Playing Chess with Death: Satire in the Time of a Pandemic

Religion, Death and the Senses - Christina Welch

Laura Hubner [+-]
University of Winchester
Dr Laura Hubner is Professor of Film and Media at the University of Winchester, UK. She is author of Fairytale and Gothic Horror: Uncanny Transformations in Film (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and The Films of Ingmar Bergman: Illusions of Light and Darkness (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), co-editor of The Zombie Renaissance in Popular Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and Framing Film: Cinema and the Visual Arts (Intellect, 2012), and editor of Valuing Films: Shifting Perceptions of Worth (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Her next monograph launches the book series she is editing, Iconic Movie Images (Winchester University Press).


In this chapter I explore how images of Death from Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal (Sweden, 1957) have been reproduced over time, illuminating aspects of the film’s approach to death as well as creating new meanings. The focus will be particularly on the ‘Knight Playing Chess with Death’ and its use in the work of contemporary British satirist and digital collagist, Christopher Spencer, known as ‘Cold War Steve’. Methodologically, the chapter investigates how traditional and emerging arts and technologies breathe new life into film images in a fascinatingly reciprocal relationship, examining the extent to which the film image, functioning as both a valued cultural form and semiotic referent, has the capacity to cut across boundaries of art and popular culture. The image is both fixed within its film context and constantly remoulded by its evolving external connections in a fusion of stasis and movement. Cold War Steve’s vast volume of work (recently collated in an online archive) emanates from the images he regularly posts on Twitter, and the chapter will also engage with related merchandise and follow-up tweets, where audiences discuss his work, plus national exhibitions in an array of external spaces. Anticipated broader outcomes of the chapter include providing a framework for looking at death satire: reconceptualizing values of art, artists and respondents within contemporary flexible contexts that are bridging gaps between traditional concepts of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Also, I aim to unravel how far, during times of trauma, such as the current global pandemic, satire can act as cultural educator, or speak to the fears of the people. Further to this, I will scrutinize how far satirical humour and laughter might allow means of communication for the collective expression of fears and thereby act as a healing or empowering process – by negotiating ethical quandaries, governmental decisions, and actions, for example, or by confronting fears of death.

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Hubner, Laura. Playing Chess with Death: Satire in the Time of a Pandemic. Religion, Death and the Senses. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Jun 2024. ISBN 9781000000000. Date accessed: 26 Nov 2022 doi: 10.1558/equinox.43890. Jun 2024

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