I’ve always been fascinated by what people think will happen when we shuffle off this mortal coil. The myriad of places that have arisen from various religions, like Heaven, Jannah, Purgatory, Hell, Sheol, Jahannam, Narak, and the seemingly endless amounts of hells in Buddhism all document our attempt to understand death and what follows it. We have also created a host of afterlives in our collective media over the centuries for entertainment purposes, and here are the top ten as I see it.
(Note: This include heavens, hells, and places in between. They may or may not be places where I actually want to end up in, but they are pretty cool in my book. Themed bars in space are excluded.)
It was fun to watch recently deceased Chris Nielsen slowly understand how to make his Heaven go from a smudgey painted mess to a fully realized landscape with picturesque mountaintops and verdant valleys. It was way better, though, when he plunged into the depths of Hell to rescue his wife, Annie. Burnt-out derelict ships in the middle of a vast moonlit desert, upside-down cathedrals, and a place where the ground is nothing but peoples’ faces weave together a visually stunning realm of the dead.
It may be a cheesy, sentimental mess at times, but credit where credit’s due, the cinematographer, set designers, and the crew worked hard to bring this dream/nightmare world to theaters, and that effort shows through.
Sure, it was a clone of SimCity, but it was a rich, humorous, and well put-together clone. In Afterlife, you are a demiurge constructing both a Heaven and Hell for the souls you watch over. You place the buildings that correspond to the Seven Deadly Sins and their Heavenly counterparts to offer the proper services for the dead, as well as the roads and other bits of infrastructure needed to get them there. The witty repartee between your supernatural advisors, Aria Goodhalo and Jasper Wormsworth, is priceless.
You must keep expenses down, the flow of souls steady, and ensure that the afterlife is balanced so that The Powers That Be, the entities who employ you, will let you continue your job and give you a pay raise. Don’t cheat, though; otherwise The Powers That Be will send the Death Star after you.
Heaven and Hell are literally what you make of it, and it is fun as heck to build them.
This is the outlier on our list as it:
A) Appears only in one episode of an anthology series, and
B) There’s no difference between it and the world of the living.
Former criminal Lou turned his life around after getting plastic surgery to look like Humphrey Bogart and ran a successful business. Unfortunately for him, though, his plastic surgeon and his wife conspire to kill him and steal his wealth. They succeed in ending his life, but for Lou, death is not what he thought it was going to be.
He sees the white light, but it’s fleeting. For the rest of the episode, Lou is still conscious of everything that’s happening around him. He is still able to use his senses and can feel pain, and he really feels it when his murderers repeatedly drop him as they carry his corpse from the crime scene. It’s a terrifying prospect of being trapped in your decaying body for the rest of time, and since the episode is shot from Lou’s perspective, we as the audience experience the claustrophobia-inducing afterlife along with him.
His body is eventually carted away by the police, but the questions of what happens to Lou after this story still linger. What else does he experience as his body continues to decompose? Does he feel what a coroner or a undertaker does to him? Will Lou’s consciousness remain after his body fully rots away? As long as you ignore the so-so acting and the 90's hologram version of Humphrey Bogart, the story is terrifying, especially in what it chooses to not show.
In this short story from Nalo Hopkinson, the Hereafter is... a shopping mall. Stay with me.
The dead are forced to reside in the place in which they died. In the case of the story’s narrator, he perished in a freak escalator accident, and now he roams the mall without the usage of any of his senses. The only time in which his senses come back is once a day, when he is reliving his own death, feeling only what felt in his last moments. Every soul in the mall just meanders around, longing to remember what feeling was like, and the only possible escape is to walk through the mall’s doors and into a black void from which no one has returned.
Instead of taking the plunge, most folks hold onto something that helps experience a part of their old lives, like a memory of a partner’s scent or a personal belief. One man clings onto his homophobia, which is more stupid than normal given that no one in the afterlife can physically touch each other. The desire to feel anything once more is so powerful that when a little girl suddenly regains her senses, the rest of them turn on her, demanding that she describe the sensations in as much detail as possible. They are so overwhelmingly draining on her that she literally dissipates, “like fog”.
The setting of the mall provides ample, but nuanced critiques of consumerism, but it also criticizes our tendency to stay in familiar, yet atrocious situations. They can leave the mall at any time, but they all fear the void and where it leads. The dead pretend that they are content with doing the same meaningless things over and over again, but our narrator ends the story by standing at the door, staring into the darkness, thinking about what it will feel like to open it. We are left wondering if he actually leaves, and also if we could break our own old habits and take a step into the unknown.
The initial premise of someone who doesn’t belong in a Heaven-like realm trying their best from being kicked out is a fun thought experiment. How could one outsmart the entities that run the afterlife into thinking you deserve to be there? Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) does her best to solve that riddle as she navigates the Good Place and interacts with her neighbors. Luckily for her, she has Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), an ethics professor to help her learn how to be a better person.
Having the hereafter being not only as a reward/punishment, but a means to improve yourself is a fresh concept for tv, and takes what is normally the end of a story and turns it into a new chapter. “Faking it ‘til you make it” is an old trope, but setting the story after death allows the characters to posthumously evolve. Eleanor proves that the afterlife is not the end one’s character development.
