During my very earnest, very adolescent Christian phase, I was much more consumed with going to Hell than anyone in my socioeconomic strata should be. [i] I went to a very mainstream Baptist church; no fire and brimstone, backwoods Pentecostal snake-handling stuff. I went to youth group with other upper middle class thirteen-year-olds, which was more a social scene than a collection of kids with similar convictions. My parents were completely ambivalent about religion, as they didn’t even attend church with me. I just had this weird, persistent fixation with salvation, in large part due to my flair for drama for drama’s sake. The other part was though I began as a casual Protestant, I had one funny psychological tick—I could not stop picturing myself having sex with Jesus, the Lamb of God, Bread of Life, Lion of the Tribe of Judah. In every service, when my emotions would get carried away and I would feel myself filled with the Spirit, bursting with love for that which gave himself so that we may be saved, I would be stymied by a compulsive mental image of myself and the King of Kings mid-coitus. I couldn’t help it, and the more I fought it, the more depraved the images became. I was petrified that I would spend forever in Hell. And the thought of going to Hell for eternity scared me only slightly less than going to Heaven for eternity. Can you imagine that? Arriving in Heaven only to explain to JC why you couldn’t stop thinking of him as a viable sexual partner? Spare me.
Frankly, the concept of eternity scares the bejeesus out of me, regardless of context. Seriously, let’s follow it through to its logical end. Heaven is this place of perfect peace and happiness. You know what makes me happy? Food. So in Heaven, all manner of cuisine is available to me, but after the millionth time eating falafel, am I honestly still enjoying it? How many types of food are there to keep me from becoming jaded in eternity?
Eternity in either Heaven or Hell sounds like a nightmare of inconceivable proportions, spurring the kind of middle-of-the-night meltdown that takes a Klonopin and a few hours of Mario Kart to get through. I went so far as to get a highly ineffectual, financially unsound graduate degree in Religious Studies, hoping to understand the human need to create an eternal duality which would dictate our actions in the corporeal world. The only fire and smoke in those years was from my bong and the money I was burning by getting such a degree.
Naturally, my existential dread extends to a fascination with cinematic depictions of the Inferno. The concept of eternal torture exists in many iterations—from literal lakes of fire and spiky imps to more metaphorical suffering to the Lovecraftian horror of the unknowable. Of late, I’ve been reflecting on depictions of Hell that have had the biggest impact on my easily excitable imagination, and I feel compelled to log some of them in what I hope to be a cathartic exercise. [ii]
Doom II: Hell on Earth – PC (1994)
I’m starting with a bit of cheat, because this is not a movie, but a highly influential computer game that no 9-year-old should play. Viewed through the lens of today, it is laughably tame in its portrayal of imps, demons [iii], and possessed soldiers simply called “shotgun guys.” Nonetheless, its barren cityscapes of greenish-grays, charred skies, and claustrophobic corridors had a considerable impact on my soon-to-be hysterical imagination.
While the main protagonist—known simply as “The Marine”—is technically not in Hell but fighting in the abandoned cities of Earth, Hell’s myriad of inhabitants let loose upon the planet, turning it into basically another Hell. The idea of there being only one person on the planet, surrounded by Satan’s minions unleashing crudely pixelated horrors, showed up in my nightmares again and again. There I am in my childhood home, hordes of monsters illuminated by streetlamp slowly making their way to my front door. My family is gone. I have no one, not even God who is probably grossed out by my thoughts about his son.
There are plenty of scarier games—I could barely watch my brother play the first Resident Evil game. Doom II isn’t even scary, per se. It was a feeling of dread and despair that lodged itself in my psyche and was fed by scores of other movies and games, including the first movie on our list.
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey – 1991
The sequel to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has a lot going for it. Acclaimed thespian and all-around magical human being Keanu Reeves was in two other movies that year. In Point Break, he blossomed into a bona fide action star. In Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, he became a fixture of respectable arthouse, capital-C Cinema. He didn’t have to star in a sequel to what was considered a slight if entertaining comedy. But I have a feeling he knew in his heart that he would be a contributor to one of the greatest theological discourses since Thomas Aquinas sketched out Summa Theologiae on a cocktail napkin.
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey has been called the Godfather II of time-travel stoner comedies. [iv] Its haunting production design and a performance for the ages by William Sadler as Death give it considerable staying power, contributing to the long-storied third movie that may or may not ever be made, demanded by a generation of fans who have cheapened nostalgia to the point of meaninglessness and who are responsible for the existence of a Full House reunion on Netflix.
I won’t bore you by rehashing the plot wherein Bill and Ted are murdered by future robot versions of themselves who then trick their medieval princess wives from the first movie. During a séance gone awry by Ted’s stepmother who used to be Bill’s stepmother, their souls are cast down to Hell where Satan forces them to confront childhood tormentors, including a deranged soldier in charge of the military academy Ted dreads attending, a horrifying grandmother with super gross gums who tries to kiss a childhood Bill, and the Easter Bunny. All these figures chase Bill and Ted through a seemingly endless labyrinth (I’m terrified by labyrinths) until they are forced to face Death in a series of contests to escape hell, including Battleship, Twister, and Clue. I’m sure you remember it all.
What makes this movie so effective is its uncanny ability to create relatable childhood horrors that exist in the memories of every adult. As children, yes, we are scared by boogeymen and movie monsters, but we are most traumatized by the seemingly innocuous artifacts of tradition and family lore. I like old people, but they can also be scary. Sentient rabbits that give you candy as a celebration of the torture and crucifixion of Jesus can be kind of scary too. The greatest tragedy of life might be that with age, we lose the ability to remember the hellish creations adults force children to embrace, and so we make new ones for the next generation. Only a room full of coked-up adult movie execs could think Mombi from Return to Oz would titillate child viewers.
Bill and Ted’s descent into Hell is a natural extension of the first movie’s use of time travel as the main conceit. Time travel is only one step removed from Hell. Losing the ballast provided by a linear, unalterable timeline creates a similar dread where the rules of existence don’t matter anymore. If time makes no sense, then neither does place, especially since to travel through time would mean you would reappear in a place that the Earth doesn’t occupy anymore, since the planet is on a revolving orbit, constantly moving. Your time machine would have to compensate for this which, I don’t need to tell you, is pretty fucking preposterous. Therefore, you would be deposited in the black fathoms of space, which as far as I’m concerned, might as well be Hell.
I was watching a German TV show about time travel, in which one of the main characters goes back in time looking for a little boy from the present that also goes back who is also his father. He sees the little boy talking to the little girl that would be the main character’s mother, and realizes that if he brings the little boy back, he will stop his father from meeting his mother and therefore he would never be born, so he decides to leave the little boy in the past. But he only thinks he is deciding that, because if it was an actual decision, then there’s the possibility that he would bring him back and negate his own existence, in which case he would never be there to contemplate the decision he thinks he’s making. This dispels the idea of free will, and shows that we are prisoners of preordained events, which means nothing means anything. Just like in Hell.
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, however, posits that Bill and Ted escape Hell by defeating Death in games of chance, so they live in a state of chaotic freedom where any timeline is possible. It’s my understanding that the Church of Satan celebrates Satan as a symbol of freedom, so the idea of an undetermined future is also a hallmark of the existence of Hell. This is why I think freedom is way overrated. It takes me 45 minutes to find something to watch on Netflix, which I will then turn off after 20 minutes. It takes me twice as long to settle on a pornographic video for me to climax, which I will turn off after 20 seconds. This is what Schopenhauer predicted when he described the world as a state of chaos that needed order imposed on it, which meant many, many choices to be made. Making this many choices would make people miserable. But when people stop imposing order on the world, they go insane. So… order and misery, or freedom and madness? This is the dilemma Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey laid on us in 1991.
Event Horizon – 1997
This is the movie that crawled up my peehole like an Amazonian candiru when I was 12 years old and hasn’t come out since. When me and my brother saw the VHS cover in our local video store and said, “Sweet! Dr. Grant from Jurassic Park and a spaceship!” we had no clue what we were about to let into our little brains.
Hall of Fame Kiwi Sam Neill plays a brilliant scientist who invents some sort of cool, spiky engine that lets people travel across vast distances in space instantly because it just up and folds space in half like a piece of paper. Unfortunately, when the spaceship folded the spacepaper, it tore a spacehole in it and went into some unknowable dimension that is ostensibly Hell. We know this because when Sam Neill and Laurence Fishburne lead a rescue team to the spaceship which has returned to our solar system, there are videos of the crew speaking backwards Latin. And everybody knows that Latin is the language of evil.
The rescue crew starts having hallucinations once onboard the ship of all their deepest regrets and failures, including Sam Neill’s constantly naked wife who killed herself because he was a workaholic or something, and Laurence Fishburne’s buddy, who he accidentally burned alive or something. People start going crazy and killing each other as they uncover more clues about the last crew, who are now splattered inside out on the ship’s walls.
It turns out the ship came back “alive” and is fucking with everyone’s minds. This concept is moderately terrifying to me, because if you follow through on the logic of most horror movies, the worst-case scenario is that you die. Dying is such a pedestrian thing to scare people with that it has no effect on me. What does have a very profound effect on me is mental torture and insanity, possibly for eternity. It’s one thing for underrated character actor Sam Neill to pin me to the ceiling with a bunch of freaky medical blades, it’s another to gouge my own eyes out with my thumbs because I can’t stop seeing visions of my dead wife who killed herself because I was busy changing the entire basis for our understanding of space and time. [v]
There is no shortage of crazy imagery in Event Horizon that haunted 12-year-old me. The aforementioned inside-out people splattered on the walls. Jason Isaacs being inverse-crucified with his own medical instruments. Sam Neill gouging his own eyes out. Some dude with great big gaping wounds all over him. And the absolute fucking worst—being shot out into space with no space suit, dead and drifting forever. I think we all have a primal fear of drifting into space because it confirms what we all know deep down—that we are nothing in the face of such cosmic scale.
The movie ends with Laurence Fishburne sacrificing himself by blowing the ship back to Hell through some sort of scientifically-dubious black hole, which made me feel just terrible for this character trying to do the right thing—he sends himself to Hell for eternity to save a crew which, as far as I can tell, was brought on board for their ability to be simultaneously hysterical and worthless. That pissed me off more than scared me. That’s the stuff that makes men like Harold Kushner write When Bad Things Happen to Good People. [vi]
Jacob’s Ladder – 1990
It’s ironic that Jacob’s Ladder was directed by Adrian Lyne, a wonderful English director who brought sexy back with movies like Flashdance, Fatal Attraction, 9 ½ Weeks, Indecent Proposal and Unfaithful. His filmography has given me more erections than a hundred years of Amish barn raisings, yet Jacob’s Ladder might make me celibate.
Tim Robbins plays a deeply traumatized Vietnam vet named Jacob, now working as a postal worker in New York City. Since this is pre-gentrification, you might think that Jacob’s fate as a mailman in Brooklyn is this film’s version of Hell, but it’s actually not, even without rent control.
The movie starts with Jacob and his unit under attack in the Mekong Delta, where his comrades are schiz-ing out and having seizures and spasms and hallucinations and all sorts of gnarly shit. Jacob is seriously wounded, but the film then cuts to 1990 NYC, where he wakes up on the subway—which is only the slightest improvement over the Mekong Delta. He has one marriage behind him and a dead son played by Macaulay Culkin. He lives with Elizabeth Peña and his best friend is his chiropractor Louis, played by Danny Aiello.
And then things get bad.
Jacob is beset by hallucinations of crazy seizing heads, monsters attacking his girlfriend, and captivity at the hands of freaky doctor demons that have no eyes. He goes on a feverish odyssey across New York while being chased by faceless people and reconnecting with his old Army buddies who are having similar experiences.
After he rescues Jacob from the nightmare hospital with the scary doctors, Louis paraphrases the German Christian Mystic Meister Eckhart:
Eckhart saw Hell too. He said: “The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you,” he said. “They’re freeing your soul. So, if you’re frightened of dying and… you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.”
I’m completely pulling this out of my ass, but I believe he might be referring to Eckhart’s Sermon IV: True Hearing:
The man who abides in the will of God wills nothing else than what God is, and what He wills. If he were ill he would not wish to be well. If he really abides in God’s will, all pain is to him a joy, all complication, simple: yea, even the pains of hell would be a joy to him. He is free and gone out from himself, and from all that he receives, he must be free. If my eye is to discern colour, it must itself be free from all colour. [vii]
Basically, Jacob has refused to accept his marriage is over, his son is dead, and his friends died in Vietnam. His denial is how he creates his own Hell. When he goes back to his old family home, he sees his dead son (obviously named Gabriel, because of fucking course), who takes his hand and leads him to Heaven. That’s where we find out that Jacob actually died that day in Vietnam, and the whole movie has been a death dream. This is before the use of the “death dream” in movies became a complete cop out and was still kind of cool and novel. The movie ends with a scroll that says the U.S. military did a lot of experimenting on its own troops with hallucinogenics and all sorts of horrible stuff, which really cuts the legs out of the semi-happy ending.
It’s said that we all share the same base fear of losing autonomy. Imprisonment, paralysis, insanity… My personal Hell would be some sort of eternally protracted psychotic break, a loss of autonomy over my psyche. Maybe the control we think we have over our minds is a trick so we don’t just snap like a rubber band. Jacob’s Ladder breaks the illusion of control over our minds, and it’s why I consider it to be the most effective and haunting portrayal of Hell ever put to film.
* * *
Thirtysomething arrogance has, for the most part, cured me of any abiding fear of eternal damnation. Anymore, I don’t know if eternity is scarier than nothingness. I’ve heard that what it’s like after you die is what it was like before you were born. Frankly, I take that as cheap comfort. Every old man lays in a death bed wondering what happens next, but no weirdly adult baby sits around wondering what they just came from. Maybe if you’re lucky, the pain of dying creates a hastier welcoming of death.
Maybe I turn to Hell on screen because I’d rather confront it there than confront the personal Hell that already exists for countless people. My own personal Hell is never less than frighteningly possible and there’s no need for a God or a Devil to make it more real. Mental illness, homelessness, disease, famine, war… healthcare will soon be unaffordable, most of the coasts will be underwater in 50 years and the gap between rich and poor is making democratic capitalism unsustainable.
BUT… I have Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime, Spotify Premium and about 900 podcasts I listen to regularly. Media and technology have made it easier than ever to see Hell on screen, and shut my eyes to it outside.
[i] Thinking about the afterlife is for poor people.
[ii] Though the older I get, the less I believe in true catharsis unless it comes at the hands of further trauma. Given the subject matter, I believe catharsis might only be achieved by a ritualistic sacrifice. The neighbor who yelled at my dog for peeing in her yard might be a good candidate.
[iii] Including cacodemons, spiderdemons, and the cyberdemon.
[iv] By me. Just now. So ipso facto, this is a 100% accurate statement.
[v] I love how women in movies are portrayed as such emotional black holes that are neglected by their brilliant, record-shattering husbands to the point of suicide, when in actuality, I doubt scientists of Sam Neill’s caliber have a personality that would let any woman be in the same room with them for any sustainable amount of time. “Oh I’m sorry sweetie, were you busy with what is perhaps the most important scientific discovery in history? Well you forgot our half anniversary!” In my experience, the women I’ve had relationships with have been very accommodating about my genius. Some of them are so respectful of it, they have yet to call me back.
[vi] A profoundly moving treatise on the conundrum of evil in a world that is supposed to be ruled by a loving, omnipotent God. Rabbi Kushner’s son died of the nightmarish, premature-aging disease progeria, throwing his entire belief system into doubt. His work tackles the problem of evil, the Book of Job, and how God might be loving but might also be unable to prevent suffering, which means he might not actually be God? It took big, Rabbinical balls to write it, and he’s gotten a lot of shit for it from conservative Jewish and Christian leaders. It is an amazing work, and has no business being mentioned here in this trashy essay.
[vii] In Germany, this is considered optimistic.