Media Featuring the Afterlife/Heaven/Hell/Land of the Dead, with Caveats
February 8, 2024 7:32 AM   Subscribe

I'm working on a project dealing with where you go after death (Heaven, Hell, Hades, the underworld, the land of the dead, Valhalla, what have you), and I'm looking for media to get my gears turning. Important snowflakes within.

I'm in need of inspiration. I'm looking for media (novels/short stories, movies, TV shows, video games, tabletop games, etc.) that feature interesting depictions of the afterlife (or the place you go after you die, according to any/all belief systems). By interesting I mean ones that aren't just our world but slightly paranormal or a kingdom of clouds and harps or an endless series of dark caverns—give me landscapes that are genuinely distinctive, full of denizens that don't look like your bog-standard angels/devils/demons.

I am not interested in media where the dead continue existing in our world (BBC's Ghosts, Dead Like Me, etc.). Also, as much as I love a certain sitcom—if you know the one, yes, that one—please DO NOT recommend material including a twist that they're actually dead/in Hell/etc. I want media that is transparently taking place in a setting after death.

Some of the stuff already on my radar:
The Divine Comedy
What Dreams May Come
Hazbin Hotel/Helluva Boss
God of War
Sea of Thieves
Dungeons & Dragons: Planescape; Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus; Ghostwalk; Ravenloft; Theros
Cyberpunk 2077
Pokémon's Distortion World
Adventure Time's Dead Worlds
Sunless Skies
Brutal Orchestra

Other ideas? Thanks in advance!
posted by xenization to Media & Arts (49 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The video game Afterparty
posted by edencosmic at 7:45 AM on February 8

There's a brief bit at the end of Thor: Love and Thunder where Jane arrives at Valhalla.

(For the record, everybody in The Good Place knows they're dead! They just don't know they're in Hell.)
posted by praemunire at 7:48 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]

It seems you are missing the Lucasarts video game Afterlife, which is basically Sim City for the dead. Outstanding.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:48 AM on February 8

Best answer: A couple things leap to mind for me: in 1804, Karoline von Günderrode wrote this short but amazing "Apocalyptic Fragment," obviously inspired by apocalyptic eschatology but trying to portray it in strange cosmic imagery only, so particularly around paragraphs 9-14 you get some beautiful and distinctive stuff. Much more recently, K.M. Ferebee's 2014 short story "The Earth and Everything Under" is beautiful and weird too, and it includes a bunch of letters from beyond death, describing what it's like.
posted by Wobbuffet at 7:51 AM on February 8

Speaking of Lucasarts games, maybe Grim Fandango? Not sure if Land of the Dead skeletons in a noirish afterlife with pigeons and some demons is too close to our world.
posted by trig at 7:56 AM on February 8 [4 favorites]

If you want thought-provoking then "Hell is the Absence of God", a novella by Ted Chiang, is for you. The hell he describes is mundane; what happens in the story qbout how you get there is most definitely not.

The higher plane of existence ("ascension") in Stargate: SG-1 is very interesting, especially as it's clearly shown as the start of a journey, not the end.

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman has a lot of ideas that might get you thinking.
posted by underclocked at 8:05 AM on February 8 [6 favorites]

posted by so fucking future at 8:06 AM on February 8

The K-drama Hotel del Luna presents the so-named facility as a liminal space between life and the hereafter where spirits go when they are not settled for the final bridge crossing. I'm not sure if this qualifies but it is outstanding and thought provoking.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:10 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]

One of my favorite movies is After Life, where the newly dead spend a week recreating a specific last memory to hold onto before they go to their final destination.
posted by Jeanne at 8:15 AM on February 8 [9 favorites]

The WB tv show Supernatural - it has several different depictions of hell, heaven, pre-heaven, etc. Of course, some are somewhat limited by the budget of a tv show, but it tries.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:26 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]

The BBC Radio 4 sitcom Old Harry's Game, written by and starring Andy Hamilton as Satan. Very funny, sometimes absurd, with occasional forays into philosophical and moral questions.

(Edited because I accidentally typed Andy Hallett, who was a terrifically talented guy who died tragically young and played a horned demon in the TV show Angel - guess that's why I confused them).
posted by damsel with a dulcimer at 8:29 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]

A lot of Sandman is tangential, but I'd recommend issue #4 (and episode 4 of the TV series), which literally takes place in Hell that's a mix of various West-tangent traditions. (Also the fourth paperback, Season of Mists, revisits Hell and the dead in detail.)

