The Weirdest Sci-Fi Apocalypse on Netflix Reveals a Controversial Field of Medicine
The fear of death depicted in White Noise is real — and some studies say magic mushrooms could help treat it.
There’s something weird afoot in Netflix’s White Noise — and it’s not what you might think.
Adapted from a Don DeLillo novel, White Noise centers on a professor’s family before and after a toxic cloud settles on their town. But that post-apocalyptic premise obscures the fact that there’s actually a very real scientific condition buried in this absurdist satire.
Spoilers ahead for White Noise
Before the toxic cloud even makes an appearance, the viewer learns Babette — the professor’s wife — has secretly been taking an unauthorized prescription drug, much to the concern of her husband and children.
We later find out the fictional pill — called Dylar — is actually a treatment for the intense fear of death that Babette experiences on a daily basis. As it turns out, this isn’t just a fictional concoction — it’s a real mental health condition, and some researchers think we should use magic mushrooms to treat it.
Reel Science is an Inverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV.
Is the ‘fear of death’ a real medical condition?
“I love you. I just fear death more than I love you,” Babette confesses to her husband, Jack. She explains that the idea of “marching toward non-existence” haunts her and she can’t shake it, no matter how hard she tries.
Most of us have feared death at some point or another, but Babette’s fear is so profound it impacts her daily life. Medical professionals refer to this intense fear of one’s death as thanatophobia — a type of “death anxiety.” It’s not recognized as a separate disorder in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) but falls under the umbrella of anxiety disorders.
“An ‘unreasonable’ or disruptive fear of death can arise for different reasons, a few of which are most common,” psychiatrist David M. Reiss tells Inverse.
One of these reasons is the most obvious: a near-death experience would naturally make you fear death. After the toxic cloud descends in White Noise, we do see Babette sneaking medication to treat her death anxiety. Similarly, many people experienced significant death anxiety as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly before vaccinations and treatments were available.
Reiss says these reactions to a brush with death are usually “brief” and “not necessarily pathological.” While Babette’s fear of death becomes heightened following the event, the movie suggests it was already there before the toxic plume descended.
“I love you. I just fear death more than I love you,”
Depression could also trigger negative thoughts that cascade into a fear of death. Reiss also says past traumas or childhood neglect could precipitate a fear of death as an adult.
“Persons who experienced intentional or unintentional neglect as an infant may have repressed fears of abandonment or annihilation from a preverbal stage of development that then surfaces in adulthood as a fear of death,” Reiss says.
But Babette is also an incredibly smart person, and it’s possible that she ruminates on existential thoughts — i.e., death — more than the average person. Reiss says aging and other life milestones can send people’s otherwise reasonable thoughts down a rabbit hole “of the fear of annihilation.”
Babette mentions early on in the film a generalized fear of losing her husband in a conversation about her children growing older and eventually leaving the house. Jack also experiences a heightened risk of death after becoming exposed to the toxic plume, which likely exacerbates Babette’s death anxiety since his fate is out of her hands.
“‘At times, any significant life change that disrupts a sense of control and equanimity — even positive changes — can trigger existential terror,” Reiss adds.
Common wisdom holds that religious people — due to beliefs regarding the afterlife — fear death less than others, but other research says that atheists may also fear death less.
“People who consider themselves to be a ‘person of faith’ who have an experience that challenges that faith can similarly fall into existential despair/fear of death,” Reiss explains.
How can you treat death anxiety?
In White Noise, Babette takes a fictional, unauthorized prescription medication known as ‘Dylar’ to treat her intense thanatophobia. In real life, there’s no simplistic cure for death anxiety.
Since death anxiety presents for different reasons, each reason requires a different therapeutic or psychiatric approach. If the thanatophobia is due to clinical depression, anti-depressant medication may be appropriate.
“Just in general, an anti-anxiety medication may temporarily help or might provide enough respite from terror for the person to return to ‘normal,” Reiss says.
But Reiss also warns that anti-anxiety medication alone may not suffice if there is an underlying, deep-seated issue — like acute trauma or early childhood abandonment — that remains unresolved. Addiction or dependency on medication is also a concern.
“If it’s not a diagnosable OCD or depression, it’s helpful to use something as benign (non-addictive) as possible to protect sleep while working on the therapeutic issue that needs to be addressed,” Reiss says.
In recent years, novel treatments for fear of death — like immersion in near-death virtual reality experiences — have emerged. But there’s an even more novel treatment that could potentially help treat the fear of death — and it might soon come in a prescription bottle in a state near you.
Is psilocybin a good treatment for the fear of death?
Psilocybin — a chemical responsible for psychedelic experiences in “magic mushrooms” — is now gaining traction as a possible treatment for anxiety and depression, along with other psychedelics like LSD. Up to 30 percent of people don’t respond to traditional anti-depressants, so psilocybin could potentially serve as an alternative medication. One recent study found a single dose of the psychedelic could alleviate depression for up to twelve weeks.
Psilocybin is currently a Schedule 1 drug in the US, which means there is no federally accepted medical use of the psychedelic. But in 2020, Oregon became the first state to legalize psilocybin, and patients will be able to start taking it under supervised use starting this year. Other states like Connecticut are considering making psilocybin legal for veterans with PTSD, while many others are funding research into the medical use of psychedelics.
But there’s also a small body of research suggesting psilocybin isn’t just good as a generalized treatment of anxiety, but could specifically help people process their attitudes around death.
“There’s quite a bit of recent data that suggests that psychedelic-type experiences can disrupt terror caused by a sense of disconnection, fear of annihilation, etc,” Reiss says.
According to 2016 research published by Johns Hopkins University, psilocybin therapy helped cancer patients reconcile their attitudes toward death. A more recent Johns Hopkins study surveyed 3,000 adults — including cancer patients with life-threatening diagnoses — and found that those on psychedelics had significantly reduced fear of death, on par with individuals who experienced near-death experiences.
“In line with a recent large survey reporting that peak psychedelic experiences were linked to reduced fear of death, we found that psilocybin alone predicted the change in appreciation of death,” write researchers in a 2019 Scientific Reports paper.
While the drug in the movie, Dylar, is fictional, it might have similar effects on the human brain as psilocybin. Psilocybin reduces activity in the medial prefrontal cortex — an area that helps regulate cognitive functions – and could also impact the posterior cingulate cortex, which likely impacts memory and emotions.
“All I can tell you is the drug contained in Dylar is some kind of psychopharmaceutical. It’s probably designed to interact with a distant part of the human cortex,” a neurochemist tells Jack in White Noise.
Reiss says some individuals may have unanticipated bad experiences with psychedelics, while the drug may help others with few negative side effects. Patients should proceed cautiously if they want to seek out psilocybin therapy and avoid medical professionals promising a “one-size-fits-all” approach to psychedelic treatment. He says therapeutic psychedelics should only be taken under the supervision of a legitimate clinician who can provide a “safe setting” and “appropriate intervention” if the treatment goes badly.
“In my opinion, it’s a basically experimental treatment that has promise but one should go into it without unrealistic expectations and with informed consent,” Reiss concludes.