DEATH HAS finally been defeated -- at the box office. No more funerals, no more grim reaper. Just lots of existential quality time. For the fortysomething Baby Boomers now feeling the first chill of mortality, this year's spate of "afterlife" movies comes not a season too soon. As the postwar sons and daughters of victory and plenty face every morbid menace from middle age to AIDS, they're writing scripts and producing films about staying alive.

Death, where is thy sting? Certainly not on the screen, where characters are surviving in droves:

In Paramount's "Ghost" (which scared up $100 million last week), gunned-down yup Patrick Swayze comes back as a specter to save wife Demi Moore from danger and even gets to fiddle on the old PC keyboard again. In Columbia Pictures' "Flatliners" (a hearty $25 million in two weeks), a group of medical students play pack-bratty God by temporarily arresting their heartbeats, taking a gander at the Other Side, then coming back to the living with a couple of jolts from the defibrillator. Maybe you caught Bill Cosby's "Ghost Dad" in which TV's paternal patron saint takes a fatal tumble off a bridge but comes back from beyond because somebody's got to watch the kids.

But kids have always had to be watched, spouses have always been left grieving and death has always made itself known sooner or later. So why the current ghost glut? At least three different reasons have been suggested: need for control, hyper-materialism and media-manipulated reality. Control. As we overcome more and more previously impassable obstacles to longevity -- with organ transplants, wonder drugs, high-tech cures, superdiets and cryogenics -- each incremental advance enhances our arrogant sense of control. We seem to be gaining the upper hand on existence. And when new treatments -- such as injections of age-retarding human growth hormone that rebuild aging muscles and rethicken skin -- make the headlines, we feel all the closer to the ultimate cure-all or control-all. The search for eternal youth is no longer something romantic, religious or classical. It's a fearful, desperate, upwardly squeamish obsession.

"That's absolutely one of the most vexacious paradoxes," says sociologist/psychologist Vanderlyn R. Pine, who is also president of the Association for Death, Education and Counseling {ADEC) in New York. "We can control almost everything around us to some extent, but we really can't stop death. We got artificial parts and organs and transplant capabilities but eventually the human dies and that is troublesome."

"We've put people on the moon," says Therese Rando, a Rhode Island clinical psychologist who helps bereaved individuals cope with loss. "Human beings have control over their worlds. It's a blow to our narcissism that we can't get this one under control."

Another thing about death in the era of Super Moms, Filofax, car phones and piano-karate-fencing lessons for the kids: There's no time to die right now. Never was our day as overloaded. When death comes a-calling, we have no choice but to put it on eternal Call Waiting.

"What is it that bothers me about death so much?" Woody Allen once wrote. "Probably the hours." Godless gratification. In the Reaganesque and post-Reaganesque age, Boomers got terminally supply-sided. Now they want everything; they get everything. Their kids want everything; they get everything. Under these circumstances, eternal life, like another Saab, would seem to be just a credit application away.

When she wrote the script for "Hello, Again," says author Susan Isaacs, "the whole idea of death" angered her. "I didn't like it. It's so final, such an ultimate goodbye. My dad had died. My agent whom I adored had just died. . . . I realized there were no long-distance calls."

Worse yet, in a culture some experts believe is becoming increasingly and stubbornly secular, it's harder than ever to make a spiritual connection.

"We've lost that ability, through religion, to transcend death," says Los Angeles psychologist Herman Feifel. "Ghost pictures? Hey, it's wishful thinking, a magical way of trying to defang death. We deny death by these fantasies."

In the laughable movie version of "Wired," the ghost of John Belushi comes back to Earth to look over his tragic life. He was heading for the comic heights but he died too early. He wants better, more. In "Beetlejuice," a couple of dead newlyweds haunt their own home mainly because, well, they want to keep going like before. Reality Spin. Boomers, says Therese Rando, "have had less connection with death as a natural event. We had the Vietnam War broadcast into our living rooms, the threat of nuclear war, megadeath, these types of things, the Bhopal tragedy. When someone died in previous generations, that {individual} event was noted. Here we're talking about thousands dying. The mind has to stretch to deal with that kind of figure. . . . I think we, in the face of death, are in some ways more numbed, less sensitized to it."

Surely these horrors we see propel us -- at least, in part -- to swallow a goofy immortal fantasy like "Field of Dreams," in which Kevin Costner plays born-again ball with his deceased dad, not to mention the infamous Chicago White Sox.

In general, "the media fascination with near-death and after-death," says a production executive with a major studio, "reflects people's basic incapacity to believe that death should happen to them and, I think, the unconscious belief that death really should be preventable."