When one dies in this film’s universe, they are transported to a waystation where they stay for a week to pick the happiest memory they have so they can then repeat it for eternity. Counselors are there to help the deceased find these memories and, along with a film crew, recreate the moments for them to experience until the end of time. One of the counselors, Takashi (Arata), finds out that one of the newly arrived souls married his former fiancee after he died in World War II and comes to terms with this realization.
The premise of the film offers little comfort to the recently dead, as it gives them a just week to reduce the entirety of their lives to just one memory to be played on repeat forever. I’m not sure that I would want to condense my existence to such a limited state; how could I choose just one memory? It does give a little hope, though, since it is the happiest experience of your life, so you’ll be in a continual loop of rapture, but it’s a hell of choice to make.
With superheroes, death is usually not the end. As with Superman and Wolverine, they may die, but they can come back based on the whims of different writers. In the Earth X series and its sequels, when characters die, they stay dead (save for Captain Marvel, but it’s... complicated). When they perish, they go Mistress Death’s Realm of the Dead where they experience a bizarro world where they think they still live. Captain Marvel eventually leads a revolution against Death, and in an inspired moment of character development, gives Thanos, who had been trying to court the entity since his childhood, the opportunity to end her.
As a result, the dead heroes use cosmic artifacts to construct their own paradise where they are granted pocket realities in which they can do whatever they want. They eventually realize that this is not the way to go about making Heaven, and in the end (and after a bunch of convoluted stuff I have no time to get into), they finally reform the Realm of the Dead and the Realm of the Living into a perfect existence.
Seeing everything come together piece by piece, evoking long forgotten characters and snippets of lore to tell this story made this nerd’s heart sing with joy. Entities like the Celestials, Man-Thing, and Belasco are explored and expanded upon, creating a rich tapestry made of the many narrative threads woven through the history of Marvel Comics. In the end, the universe is reshaped into something better than our own concept of Heaven, and it just feels right.
Of course, no list of stories about the afterlife would be complete without a trip down into the Inferno. The classic tale of one man’s descent into the bowels of Hell provides not just some of the most visceral depictions of the punishments incurred on the damned, but also pointed political commentary. The Inferno detailed what horrors awaited those who fell off the righteous path, and it put popes and peasants on notice.
With the Robert Pinsky translation are several illustrations by Michael Mazur that bring Hell to life. The shades of the damned are murky, almost indistinguishable from the torments they endure for eternity. A map of the rings of Hell showcases the magnitude of the realm, and the landscapes are nightmarishly rendered. All of the components of the book combine to envelop even the most hardened of readers in a frightening world of demons, ghastly punishments, and Satan himself.
Mike Mignola decided that he was done with telling Hellboy’s story. This is understandable, given that he had been telling it since 1993. So Mignola killed his creation, sending him to Hell to finally come to terms with his destiny. This provided him the opportunity to showcase Hell in both its frightful design and how it ended as a result of Hellboy’s return.
When Hellboy first arrives, Hell is crimson, rife with reds, yellows, and oranges, which fits with our traditional conceptualization of perdition. As Hellboy continues his tour of the realm, key figures in the demonic hierarchy are slain, which causes seismic shifts in the topography and climate. The central city of Pandemonium collapses into the waters, fires burn out, and the barren landscape grows cold.
The once vibrant, hot colors of Hell are replaced with cool blues and grays as each demon is killed, signaling the end of not only the series, but realm’s very existence. By rejecting his destiny to end the world of the living, Hellboy brings doom and calamity to the damned, finding a slice of Heaven among the rubble to spend eternity. His choices determine the very nature of the realm, and it reacted as if it were a living entity onto itself. Its demise is a wonder to behold, and Mignola’s signature style beautifully accentuates its death throes as everything comes to silent, but beautiful end.
Grim Fan-friggin’-dango. A film noir/Día De Los Muertos mashup, Grim Fandango is an oddity in the world of video games. The game focuses on a character who was Latinx in life and existed in a world that celebrates Mexican culture. It tasks you with finding and rescuing a poor soul you accidentally screwed over when she arrived in the Land of the Dead. Taking place almost entirely in the afterlife (save for one freaky trip to the Land of the Living to collect a soul), all of the characters were either dead or a demon of some kind. The world has a rich history that is explained throughout the game unobtrusively so as to keep you immersed in the story. The art-deco architecture melds with Día De Los Muertos aesthetics to form a truly unique environment.
Weaving in traditional folk lore surrounding the holiday with a Maltese Falcon sensibility, we take part in Manny Calavera’s four year journey. Going from being a low level travel salesman “aiding” the recently deceased to their final reward to a bonafide hero is storytelling at its finest. Much like the movie Coco, Grim Fandango’s Land of the Dead paradoxically teems with life, and each of the main characters are developed so that there they have heart (even though they’re just skeletons). It is a brilliant homage to film noir classics and respectful to Mexican culture as it utilizes a central celebration from it.
The afterlife, if it exists, is a mysterious place. Our imagination allows us to envision both terrific and terrifying planes of existences where we could be heading to when we finally give up the ghost. All of these pieces of media display our tendency to understand the unknowable, and succeed in fleshing out our hopes and fears about the afterlife. I just hope it’s not actually like that Tales From The Crypt episode. That one still gives me the jibblies.