Liz Williams' Detective Inspector Chen series takes place in a world where the Chinese hell-realm is real - some of the action is in the mortal realm, but there are large hell sequences too. For an own-voices take on the same, I'd check out Yangsze Choo's The Ghost Bride - the initial sequences are ghosts-in-real-world, but the back half of the book is in the ghost realm as well.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 8:30 AM on February 8 [3 favorites]

Defending Your Life
posted by theotherdurassister at 8:30 AM on February 8 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I'm gonna recommend Molly Molloy and the Angel of Death by Maria Vale. "Up" -- what we'd call heaven or the afterlife, is depicted in a really interesting and different way. (However I will add that two-thirds of the book takes place "down" -- which is earth.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:30 AM on February 8

Oh, the Locked Tomb books might fit what you're looking for, especially the second book (I'm thinking of things like the River). But maybe not! The line between alive and dead is blurry there.
posted by trig at 8:35 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]

The 1940s British film A Matter Of Life And Death might suit. Most of the film is this sort of fantasy love story about a guy who was supposed to be killed during a WWII air raid, but it was "too foggy" and the angel who'd been dispatched to fetch his soul couldn't find him, so he survived; most of the rest of the film is the fallout of that.

The particular details that relate to your question -

1. "Heaven" is depicted to look kind of like an empty white hotel lobby, with an ENORMOUS staircase leading from Earth up to it. There's a segment midway through the film that's a sort of "trial", and the "courtroom" is similarly empty and white and bare - save for this big rock in the middle of it, that reminded me of "Pride Rock" from The Lion King.

2. Even more interestingly - the "heaven" bits were depicted in black and white, and the "Earth" bits were in color. And the "angel" that was supposed to fetch that airman was low-level jealous of earth for that reason.

3. Speaking of that angel - he wasn't your traditional angel, he was the soul of an effete French 18th Century aristocrat, and helping people adjust to heaven was part of his afterlife job.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:39 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]

Best answer: George Saunders' Lincoln In the Bardo might fit if the bardo fits with your theme.
posted by snaw at 8:43 AM on February 8 [5 favorites]

It doesn't perfectly fit, but I'd recommend the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Ghosteen.
posted by avocet at 8:43 AM on February 8

- though they continue to exist in the real world, in a way.
posted by niicholas at 8:45 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in the legend of Russia's Well to Hell, in which a borehole was drilled so deep that it eventually reached a cavity from which the screams of the damned could be heard. In other words, they'd reached hell.

The legend has inspired at least one movie.
posted by bassomatic at 8:57 AM on February 8

The anime series Death Parade is about bartenders in the afterlife, where the recently-dead have to play games in order to judge their character.
posted by teraflop at 9:01 AM on February 8

A Short Stay In Hell, by Stephen Peck. It's a quick read, so I won't spoil it (but there are summaries out there if you don't have the time/inclination).

The movie Afterlife. We see a way station, where people have to select a moment from their lives to take with them.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:02 AM on February 8

Philip Pullman's Golden Compass novel series should fit the bill. Don't think the movie got there, though, and I don't know about the TV adaptation.

One of the odd things about the Good Omens TV series is actually that we see so little of what happens to human souls in Heaven and Hell... but s2 does have a brief glimpse of the Spider Cells.
posted by humbug at 9:40 AM on February 8 [3 favorites]

The parts in Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio on Netflix where the cricket dies (and goes to some kind of afterlife before returning) are the best parts.
posted by LionIndex at 9:44 AM on February 8 [2 favorites]

posted by Drosera at 9:53 AM on February 8 [5 favorites]

Not sure if this would meet your criteria for "interesting" but you might want to check out Wristcutters: A Love Story.
posted by statusquoante at 10:00 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]

Surface Detail (part of the Culture series) by Iain M Banks has an interesting take on hell. Might not fit your requirements, but it needs to be mentioned.
posted by adamrice at 11:01 AM on February 8 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In terms of tabletop roleplaying games, White Wolf's Wraith: The Oblivion setting does include portions of ghosts hanging around in our world, but it also includes an extensive and buck-wild underworld setting that is separate from our world and has some deep worldbuilding. It's worth checking out.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 11:07 AM on February 8

Best answer: There are a couple interesting lands of the dead throughout Seanan Maguire's Wayward Children series. No one book spends a lot of time any of them, though, as I recall - they're more discussed or passed through by characters. The linked article hits the highlights, but might be missing one additional underworld from a later novella, if I'm remembering correctly.
posted by EvaDestruction at 11:29 AM on February 8 [1 favorite]

not sure if the TV adaptation of American Gods got to this point (and there's obvs some "dead walking the earth") but I could've sworn there's at least two times that Shadow Moon is dreaming/dead/dying and meets various animal-headed deities "below." Other than underground vibes, it may not have what you're looking for.
posted by adekllny at 12:10 PM on February 8

