This article contains spoilers for Angel and Supernatural.
There may be only two things certain in this life, but only one of those two has inspired countless works of art down the ages (taxes just aren’t quite that interesting). Speculation about what might await us after we shuffle off this mortal coil has taken many forms in many places over the years, from dank underworlds to reincarnation to Valhalla. One of the most recognisable afterlife-set-ups, though, must be the Christian mythology surrounding the concepts of Heaven and Hell. Regardless of whether or not individual authors, directors, artists and so on believe in the literal existence of these realms, many have enjoyed playing with the ideas they represent, not least in film and television.
This list is highlighting interesting examples of specifically Christian or Christianised Hells – so there are no Greco-Roman underworlds (we acknowledge that ‘Hades’ can be used for the Christian Hell as well, but that’s another issue for another time), no ‘hell-planets’ or ‘hell dimensions’, no obscure references to a random other place, no in-between places – only landscapes specifically identified as Hell, the place where troubled souls go after death, count.
1. Angel: The Series, Reprise
Who’s in Hell? Angel. And, er, everyone else.
Are they dead? Well, technically yes, Angel is undead (he is a vampire after all). But in this specific context no, he hasn’t died. We’ve sort of broken our own rules already, because it’s never quite clear what in the Buffy/Angel-verse is actually Hell, and what’s just a particularly unpleasant alternate dimension (presumably whatever is in the fiery pit under Sunnydale, occasionally including a giant tentacle monster, is actual Hell).
Highway to Hell: Angel does not react well to the discovery that the Senior Partners’ Home Office is just the world as it is, which is certainly a rather nihilistic way to view things. It’s an interesting philosophical point, but to be honest, as long as that tentacle monster doesn’t break through, it’s surely not that bad.
2. Supernatural, The Man Who Would Be King
Who’s in Hell? Castiel.
Are they dead? No, not at the moment. As an angel, Castiel doesn’t need to die to visit any part of the afterlife.
Highway to Hell: Most of the times we actually see Hell in Supernatural it’s rather bland and very traditional – fire, torture racks (No Rest For The Wicked), prison cells (Taxi Driver), a dark and dank throne room (substantial portions of seasons 9-11). Verbal descriptions without images, especially Dean’s initial soul-crushing confession in season four, tend to be more powerful. But that time Crowley briefly remodelled Hell to be an eternal queue struck a chord. As Crowley points out, there were plenty of denizens who enjoyed the constant physical pain and torment, but absolutely no one enjoys queuing.
3. The Simpsons, Treehouse Of Horror IV: The Devil And Homer Simpson
Who’s in Hell? Homer Simpson.
Are they dead? Not quite; Homer sold his soul for a doughnut, and as soon as he finishes the doughnut, his soul belongs to the Devil, who promptly takes him down to Hell. The judge at Homer’s subsequent trial is Death, though.
Highway to Hell: Much of this depiction of Hell is fairly standard fire and brimstone, though Homer’s immunity to being force-fed doughnuts in the Ironic Punishments division is pretty funny. What’s really brilliant about this depiction of Hell, however, is the identity of the Devil, one Ned Flanders. “It’s always the person you least expect!”
4. What Dreams May Come
Who’s in Hell? Chris Nielsen and his wife, Annie.
Are they dead? Yes.
Highway to Hell: The odd thing about the afterlife as depicted in What Dreams May Come is that Heaven is honestly, as far as we can see, positively creepy. It’s all flying mermaids and men on penny-farthings and your loved ones are there but they look like completely different people – it’s all rather too bizarre for us.
Hell, on the other hand, is very interesting. There’s a strong Classical vibe – early texts often refer to the Christian Hell as Hades, so although it’s different from the pagan underworld, that does make sense, and so we get Cerberus the guardian, transport by boat complete with boatman and so on, along with the traditional fire and some extra shipwrecks. There’s also some properly creepy imagery as Chris is forced to walk across the faces of the damned, looking for his wife, whose face is one among the lost many.
But most interestingly, the hell each soul ends up in is more individual, and is your own life gone wrong. Where Supernatural, rather depressingly, suggested that Heaven involved being cut off from everyone else and lost in your own memories, What Dreams May Come rather more convincingly identifies these as properties of Hell, with loneliness and despair being more destructive than anything else.
5. Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey
Who’s in Hell? Bill S. Preston, Esq., and Theodore ‘Ted’ Logan.
Are they dead? Yep. Thrown right off Kirk’s Rock.
Highway to Hell: It might be objected that there’s nothing spectacularly original about this depiction of Hell. There’s fire and brimstone, there’s a giant Devil figure, there’s physical punishment, and there’s an area devoted to more personal, less literal torture, like being kissed by an elderly relative or going to military school. The reason it makes number one though, is simply that even within the confines of a PG rating and a comedic tone, it’s really, really horrible. I mean, really. The whole thing is just super creepy and uncomfortable, to the point you’re really relieved to see Death, who seems positively cuddly by this point. Those weirdly-coloured tunnels, those sickening camera angles, those elderly, lip-sticked lips… Shudder.
Honourable mention: Old Harry’s Game, as a radio show, doesn’t qualify for this list, but is an absolutely essential and hilarious vision of Hell, which seems to be where just about everyone ends up. Just watch out for Jane Austen, she’s vicious.
Tomorrow: 5 great depictions of Heaven in geek film and TV