This weekend marks lots of spooky celebration in the Western world. Pagans and Wiccans celebrate the Gaelic festival Samhain, marking the harvest and start of the darker half of the year. Hispanic cultures celebrate Día de los Muertos, a three day festival with roots in ancient Aztec religious beliefs. Christians celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day, honoring saints and remembering loved ones. Even secular Americans love to celebrate Halloween. It’s the time of year when lots of people are remembering the dead and pondering mortality. This got me thinking about the way the afterlife appears in our geeky media. Saika and I have already written posts about Heaven and Hell, respectively. Both of us note that each realm is usually twisted in some way (either corrupted or comically), or kind of boring. So do we really need to give our characters an afterlife?
The problem with writing about the afterlife is that no one’s come back from the dead to tell us exactly what it’s like. Sure, plenty of people with deathly or near-death experience tell us things about a light and gardens and happy people, but they don’t bring back pictures or other empirical evidence. Even religions don’t often have an exhaustive, detailed list of what life will be like in the great beyond. Beyond a few key ideas, most of it is conjecture and speculation.
One way writers get around this is by maintaining the great mystery of the afterlife and instead, writing about the stage after death but before our character moves “on.” In many ways, this can be a lot like Purgatory. While Purgatory is more about recognizing one’s own sinfulness, most of these waiting stages are about helping the character come to terms with death. Most ghost stories center around “unfinished business,” and once the ghost has finished the business, it’s allowed to pass on to the other realm. Beetlejuice has a literal waiting room for the recently deceased. There’s a long wait to be “processed,” and the wait is supposed to help people come to terms with being dead. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has a scene in which Harry stands on the brink of death at the Kings Cross train station and seeks council from the spirit of Dumbledore. Harry must choose to board a train to the afterlife, or awaken in the real world to fight evil again. We never really find out what the heavenly realm is like, but it’s implied to be happy. This treatment of the afterlife gives the audience some kind of closure, because if a character passes on to the next (happy) realm we’re left with our imaginations to tell us what happens. What we can imagine is almost always better than what a writer can create, and usually results in a more entertaining and satisfying end.
Another way writers get around this is by denying the afterlife all together. This usually has the opposite effect, refusing any and all closure, but not always. H. P. Lovecraft plays with the idea of oblivion in many of his works in order to poke at our primal fears. “Ex Oblivione” tells the story of a dying man’s dreams. He keeps seeing a locked gate, and desperately wants to know what lies beyond it. One night he has a vision of the city of Zakarion. In the city he finds a papyrus containing stories about what lies beyond the gate; some stories are happy, others are horrific. He discovers a drug that will let him see beyond the gate, and in his next dream he gate is unlocked. The man discovers that all of the accounts are true. What lies beyond the gate is oblivion. While some people find oblivion horrifying, others are happy because they are free from suffering and disappointment.
Philip Pullman tries to draw meaning out of oblivion and the lack of afterlife in His Dark Materials. Iorek and the armored bears don’t believe in an afterlife, and use that idea to live a fuller life here and now. Lyra and Will love each other so much that they assert that after they die and pass out of the land of the dead, their atoms will combine to create new life, never to be truly separated from each other. Both children deny that memory is a good enough keepsake for each other, and hope that their feelings of love will have a tangible effect on their physical bodies. For Pullman, the physical world is what really matters, and so his heroes accept spiritual oblivion while trying to find meaning in their physical decomposition. While it’s a nice thought, the idea raises interesting questions about whether or not the very concept of oblivion and an afterlife-less death are compatible with meaning. Is it logically consistent? I’m not sure. Is it compelling writing? Definitely.
As much as we would love to give many of our favorite characters a happy ending, we know that it’s just not always possible. Our favorite writers are the ones who toy with our heartstrings and lay waste to our beloved characters (I’m looking at you, Joss Whedon and George R.R. Martin). The afterlife can have a powerful impact on a story, for better and for worse. While some might like the idea of a happy heavenly destination, a Heaven that’s too good mitigates the emotional impact of a character death. In real life, religious ideas of Heaven do have that impact, in a good way. They’re supposed to bring hope, comfort, and solace to the bereaved. Likewise, the idea of some kind of Hell can offer the believer a sense of satisfaction that justice will eventually be served, that those who don’t ever see justice in the here and now may get it in the next life. But again, in many ways these ideas help people make sense of the world and cope with the question of why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.
When we’re telling stories, we often don’t want to give that kind of comfort to our audiences. If we want to have a strong impact while maintaining the emotional wreckage, we leave the afterlife to the audience’s imagination. On the other hand, if we want to amp up the fear factor or heighten the stakes of the action, writers can deny the existence of an afterlife all together. Either way, omitting the afterlife can sometimes have a more powerful impact than telling us what happens next. Some things really are better left to the imagination.
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This is a topic I think about a lot – thanks for tackling it! Especially in my own writing, it’s hard to know how to balance the desire to explore the supernatural and set up a system that allows for a spiritual reality, while maintaining the mystery and emotional impact of not having all the answers.
One author who does (I think) a great job of this is Tolkien. There is a God in Middle-Earth and a strong implication that humans are granted some kind of afterlife, but even the Valar don’t know what that afterlife involves. Much like in our own world, belief in this afterlife offers hope, but not much in the way of solace for people who have lost loved ones. This sort of system allows Tolkien to include a spiritual reality in his story without diminishing the impact of death and the reality of suffering.