Tales from the Valley of Death: Reflections from psychotherapy on the fear of death

Ross G. Menzies & Rachel E. Menzies




The dread of death is a problem nearly as old as time itself. Our awareness of our own mortality has been famously referred to by William James as ‘the worm at the core’ of human existence, lingering in the shadows of our daily lives.

It is something we must all grapple with. Yet, increasing scientific evidence suggests that ‘death anxiety’ may lie at the heart of a multitude of mental health conditions, driving numerous clinically-relevant behaviours.

What can we learn about confronting mortality from the tales of individuals who have been gripped by mental illness and the dread of death?

Tales from the Valley of Death explores the complex lives of individuals who have been crippled by death-related fears and related existential issues as revealed by candid interviews with their psychotherapist, internationally renowned clinical psychologist Professor Ross Menzies. Vivid first-hand accounts reveal their private histories, core thoughts, beliefs and attitudes that drove their mental health dilemmas. For some, the struggle has gone on for years as they tried different therapies and therapists.

A platform for the wealth of mental and behavioural processes brought to life through these 10 fascinating tales is provided by Rachel Menzies, a leading researcher in death anxiety and daughter of Ross. Her engaging introduction on the history and psychological underpinnings of death anxiety bookends neatly with a comprehensive concluding examination of what these stories reveal about its causes and effects.

As we listen in on the interviews, it is hard not to be struck by how fascinating these individuals are, how compelling their histories have been, and how hard they have fought to overcome their difficulties, bravely wading their way through the murky territory of the same existential dilemmas we all must face.

Their fears range from sudden death by fire to assassins in the shadows, from anaphylactic shock to a multitude of diseases, from being attacked by dinosaurs lurking in kitchen cupboards to being pushed off cliffs and in front of trains. For many, the ultimate fear is the wrath of God while for others, a lack of meaning and a pervasive sense of pointlessness drove their mental difficulties.

Tales from the Valley of Death shows us the many ways that the dread of death and fear of impermanence can strike at the heart of the human experience and the power of effective therapy to improve the lives of others.


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About the Author

Ross Menzies completed his undergraduate, masters and doctoral degrees in psychology at the University of NSW. He is currently Professor of Psychology in the Graduate School of Health, University of Technology Sydney (UTS). In 1991, he was appointed founding Director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the University of Sydney, a post which he held for over 20 years.  He is the past NSW President, and twice National President, of the Australian Association for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (AACBT). He is the editor of Australia's national CBT journal, Behaviour Change, and has trained psychologists, psychiatrists and allied health workers in CBT around the globe. Professor Menzies is an active researcher with nearly three decades of continuous funding from national competitive sources. He currently holds over $AUS7 million in research funding. He has produced 9 books and more than 200 journal papers and book chapters and was the President and Convenor of the 8th World Congress of Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies (WCBCT).  


Rachel Menzies completed her honours degree in psychology at the University of Sydney, taking out the Dick Thompson Thesis Prize for her work on the dread of death and its relationship to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). She published her first paper on death fears in Clinical Psychology Review as an undergraduate student, and followed this by convening a symposium on the topic at the 8th World Congress of Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies in Melbourne in 2016. Her manuscript on death anxiety and compulsive behaviour was the lead paper in the first edition of the Australian Clinical Psychologist. Her subsequent work on fear of death and psychopathology has been published in several leading international journals, and she can regularly be heard on national radio, popular podcasts and relevant public events (e.g. The Festival of Death and Dying). In 2017, she gave her first invited plenary address on death anxiety, and an invited workshop, at the 47th Congress of the European Association of Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies (EABCT). In 2018 she was the lead editor of Curing the Dread of Death: Theory, Research and Practice published by Australian Academic Press. She has just completed an invited workshop tour on the dread of death across seven cities for the Australian Association for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (AACBT). This is her second book on death anxiety and its impact on mental health. 

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