Exploring Mortality Through China’s Death Simulators

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Have you ever wondered what it’s like to die?

The question itself seems silly and redundant–it’s an inevitability of the human condition that we ponder our own mortality. Now, Death Simulation Machines are offering the possibility to do much more than that. These high-tech, immersive experiences are providing visitors with the opportunity to die–well, sort of.

These attractions (which are popping up around Asia) utilize multi-sensory tactics to mimic the act of dying as closely as possible.

Naturally, death is the great unknown of the human experience, so the accompanying tactics for re-creating it are purely speculative. However, at the Samadhi Death Simulator located in Shenzhen China, the process looks a little something like this:

A group of players pay approximately $40 each to participate in collective challenges. Failure to successfully complete the tasks at hand results in that individual’s “death.” Much like in life itself, all who play eventually must die.

When a player dies, they are placed inside of a coffin, and then placed on a conveyor belt-type contraption and sent to a crematorium. A combination of heat (the coffin’s temperature rises to approximately 105 degrees), intense light, and hot air give the impression of being burned alive. Fun!

Afterwards, an image resembling a womb is projected onto the ceiling for people to look up at, while the sound of a heartbeat surrounds them. A bright light then appears; encouraging participants to crawl towards it. The light leads them to an inviting, bright, cushy area representing their rebirth.

Samadhi, the name given to this particular Death Simulator, is a Hindi term, the meaning of which translates into a state of transcendent meditative consciousness. A trance wherein which the mind becomes completely still until there is an absolute absence of thought. The ride attempts to provoke this state in its participants, a process which ideally provides an understanding of death.

Despite being incredibly macabre, the desired outcome of such a practice isn’t necessarily to frighten people. Rather, it is to encourage users to approach the thought of death more realistically and responsibly, ideally resulting in a renewed sense of purpose, or a more focused sense of self after the experience is through.

Robert Gangi is a clinical psychologist practicing at Greenwich Village Center For Separation And Loss. His work focuses on the topic of grief, bereavement, and ultimately, acceptance of the reality of death. Gangi sat down with BTRtoday to discuss healthy ways of approaching the topic of death, and whether there might be some potentially positive psychological outcomes of participating in Death Simulation practices like the Samadhi.

Gangi explains that it’s strange how strong the desire to deny the inevitability of death is in most people. We walk around in our day-to-day routines, somehow blissfully unaware of our impermanence, and the utter uncertainty of the lives of those surrounding us.

“Death is always a surprise–it shouldn’t be,” Gangi says. “I think that just tells you the extent to which people really strive to not think about it.”

Part of Gangi’s work is attempting to encourage his patients to realize the certainty of death. He does not aim to expose people to feelings of dread and fear, but instead to prime them for a healthier relationship with the topic once it arises. And, it will arise.

“It’s important to think a little bit more about being temporary, and how you want to spend your days,” says Gangi, who, as somebody who works with death daily, has implemented this thought process into his own life.

According to Gangi, gimmicky Death Simulators may not be the proper medium for working through the complex set of emotions that emerge when dealing with one’s own ephemerality. They represent the same type of flippant misrepresentation of this weighty topic as horror movies, and Gangi predicts that their effects have just about as much longevity as a New Year’s resolution.

“It looks like something analogous to what you see with Halloween, which is kind of an acknowledgement of death, but it’s also sort of a two-dimensional thrill.” Though for participants the experience might initially prompt introspection and reaffirmations of earthly purpose, Gangi says, “I suspect that those feelings are probably not terribly enduring.”

Actually considering one’s own transience; the utter impermanence of life, love, and youth; the ramifications of no longer existing for your loved ones, Gangi explains is, “an extended, arduous, long term challenge.” Not an afternoon activity at an amusement park.

An authentic interaction with the topic might resemble long-term meditation, or deliberate daily moments of reflection.

Though advances in tech-enabled sensory simulation may allow places like Samadhi to function with increasing verisimilitude to the real thing, a healthy relationship with mortality is one that is more holistically interwoven into an individual’s life, rather than just a fleeting immersive shock.