Death, Personified

a screen capture from The Masque of the Red Death (1964 film)
Written By Avra Margariti

Avra Margariti is a queer author and Pushcart-nominated poet with a fondness for the dark and the darling. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Strange Horizons, F&SF, The Deadlands, Vastarien, and Reckoning. Avra lives and studies in Athens, Greece. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti).

The majority of cultures around the world like to depict Death—also known as Thanatos, the Grim Reaper, Santa Muerte, the Horseman, the Angel of Death—as an anthropomorphized figure. A pattern that makes sense considering how often we try to humanize what we don’t understand or cannot adequately experience through our own senses. This also happens with other natural phenomena as a way to lessen the fear they hold over humans (for example, creating gods of lightning, thunder, and rain before science could explain these phenomena).

Present in paintings, pottery, and murals throughout history, Death has appeared as a dancing skeleton, a winged psychopomp, and a berobed, scythe-carrying figure. Death, personified, couldn’t be missing from films and books, either.

The Mask of Red Death (the 1964 film and its 1989 remake)

Based on the classic short story by Edgar Allan Poe, plot follows a village infected by a mysterious deadly plague known as the Red Death. A masked figure wrapped in a red cape rides around the village. Meanwhile, the village’s rich rulers lock themselves in their castle, where they party and feast in excess and extravagance. There, they dance unbothered by the dying, starving villagers, who get killed after they beg for entrance outside the castle walls. During the ball, a mysterious figure, masked and cloaked in red, enters the castle, infecting the crowd of the dancing nobility. The figure is a personification of plague and calamity, the Red Death themself.

The Sandman

In the comics and TV series, Death is one of the Endless, and the older sister of Dream. Like her other siblings—Destiny, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium—the Endless are human concepts and phenomena made manifest. In Death’s case, she embodies the intangible force of the cessation of life. She is a personified entity that represents an inevitability but there is no malice behind her actions, only necessity as she visits the humans who are about to die and guide their souls into the realm she rules. Death meets each human twice: at birth, when she breathes life into them, and at the end of their natural life. When the Earth stops turning, Death will be there to “turn off the lights.”

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    As Intermitências da Morte (Death with Interruptions), 2005

    First published in Portuguese, José Saramago’s novel positions death as an anthropomorphized character of his novel. She, death, insists on her name being written in lowercase, while the book uses unconventional punctuation and stream of consciousness to recount the tale of the end of death. How, one day, the residents of an unnamed country woke up and realized they had stopped dying, although they kept growing older and more infirm. This sudden occurrence forces people to rethink societal structures and support networks, as everything threatens to collapse under this newfound lack of death. As the epigraph warns, “We will know less and less what it means to be human.” And death, shapeshifting into a woman’s form, will have to learn this lesson also as she mingles with humanity.

    Death Note (manga series and anime adaptation)

    Light Yagami, a genius but amoral student, finds a notebook that belongs to a Shinigami—a death demon/deity that guides humans into the world beyond life. Bound to Light, the Shinigami Ryuk—humanoid but baroquely grotesque—watches as his new human learns how to use the lethal notebook he misplaced. A notebook that can kill people from afar, provided its holder knows the human’s name and visualizes their face. Light appoints himself as a new god conducting vigilante justice through the death notebook, blurring the lines between human and Shinigami. Ryuk, who had been plagued by boredom, finds the human world interesting again, watching the chaos unfold.

    Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022)

    This stop motion animated retelling of Pinocchio brings the classic Italian fairytale into the realm of dark fantasy, in a film full of monsters and marvels (with del Toro’s signature flair for interesting stylistic design and characterization). After a bomb kills his son during WWI, a woodcarver gets drunk and tries to resurrect his boy years later by using the wood from his grave. The Wood Sprite (based on the Fairy with the Turquoise Hair in the 1883 story) brings the wooden puppet to life. The personification of Death appears in the form of the Wood Sprite’s sister, voiced by Tilda Swinton. Death is a winged, horned Chimera who embodies the traits of several animals and reigns over the afterlife. She meets Pinocchio since, as a resurrected/immortal puppet, he belongs to an in-between space, watched over by the Wood Sprite and her sister Death alike.