Well, friends, it’s already the 22nd of Halloween October: leaves are changing and pumpkins are everywhere, so if the urge to watch Halloween movies has not kicked in yet, you may want to see a doctor. The classic Halloween entertainment lexicon for adults is comprised largely of slasher films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The genre is comprised mostly of sexually promiscuous teenagers or young adults—especially women—being pursued and violently killed by a humanoid horror of some kind. While there are a few good eggs amongst slasher films, the shrieking blood-and-guts aspect is not really my cup of tea, and for anyone of like mind who still wants to live Halloween entertainment to the fullest, I propose digging up some spooky children’s movies from the late 80’s and early 90’s, because they have aged better than you think.
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?
Call me old fashioned, but I love fairy tale tropes. And after reading Luce’s post on the evolution of Sleeping Beauty’s narrative, it got me thinking about a certain trope that’s been a part of many of my favorite stories. When we speak of names, we tend to make only the base association between the word and the object. People think of me when they say my name, and Beyoncé when they think of her name, but neither of us would lose any of our intrinsic value if we happened to be named something different. Even one of the most famous lines concerning names—“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”—seems to deny the importance of names altogether. Yet fairy tales have argued that names are indeed important, and now even modern day fiction has joined in the crusade.
You’re probably aware of the idea of Limbo. No, not the party trick. The concept of a place of eternal waiting. Not very good, not very bad. Just… not much of anything, forever. Here’s the technical religious definition:
Limbo, which comes from the Latin word meaning “border” or “edge,” was considered by medieval theologians to be a state or place reserved for the unbaptized dead, including good people who lived before the coming of Christ. (source)
Limbo has never been part of any official Catholic doctrine, although it’s been taught to Catholics for centuries. I first learned about it from Dante, who visits Limbo (located outside the gates of hell) in the Inferno. Dante places well-known, respected historical pagans like Socrates and Plato in Limbo, but argues that righteous Biblical figures like Abraham were plucked from their eternal condition by Christ when he descended into hell following the crucifixion.
The existence of Limbo has been pretty thoroughly nixed in recent years; Catholics from the pope downward basically agreed that Limbo didn’t exactly mesh with the idea of a loving God, since the aforementioned unbaptized dead included the souls of children with no personal sin. Although it wasn’t entirely ruled out, a Church document released a few years ago points out that “People find it increasingly difficult to accept that God is just and merciful if he excludes infants, who have no personal sins, from eternal happiness, whether they are Christian or non-Christian.” (source)
Regardless of whether Limbo exists or not, or who is or isn’t in it, the concept has meshed itself into pop-culture enough that even a non-religious person will know what you mean if you say that something is “in limbo”.
Inception’s worldbuilding focused heavily on the concept of Limbo, actually including a final dream-level called Limbo as a major plot point. This realm is a universal location into which any dreamer who goes too deep or dies in the dream gets funneled. Once there, time moves infinitely faster than it does in the waking world. It’s hard to keep hold of yourself, and without outside interference, you can grow old and die without ever waking up from the dream. This isn’t a remotely religious limbo, but hey—they could have called it anything. Calling it Limbo was an intentional and evocative choice, because it carries cultural significance.
And that’s just the most specific example I can think of. There are plenty of value-neutral post-death waiting places in pop culture. There is the waiting room (and really most of the afterlife) in Beetlejuice. In Marvel comics, Limbo is a plane outside time, ruled over by a future version of Kang the Conqueror called Immortus. Harry’s post-death King’s Cross in Harry Potter has elements of Limbo, as does the Void space in Doctor Who.
Limbo isn’t an official Catholic doctrine, and it never really was. But it’s fascinating to see how far reaching a religious concept can be—especially to the point where it has basically lost its religious connotations and is understood by pretty much anyone you talk to, regardless of affiliation or belief.