The idea of an afterlife has been a staple in many religions throughout history. Through its many names and interpretations, the concepts of Heaven and Hell have fascinated people from their early conceptions to popular movies and television shows today. In fact, in 2019, the hit television show “Preacher” concluded its final season. Throughout its tenure, “Preacher” has given an in-depth look on its own versions of the two dueling afterlives. Before it, movies like “Constantine”, “Highway to Hell” and “Hellbound: Hellraiser II” have shown viewers various interpretations of Hell.
Many of the variations of the way Hell has been portrayed in popular media over time can be attributed to concepts from early media adaptations, as well as the ideas presented in the religions they were adapted from. One of the earliest examples in human history of Hell being introduced is in early Mesopotamian culture. According to an article written by Carol Zaleski from britannica.com, their version of Hell is described as a land of no return. In their traditions, they explain that Hell has a house of dust where the dead dwell without any distinction. Hell is located in a sealed fortress and guarded by seven gates that do not allow for escape or invasion.
Zaleski explains that in ancient Egypt, people believed that those who were judged poorly by Osiris were punished severely after death. Some of the punishments included being devoured by a crocodile-headed monster or being tormented by demons. Horror writer Rami Ungar adds that it was also in ancient Egyptian religion that the idea of a lake of fire can be first traced back to.
While some religions have an afterlife for those who have done good in life and an afterlife for sinners, Zaleski explains that there is only one afterlife in Greek mythology. The Underworld is ruled over by Hades, and it is unpleasant for all who dwell there. However, for notorious sinners, those who died an untimely death or those who were not buried properly, the punishments they suffered from Hades were said to be far more severe. This version of an underworld is one of the earliest examples of the concept of Hell being adapted to popular media. Vinson Cunningham wrote a feature article for The New Yorker about Hell. In it, he explains that in Homer’s famous epic “The Odyssey”, the realm of Hades is visited for a time and described to be a dark and distant shore.
Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world still practiced today. A version of Hell is described in this religion as well. Zaleski explains that in this version, Hell is ruled over by Yima, who is said to be the first victim of death. The demons in this version of Hell take delight over torturing sinners. Zoroastrian Hell is a home for all that is evil, corrupt, cold and hostile to life.
The early Hebrew Bible borrows some of the descriptions of Hell from Mesopotamia, according to Zaleski. Known as Sheol, this version of Hell is regarded as a vast house of silence, darkness and dust. Like the Hell described in early Mesopotamian culture, Sheol is guarded by gates and iron bolts. In post-biblical Jewish texts, a place known as Gehenna appears, which more closely resembles modern perceptions of Hell. It is a place of fiery punishment where the unjust dead suffer for a duration dependent on the severity of their sins. Within Christianity, Gehenna is described as a place where, in Zaleski’s words, “the worm never dies, and their fire is never quenched.”
This description is where the idea of Hell being eternal originates. However, Zaleski explains that there is some dispute about the details of Hell as it is described in the Bible. Some people hold onto the idea that Hell is eternal, while others believe that it is temporary. Other disputes about Hell surround its location, its punishments and the nature of Satan. Some ancient and medieval Christian texts have described Hell as being located in the upper atmosphere, while others believe that Hell is located in the center of the Earth with entrances being located in places such as caves. Ungar states that some people have interpreted Hell to be one universal fiery cave, while others hold the view that Hell offers individual punishments depending on people’s sins. Regarding Satan, Ungar explains that some have described him as dumb and animalistic, while others perceive him as cunning and deceptive. The different beliefs of Hell in different cultures have helped to influence the ways it has been adapted in popular media.
An early example is in Dante’s poem “Inferno”. Dante traverses Hell in this poem and combines the views of punishment being universal and individual as he enters the nine circles. Although Hell is one place, Ungar explains that each circle is a different section where the tortured souls are punished differently based upon their sins in life.
