In praise of a Valentine who never ghosts, and what our crushes tell us about ourselves.
I have a type and always have.
It’s a broad one, but it’s terribly specific: my knees go weak for a charismatic creep. Romeos come and go, but I’ll crawl on broken glass through hell for a Mercutio. Leading men leave me cold. It’s not merely the wrong guy, it’s the one whose entire personality is built upon being the wrong guy. He’s often the life of the party, mostly a pain in the ass, and always, always, always the kind of trouble that takes my goddamn breath away. Which is why, if St. Valentine has set aside a day each year for us to pander to our sweethearts and confess our affections, I’ll do my turn: I have a crush on Death.
In Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece, The Seventh Seal, Death is famously portrayed as a white-faced man who has a meet-cute moment with a crusading knight on a desolate beach during the Black Plague. To me, the movie is basically a rom com. There is chainmail, there is chess. And there is Death, played by (long-dead) Swedish actor Bengt Ekerot, smooth as hell—and come to sweep me away.
Can you see it? A strong cleft chin beneath gallows’ black-brown eyes, liquid eyes all the better to drown you as you lunge at the receding spark therein. His style is arresting, heart-stopping, even: the tailored hood, the cape, the leather! Gloves that send shivers down your spine. Gloves that make your throat seize. Oh, and Google tells me Ekerot’s birthday was February 8, which means Death is also an Aquarius. To be sure, he’s no Matthew McConaughey. But guess what? I’m no Kate Hudson, either.
Of course, I blame my parents. Warm-hearted snobs and Criterion Collection aficionados, Nancy and Lou made a fatal lapse in judgment when they forbade Beverly Hills 90210 in our home, but allowed me to watch Sex, Lies, & Videotape and Goodfellas when they were released. I was in the second grade. Instead of nursing a normal crush on Luke Perry or Jason Priestley, I fell hard for James Spader and Ray Liotta. I’ve been a lost cause ever since. By the time I watched The Seventh Seal in middle school, I knew I had arrived at the bad boy reductio ad absurdum: Death.
Valentine’s Day offers a rich opportunity to think about how we are conditioned to crush and to whom these feelings are assigned. What do our crushes tell us about ourselves and what we yearn for? Whom do we chase and what qualities do we crave? How do we see ourselves as incomplete? What kind of attachment style do our romantic fantasies portend? As we suffer so much discourse around the making and breaking of patterns, it is important to dissect the evolution of what we want.
While I readily accept that I first fell for Death as an insufferable pre-teen aching to have a movie crush just a bit edgier than Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, as I have matured, I can now see my crush on Death is actually quite healthy. I recommend it. First of all, as an American, I hail from a notoriously death-avoidant culture. Secondly, as a woman, I have been raised around ideas of Hollywood romance and romantic expectations that are arguably more dangerous than Hollywood violence. My crush shields me from these pitfalls—and he excels in the ever after.
How does he do it? What’s his trick? Well, I hope it doesn’t take Esther Perel to explain: He shows up. Let us return to the rom com’s most fertile stomping ground, the beach—here, of course, emptied by Bubonic Plague. The beach, as a liminal space, is an ideal metaphorical home for romance. Beneath the horizon, we have the waxing and waning of tides upon the shore, the ephemeral shapes in the sand. Death, the master of liminality himself, strides on in. And yes, he does play games—don’t they all?—but it’s a game, and it’s chess, which is, like, so sophisticated (and honestly fucking annoying but I’ll drop it because no one is perfect).
Still, Death is not like the others, and I’ll tell you why: He’s reliable. There are countless ways to get a hold of him. And, when all the other men have let you down—all the other ones whose faults you have compromised yourself by entertaining—he will be there, waiting for you. There are few things more humiliating in life than being attracted to straight men, but waiting for Death will never make you play the fool. Death will never ghost you. And, though typically associated with the long game, he’s full of surprises: He might pop in anytime at all. He’s always got the time for you, his girl, or his guy, or, really, his anyone. (New love is such a jealous thing, but not with my crush! Death, be not toxic.)
Death is the crush who crushes all the competition. He makes your heart skip far more than a beat. What’s more, Death doesn’t care about diet culture and he isn’t on Instagram or any of the apps. He will take you as you are. He will swipe right with that scythe—in real life. After all, when we are bullied into believing our single shot at happiness hinges (pun intended) on how we’ve lit, sequenced, and captioned half a dozen selfies, what’s wrong with lusting after the eternal? What’s wrong with wanting something real? And what’s realer than Death?
Our digital dating culture is predicated almost entirely on shallow snap judgments. The Seventh Seal, on the other hand, is about the silence of God in the moments before The Last Judgment. The movie opens with the following quote from the Book of Revelations: “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour,” referring to what is surely the greatest 30-minute cliffhanger in all of history—film, human, cosmic, spiritual. Ingmar Bergman portrays God as silent before human suffering, deaf to the torments of faith. The question then, regardless of belief or perhaps even in spite of it, is how do we fill that silence? The film is absolute in its suggestion: not fear, not awe, but love. Love is the only way to lend meaning to the void. And spoiler alert: The cute acrobat family are the ones who make it out alive. They elude Death because they believe in and trust one another.
This, to me, is a tall order.
Besides, some of us are not trying to escape Death. Some of us are actively combing all the beaches, certain that meet-cute moment is out there somewhere. Knowing, without a doubt, it will happen someday. Someday, I can be certain, my Dark Prince will come, with a strong jawline and a black cape and all the time in the world for me.
…Now, who says romance is dead?