“Torchwood” Manages Terror: Suzie, Gwen, and Terror Management Theory

People are afraid of dying, and this fear influences our behavior in many different ways. Or, in terms of Terror Management Theory, “the self-preservation motive and awareness of our own mortality ‘gives rise to potentially overwhelming terror” (Pyszczynski, et. al., 2004, p. 27 as qtd. in Moghaddam, 2008, p. 58).

Besides stating this slightly obvious fact, Terror Management theorists explain that people deal with the fear of death by creating worldviews, or beliefs, that help us to ignore or deny our inevitable demise. But Terror Management theory argues that no amount of comforting thoughts, however sincerely believed, are powerful enough to eradicate the deeply entrenched fear of death from our bodies and minds.  As a result, the best our worldviews can do is allow us to repress our fear and then take out our “fears and negative emotions [on] outgroups” (Moghaddam, 2008, p. 59).

Of course, experiencing new cultures and worldviews isn’t always terrifying. The point of traveling is to see some place different, and to meet people who likely have different beliefs from your own. Still, Terror Management Theory is an important reminder of “the self-protective mechanism of cultures [and] the fear that can arise within us when we are confronted by outgroup members who, sometimes intentionally, challenge our belief systems and cultures” (Moghaddam, 2008, p. 61). Torchwood demonstrates that when we fear those who are different, life becomes as terrifying as dying.

(THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THE REST OF THE ARTICLE)

Suzie’s obsession with the death (and the death-defying alien artifact known as the “Resurrection Gauntlet”) seems to result from a fear that humans are not really special. Gwen, a new member of the Torchwood team, handles the contradiction to her belief in a meaningful existence in a very different way.

We meet Suzie just before her time at Torchwood comes to an end. Gwen, who replaces her, arrives at Torchwood with no previous experiences with aliens while Suzie has become bitterly disillusioned about the place of human beings in the universe.

The “Resurrection Gauntlet” can bring people back from the dead for a few minutes, and of all the team members, Suzie can bring people back for the longest amount of time. In the beginning of the series, Gwen is a police constable who first discovers Torchwood when they use the glove on a murder victim to test its power. At the end of the first episode, Suzie admits to Gwen that she was the one responsible for the recent murders in Cardiff. She had killed people in order to practice bringing them back with the glove, hoping to eventually bring people back permanently -her fear of death was causing her to kill innocent people. Terror Management Theory would predict that she would be killing members of an outside group (aliens in this case) but instead she turns against other humans.

 Suzie believes killing people for a greater purpose is justified because after spending so many years working with Torchwood seeing the type of aliens that end up in Cardiff, she fears that if any truly beautiful and wondrous species exist they do not come to Earth because it’s too “dirty.” In terms of Terror Management Theory I think that her constant contact with alien species has challenged her view of humans as having inherent worth; she is afraid that compared to other alien lifeforms, humans are inferior. She then internalizes this fear and it allows her to commit murder, even as she claims her purpose is to ultimately help people. Perhaps Terror Management theorists would consider this a type of conversion. Even though she is not converting to the beliefs of actual beings, she assumes that there are sentient beings who believe humans are worthless and comes to adopt this view herself.

Gwen, on the other hand, does not demonstrate Suzie’s lack of self-esteem, “the culturally based belief that one is a valued participant in a meaningful reality” (Pyszcyzynski et. al., 2004, p. 28 as qtd. in Moghaddam, 2008, p. 61).

Unlike the rest of the team, Gwen has a strong relationship with someone outside of Torchwood: her boyfriend Rhys. This connection may help Gwen to maintain her cultural worldview about the inherent worth of humanity, and the importance of helping other people. We know at the beginning of the show she is different from the rest of the team, who have all become, to varying degrees, more interested in alien technology than helping their fellow humans. Jack admits that having Gwen’s moral perspective and compassion may be good for the group. When the team loses sight of the tragedies they frequently deal with, Gwen observes:

 “You’ve been hidden down here too long. Spending so much time with the alien stuff. You’ve lost what it means to be human.”

To which Captain Jack replies:

So remind us. Tell me what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.”

That, ultimately, is what Torchwood is about, and Terror Management Theory describes a common response to people’s attempt to find an answer.

 

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