Dante’s portrayal of Hell has been so influential that in 1911 when the film industry was just starting out, it was adapted into a silent movie in Italy. The film “L’Inferno” closely follows the story of Dante’s poem as he explores the nine circles of Hell. Some people are forced to float aimlessly, blown around by a never-ending storm for their lustful ways. Another example is that of the wrathful, who are forced to fight endlessly in the mud. Satan is shown in this story as a giant horned and winged devil with three mouths. In his left and right mouths, he holds Brutus and Cassius who betrayed Caesar. In the mouth in the center, he holds Judas, who betrayed Jesus. While most of Hell’s inhabitants appear like regular people, the demons, like Satan himself, have horns, wings and monstrous figures.
The story of “Inferno” is one example of a common trope in media adaptations of Hell. Cunningham explains that many stories about Hell involve a hero prematurely damned who passes through a state of hopelessness, only to return to the light by the end of the story. Movies that contain this trope include “Hellbound: Hellraiser II”, “Highway to Hell” and “Constantine”.
In “Hellbound: Hellraiser II”, the portal to Hell is opened upon completing an ancient puzzle box. This version of Hell is a labyrinth that has no end where different sections are personalized for its inhabitants. Demons, known in this world as cenobites, are former humans turned into horrific creatures who stalk the labyrinth to torture the inhabitants. These cenobites have no recollection of their past lives, but will turn back to their former selves if they are reminded of their past. The other tortured souls are stripped of their skin and are only able to regain it by consuming the lives of others. The protagonist in this movie enters Hell after a different girl opens the portal by completing the puzzle box. At the end, however, both her and the other girl return once the puzzle box is completed again in Hell.
Hell is quite different in the movie “Highway to Hell”. In this world, a demon cop patrols a back road on the route to Las Vegas and kidnaps virgin girls. In order for a mortal to enter Hell, you must complete a ritual that involves driving back and forth really fast in between two Joshua trees and really believing strongly in your heart that you’re going to enter Hell. The protagonist of the movie does just this in order to save his girlfriend who had just been taken by the Hell cop. Like “Hellbound: Hellraiser II” and “L’Inferno”, this Hell is also able to be exited. The protagonist does this by making a deal with Satan to race the Hell cop to the exit.
Although “Highway to Hell” shares the trope of the hero returning to the light at the end of the story, the way Hell is shown differs drastically. This Hell is not individualized at all, but instead appears to be a distorted version of our own world in the area around Las Vegas. People act in strange ways and some even appear to look disfigured and zombie like. A gang of bikers terrorizes people, notable figures like Adolf Hitler, Cleopatra and Atilla the Hun sit around a table and other inhabitants are generally rude. Hell is marked by its desert landscape.
Satan appears in two distinct forms in the movie. In one form, he is a normal-looking person named Beezle. Beezle appears to be the helping hand of the protagonist, such as when he repairs his broken-down car. However, Beezle reveals his true form when the protagonist finally reconnects with his kidnapped girlfriend. Satan is a horned devil with snake eyes and crooked ears. He reveals that he has many forms including that of the protagonist’s perceived ally Beezle. This version of Satan more resembles the idea of being cunning and deceptive than of dumb and animalistic, like that in “L’Inferno”.
The cunning version of Satan also occurs in “Constantine”. In the movie, Satan appears to Constantine when he is near death. As Constantine had been to Hell before, Satan wanted to reclaim his soul himself. Although he generally looks like a normal old man, Satan’s demonic form is expressed through the veins on his face and the molten black tar on his feet that burn into the ground as he walks.
Also like “Highway to Hell”, the version of Hell shown in “Constantine” is a universal Hell that appears as a distorted version of the real world. This version of Hell is marked by an orange-tinted, fiery wasteland that shows a ruined Earth. Destroyed cars line the streets as dust blows. Like the story of “L’Inferno”, Constantine escapes permanent damnation and is able to return to the light. His experience in Hell is what fuels his quest to return the demons on Earth back down to Hell.