Best answer: The third book of Pamela Dean's Secret Country book trilogy, "The Whim of the Dragon" has the protagonists going to the land of the dead and interacting with some of the dead. I just looked it up - Chapter 24 is the main bit. Also maybe check out Niven and Pournelle's Inferno.
posted by gudrun at 12:32 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]

A novel: The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.
posted by sigmagalator at 12:34 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]

posted by ovvl at 5:59 PM on February 8

There’s No Exit. The script itself is probably too mundane, but I once saw a production where the performance happened on a suspended square stage that shifted every time the actors moved.
posted by Just the one swan, actually at 6:52 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]

Star Trek: Lower Decks has introduced an afterlife to the series. The Black Mountain has only been described so far, I think. It’s a terrifying mountain overseen by an enormous Koala.
posted by Just the one swan, actually at 6:54 PM on February 8

Wristcutters: a love story is based on an Etgar Keret story (I can’t for the life of my remember which one, but he has several specifically about different types of afterlives). Premise is that everyone who dies by suicide is placed in a specific bardo/purgatory that is pretty much just like earthly life, but a little shittier. Light Kafka themes, really good supporting cast with some pretty funny cameos (Nick Offerman, Will Arnett, Tom Waits). It’s weird, and sweet in a very early ‘aughts way.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:13 PM on February 8

Best answer: Absolutely Lincoln in the Bardo.
posted by vunder at 10:57 PM on February 8 [1 favorite]

Final chapter of Julian Barnes History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters is about the afterlife. It's called The Dream
posted by crocomancer at 1:01 AM on February 9

The tv show The Magicians has some interesting afterlife scenes in the later seasons - someone else might remember exactly where.
posted by tangosnail at 8:21 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

The 1940s British film A Matter Of Life And Death

Note that Warren Beatty remade this in 1978 as Heaven Can Wait but it's been too long, I can't recall now how they portrayed the heavenly sequences, it's possibly there weren't any and it was all explained with exposition.
posted by Rash at 9:54 AM on February 9

Oh wait - the original British film was Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which I've never seen.
posted by Rash at 9:58 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I marked the ones that sounded most like what I'm after and weren't already on my radar—of course Coco is in the ballpark, as is Corpse Bride. I actually have Wristcutters on my list but omitted it here because it's just a crummier version of our world.

If folks have other ideas, I'd be all ears. Thanks for all the suggestions thus far!
posted by xenization at 10:29 AM on February 9

> humbug: "Philip Pullman's Golden Compass novel series should fit the bill. Don't think the movie got there, though, and I don't know about the TV adaptation."

Via the episode guide on wikipedia, the TV series gets to the purgatory/Land of the Dead stuff in Series 3.
posted by mhum at 10:59 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

John Constantine and the Legends popped down into Hell a few times. (I think he visited when he had his own show as well.) Actually any of the John Constantine/Hellblazer media properties (comic books, animated movies, TV appearances, movie) will have depictions of Hell (and sometimes Heaven) that might provide inspiration. Another one from Legends showing Astra getting her wish.

Lucifer often popped down to Hell to visit the souls imprisoned there (or to visit Dan in Purgatory). Here he explains how Hell works.
posted by sardonyx at 2:20 PM on February 9

John, Astra and Negral (for something more demon-y looking)/
posted by sardonyx at 2:22 PM on February 9

You don't mention fine art, but there's always the body of work of Hieronymus Bosch.
posted by vunder at 2:43 PM on February 9

There are a few depictions of this in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (based on their comic origins). The Wakandan Spirit Realm features in both of the movies of that series, and Moon Knight (TV series) offers adjacent afterlife settings inspired in part by Egyptian mythology. Upthread Valhalla from Thor: Love and Thunder was mentioned.
posted by thadman at 10:49 AM on February 12

Best answer: The book Sum is basically a series of short stories about different kinds of afterlives.

If you have Spiritfarer you might like Cozy Grove! You play a scout on an Animal Crossing ish island helping ghost bears move on.
posted by creatrixtiara at 8:38 PM on February 12

I thought of it as an answer to another question, but it fits here even better -- the web original short story "Sivad's Question", which is about a very distinctive and very nontraditional afterlife.
posted by dick dale the vampire at 12:01 AM on February 21

« Older Fidelity and Schwab have differing approaches to a...   |   How to wash my clothes to remove cat hair Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments