Concepts of the Underworld Across Religion and Art

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“Leaving Adamantinarx” – Wayne Barlowe

Ancient Egyptians feared a realm in the afterlife called Duat. In the Torah, it is sometimes referred to as sheol, the space beneath the earth that swallowed civilizations whole. Greek mythological tales describe a living underworld of dead souls, pulsating with five rivers as its veins, ruled by Hades and his many-headed hound Cerberus. The Serer religious traditions of several African countries describe Jaaniw, the final resting place of the human soul. Unfortunate souls who cannot find Jaaniw are perpetually lost to the ether, though they do not, as in the case of most other religions, burn or suffer.

“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” Revelation 21:8
“But as for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will be poured down on their heads, Whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted; And for them are hooked rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they would […] taste the doom of burning.” Quran 22:19

The concept of a righteous, punishment-based afterlife is certainly not unique to Western religions, though the method of escaping the gates of Hell has become more specific and streamlined in the wake of evangelical Christianity. While earlier Christian belief describes access to heaven as based on the deeds of a woman during her lifetime, modern Christianity attributes the salvation of the eternal soul to a relationship with Christ the Redeemer. Similarly, eternal punishment in Islam is enacted on members of other religions, or as the Quran calls them, “those who disbelieve.”

So Christians say hell is for non-Christians, and Muslims believe it’s solely the fate of non-Muslims. Regardless of how we supposedly get there, what is hell, and what has hell been, in cultural imagination since its inception?

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Hell as a multi-tiered labyrinth, its levels separated by the type and severity of the eternal prisoners’ transgressions, was introduced in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. In this epic poem, the nine realms of hell loosely follow the Catholic seven deadly sins, offering specific discipline for sinners of all kinds. The quote supposedly written on the gates of hell in The Divine Comedy has followed us through contemporary art and fiction, and specific segments have even reached a certain level of cliche.

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The Gates of Hell, sculpted by Rodin

“Through me you go to the grief wracked city; Through me you go to everlasting pain; Through me you go a pass among lost souls. Justice inspired my exalted Creator: I am a creature of the Holiest Power, of Wisdom in the Highest and of Primal Love. Nothing till I was made was made, only eternal beings. And I endure eternally. Abandon all hope — Ye Who Enter Here

In Christian tradition, hell is not only a resting place and torture chamber for the souls of non-believers, but it also serves as a living realm for Satan (the fallen angel) and his own horde of angels (sometimes referred to as demons, or Legion). Classical and contemporary paintings have attempted to illustrate this horde of creatures with interesting results.

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Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” depicts hell as a comedy club, something I’m not opposed to.

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Wayne Barlowe depicts a hierarchy of demons in his paintings, suggesting they share a monstrous culture.

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Zdzisław Beksiński depicts hell as a place of torturous silence, and stresses the horror of absence over chaos.

Disney’s animated feature Fantasia depicts an underworld ruled by a single titan in its sequence, Night on Bald Mountain. It goes without saying, perhaps, that this animation scared the daylights out of me when I was a child.

 

Lady-Directed Horror Films

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Ida Lupino, a classic film-era ingenue, directed one of my favorite tense thriller films, “The Hitch-hiker” in 1953. Though it wasn’t her directorial debut, her work in the genre resonates into contemporary horror film-making. While some of the most exciting horror projects directed by women have utilizied issues of femininity and feeling powerless and oppressed as fearful elements, Lupino’s “The Hitch-hiker” is a crime thriller orbiting around the decisions and interactions of men. Richard Koszarski wrote in Oxford University Press, “[Lupino’s] films [as a director] display the obsessions and consistencies of a true auteur. What is most interesting about her films are not her stories of unwed motherhood or the tribulation of career women, but the way in which she uses male actors: particularly in “The Bigamist” and “The Hitchhiker”, Lupino was able to reduce the male to the same sort of dangerous, irrational force that women represented in most male-directed examples of Hollywood film noir.”

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New and Exciting Work in Horror in 2014

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This past week I saw both Deliver Us From Evil and Snowpiercer in theaters, and the obvious differences between the films had me thinking about horror’s genre parameters. Of course, Deliver Us From Evil is just another panel-written, formulaic movie churned out by studios who have whittled American “horror” films down to a handful of repetitive images. You’ve got your slightly-flawed but ultimately noble white male hero, your creepy kid’s room full of demonic toys (there’s literally a scene with a jack in the box, and I was the only one laughing in disgust), and your drawn-out exorcism scene. I almost expected the demon to say “we are legion,” but instead he said some other comically-vague demonic-sounding name.

So what’s so exciting about Snowpiercer as an evolutionary step for horror? Well, for starters, it’s not technically billed as horror. Instead, it’s sold to cinephiles as Bong Joon-Ho’s first English language thriller, and it’s sold to mainstream US audiences as an experimental dystopian action thriller. Doesn’t that strike you as strange? Why can’t we just call Snowpiercer what it is? It’s beautiful and emotionally resonant, yes, but it’s also definitively and staggeringly horrific. I’d argue that “thriller” has become a stand-in genre tag for horror films that are actually good.

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Buzzing Silence: Why “Under the Skin” Disappointed Me

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After watching Under the Skin at my local indie theater (really weird date movie, by the way), I tweeted out of frustration that it was basically “12 minute tracking shots of nothing while Scarlett Johansson stared blankly at men”. I’m having difficulty now, weeks later, trying to decide what exactly went wrong for me. Though my first qualm was a lack of depth to Johansson’s character, I rationalized myself out of this by comparing her alien/succubi to similar archetypes in other films. Is Johansson’s “Laura” meant to be an engaging sociopathic or psychopathic character like Travis Bickle or Patrick Bateman? Does that work?

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An Overview of UFO Religion and the American Cult

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Though a cult is defined by a shared veneration and respect for a central being, idol or idea, the American concept of cults usually involves religious fanaticism. A set of rites of passage usually drives the members of a cult as they attempt to purge or separate themselves from an alienating world. For this reason, many contemporary American cults demand that their members cut off contact with anyone not involved in the inner system.

Colin Campbell’s Cult explores the origin of the sociological concept by tracing it to a 1932 classification of religious groups by sociologist Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch differentiated “sects” from “cults” with self-harm or violence inflicted on others as a defining line between them. Sociologists later identified a religious or ethical schism between members of a cult and the general public. The more friction between mainstream culture and the culture of a religious group, the more likely they are to be considered cult-like.

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Monster Design: Fine Artists, Cartoonists and Illustrators

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One of my earliest memories is rifling through my collection of “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” a now infamous series of books for kids. I owned the original printings with illustrations by Stephen Gammell. For a full look at the disappointing re-printing, using illustrations by the dude whose art was used in the “Series of Unfortunate Events” books, click here.

ZhrkTYvGammell’s original drawings were an exercise in suspense as much as they were depictions of unique monsters. The question of form is present in almost every one – what is this thing? Is it dangerous? As a child, I had no idea, but I enjoyed the sensation of staring at something and trying to figure it out. That’s an effect only a still shot, or illustration, of a monster can do.

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Dead Funny: How Do Horror Comedies Work?

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If you’re not already excited for the 2014 Sundance darling Cooties, you really should be. Leigh Wannell, of Saw and Insidious fame, wrote the screenplay. Wannell stars alongside Jack McBrayer, Elijah Wood and Rainn Wilson as teachers attempting to survive in a school infected by a violent zombie virus. Maybe Nasim Pedrad will come off funnier on the silver screen than she typically does on SNL (she’s in the cast as well.)

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Early press photos from the film, which has garnered mostly positive reviews so far, look highly saturated, and they appear more suspenseful in tone than comedic. It’s an interesting question that rises in the production and distribution of a horror comedy: is it enough to cast comedians in an otherwise straightforward horror movie, or should a script do most of the heavy lifting in finding both the laughs and chills in each scene? Let’s take a look at what’s worked for the films that preceded Cooties.

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