The ghost boom, she believes, also reflects an "American ability to be distracted from history at large, from geography at large and to live in an America which, I think, is a fantasy world -- not only to the rest of the world but also to Americans themselves. {We believe} that it is possible to pursue happiness -- to be right, good and wealthy. Why shouldn't it be possible to live forever? Why should you have to be punished? Isn't death really a punishment?"

The latest round of afterlife dabblings caps a decade of post-mortem capers and out-of-body switcheroos, from Warren Beatty's 1978 "Heaven Can Wait" to "Ghost" -- which are themselves resurrections of the heaven-and-earth boom of the 1940s ("It's a Wonderful Life," "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," etc.). Remember "All of Me," in which Lily Tomlin's spirit jumps into Steve Martin? How about "Big," in which Tom Hanks trades places with a kid? Or "Like Father, Like Son," where Dudley Moore trades places with his son?

Not to mention: "Heart Condition" (snuffed attorney Denzel Washington comes back and enlists Bob Hoskins to solve his murder); "Hello Again," in which suburban housewife Shelley Long springs back to haunt husband Corbin Bernsen; "Almost Heaven," wherein stiff Timothy Hutton gets a second chance on earth to find fated sweetheart Kelly McGillis; and Don Bluth's cartoon feature, "All Dogs Go to Heaven," in which a dead puppy gets another chance. You don't have to be Viennese to psychoanalyze the Peter-Pannish, never-say-die works of Steven Spielberg, which regularly feature risings from the dead, from "E.T" to "Always," his remake of the Spencer Tracy movie, "A Guy Named Joe." Then there's the revival scene in "The Abyss," in which underwater foreman Ed Harris gives the kiss of life to drowned Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

"The idea that death is not final is very comforting to all of us," says "Abyss" producer Gale Anne Hurd. "I think we all want to believe that personally we can conquer death, we can save someone we love."

That's the new cinematic shibboleth. "Believe" says the advertisement for "Ghost." In what? Lazarus? Casper? Patrick Swayze? Eternal life? No, say "Ghost" screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin and director Jerry Zucker. Believe in a movie. And the old New Age call for spirituality:

"I think we're in a society that is the most materialistic that has emerged on the planet," says the softspoken Rubin. "It's another age of Kali Yuga {the last phase of world decline}, which is a Hindu term for an age in which people become totally obsessed with material things, and lose touch with the fact that they are not totally material entities. For thousands of years we've been told the spirit is contained within a body, but now it's become almost a joke for people to think in those terms. . . . We didn't set out to prove anything. We assumed {the afterlife} was real and went forward."

"We need not fear death," says Zucker. "The afterlife is not unpleasant. I've gotten a lot of comments {about the movie} from people who have lost loved ones. It made them feel better about themselves, the idea that some essence of that person's soul still exists and that this life is not all there is. Bruce and I both believe that and wanted it to be comforting to people."

When John Filardi wrote "Flatliners," he told The San Francisco Chronicle he was "interested in the cause-and-effect of life. And if there's a message to this story, it's the importance of good living, of following the Golden Rule: Do unto others . . . This comes out of an amalgamation of karma, philosophy and Christianity, of having the deep desire to do the right thing."

Whatever any of this really means, we seem to be in an afterlife cycle that is here for the immediate future. Rubin himself has just scripted a thriller called "Jacob's Ladder" for Adrian ("Fatal Attraction") Lyne, which he says, will -- like "Ghost" -- dabble in "metaphysical truth."

"I'll bet you a bunch of movies about extending life" will be coming out, says writer/director James D. Parriott, who dreamed up "Heart Condition" for New Line Cinema after an actor friend accidentally shot himself. "I'm working on something now that deals with that."

New Line, according to production head Sara Risher, is coming out soon with a film called "The Rapture," which deals with the biblical interpretations of the Second Coming, as well as a woman's search for spirituality, and "that fear of making the leap of faith."

Expect, as Los Angeles psychologist Arthur L. Kovacs puts it, more of the "fevered imaginings of the middle-aged men who are the scriptwriters and who put those movies together, and who are struggling with their immortality."

"With the success of 'Ghost,' " says producer Hurd, "I can assure you that otherworldy movies will be in our local theaters, or video stores, for quite some time to come."

Or as long as people continue to have what Rubin calls "this extraordinary ability to get within yards of the end and still not look up." Or until they find the cure for death. Whichever comes first.

Desson Howe is the movie critic for the Post's Weekend section.