The television show “Preacher” also plays into the trope of the protagonist being temporarily damned before returning from the dead. Jesse Custer is sent to Hell after dying from a high fall. He also gets glimpses of Heaven when he is brought by angels to tempt him into taking God’s throne. Upon his refusal, he is sent back down. Hell is featured prominently in the series and is shown to be almost prisonlike. This adaptation of Hell combines individual punishment with a common place for all sinners. Just as in prison, inmates of Hell wear jumpsuits and are kept in cells. Occasionally, they are let out and are able to interact with each other. When the inhabitants are locked in their cells, however, they receive individual punishment by being forced to live out their worst experience in life on an endless loop.
One example of media that takes a vastly different approach to Hell is the movie “Event Horizon”. This movie takes a science fiction approach. Although it is never explicitly shown in the movie, the effects of the spaceship Event Horizon travelling to Hell before it is resurfaced in the Universe are felt throughout in the horrors and hauntings the crew who discovers it face. The portal to Hell in this movie was made by utilizing a black hole that folds time and space. Hell is explained to exist parallel to our dimension but on a separate plane that can be entered through the black hole.
Another example of media taking a drastically different approach to Hell is the episode of “The Twilight Zone” called “A Nice Place to Visit”. In this version of Hell, you can have anything you want. If you want to be surrounded by beautiful women, you got it. If you want to win big at the casino, then it’s yours. In fact, for most of the episode, the protagonist believes he is actually in Heaven and wonders how he made it with all the horrible things he did in his life. The problem is that since he can have anything he wants whenever he wants it, he quickly becomes bored. The irony is that he begins to have disdain towards all the things in life he thought he always wanted. This version of Hell is permanent, meaning the protagonist is stuck there forever. This varies from the trope of the protagonist getting a second chance in life. It also varies from common perceptions of punishment. The punishment in this Hell is that having too much of a good thing quickly becomes a bad thing.
As can be seen through the many different stories of punishment after death told throughout history, it can be concluded that the concept of Hell has intrigued humankind since its inception. According to Cunningham, this may be because the stories told about Hell reflect the negatives of our known world. Politicians often describe Hell on Earth when they warn about global warming, crime and drugs among other topics.
Cunningham believes that the concept of a Hell after death originated from the pain individuals suffered in life. “Our ancestors developed their ideas of Hell by drawing on the pains and the deprivations that they knew on earth. Those imaginings shaped our understanding of life before death, too,” Cunningham states.
Cunningham explains that one reason he sees why people continue to tell stories about Hell is that tales of punishment for wrongdoing often lead humans towards a higher sense of justice and balance. The concept of judgement determining whether an individual is worthy of Heaven or damned to Hell has also influenced legal systems within society. The prison system is a form of Hell imposed by man created as punishment for those who have broken the law. In a courtroom, judgement is cast on the accused to determine whether they are sent to these prisons. Cunningham explains that televised court cases mimic those in Heaven reveling in their acceptance as they watch from the outside of other people being damned. On an even darker level, extreme forms of punishment have been created throughout history that parallel the tortures of Hell. These include the Gulag, the gas chamber, death row and the detainment site.
Aside from these external examples of man-made Hells, perdition can be internal as well, explains Cunningham. The quote, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” from Dante’s “Inferno” can be applied to addiction and mental illness that turn a person’s state of mind into Hell. Cunningham also mentions that Pope Francis has also stated that Hell is a state of mind created from the absence of God.
The stories of Heaven and Hell have laid the foundation for many of the ways we interpret reward and punishment in our world throughout history. For that reason, these stories have remained popular enough to continue to be adapted in contemporary times in the form of movies and television shows. Because our perceptions of Hell are interwoven between real life human extremities and religious texts throughout history, each interpretation of Hell offers something a little different while still borrowing from previous versions. In the years to come, new movies and television shows are likely to be released that continue to update and evolve the tales of life after death. This timeless narrative is likely to both fascinate and horrify people for as long as our species exists.