral imperative shared by a wide range of belief systems and philosophies. The vanishing corpse indicates that the hero can rest easy regarding the status of their own immortal soul because they haven’t really killed a person, just a person-shaped hive of dark magic.
It’s worth noting that the Netflix series Dark puts a particularly depressing twist on the disintegrating corpse trope. The show maintains the same subtext of total oblivion but bestows the disintegrating corpse fate to likable, if very messy, characters whose existences get scrubbed from the timeline for the good of the universe.
So, that’s the major trend. The contrasting counter-narrative tells the opposite story: sometimes, the bodies of heroes disappear to indicate their spirits have moved on to the afterlife. In other words, “Don’t worry, they’re dead but they’re okay.” The paramount example of this less-common trend comes from the world of Star Wars: true Jedi vanish when they die to indicate they have become one with the Force.
The vastly different implications of the two flavors of the disappearing corpse trope echo in the details of how they tend to play out visually. Evil vanishing corpses usually disintegrate. They turn to ash or dust that promptly scatters in the wind — nothing but soulless particulate matter.
Corpses of heroic characters tend to vanish more or less all at once, indicating the continued integrity of some spirit or soul that surpasses the physical realm. Their physical bodies were merely the husks that housed their spirits for a while; they vanish because they are no longer needed.
On the flip side, when evildoers are defeated and their dark magic is bested, their corpses disintegrate because the one thing holding their soulless body together is gone.
Either way, the fantastically impossible act of corpses disappearing is somewhat ironically a trope designed to instill narrative clarity by indicating exactly what is — or isn’t — happening to a character after death.