Stories that take place in Hell, Purgatory, comas, nightmares, memory etc etc
March 28, 2008 5:52 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for narratives (books, movies, games) in which the protagonist is dead, dying or unconscious, and discovers they are not in the 'real' world at all, but Hell, heaven, purgatory, a coma, a nightmare, memory, or similar. Examples which contain spoilers below the fold.

Obvious examples would be The Third Policeman, Stay, The Coma, the game Viridian Room, and so on. Alice in Wonderland sort-of counts but I'm more interested in protagonists who investigate their situation, rather than vanilla '...and then I woke up'. Bonus points if the narrative involves escaping.

For the purposes of the question, stories like Eternal Sunshine, a Nightmare on Elm Street and so on don't count because the protagonist is not completely immersed in the meta-world. I'd let If on a Winter's Night a Traveler slide in though.
posted by unSane to Writing & Language (63 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
The big obvious one is Jacob's Ladder. I'm also guilty-pleasure fond of Soul Survivors.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:56 AM on March 28, 2008

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold? The protagonist is a "teenage girl who, after being brutally raped and murdered, watches from heaven as her family and friends go on with their lives, while she herself comes to terms with her own death."
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 5:58 AM on March 28, 2008

Passage by Connie Willis. Story about a researcher on near death experiences. Finds out that when people die or almost die they become characters in a sinking-Titanic scenario as a sort of purgatory. The researcher undergoes near death experiences and wanders around this Titanic scenario. Protagonist then actually dies (which is a little shocking in and of itself) and finds herself there and spends some time with a little girl character who was both a patient in the hospital the researcher was at and also the unknown victims in the Titanic sinking. hard to explain without it sounding totally ridiculous, but it was actually quite moving and very well written.
posted by jessamyn at 6:06 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Larry Niven and and Jerry Pournelle's Inferno is a retelling of Dante's poem that features a sci-fi author who goes to Hell but does not believe that's where he actually is. He tries to rationalize where he is - dreaming, abducted by aliens, etc - and ultimately fails.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:14 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

The British TV series Life on Mars seems to qualify; I only saw the first episode.
posted by Gyan at 6:23 AM on March 28, 2008

Waking Life springs to mind immediately.
posted by Shepherd at 6:25 AM on March 28, 2008

Sounds like Waking Life fits your criteria perfectly. Also makes me think of the horror flick Silent Hill, which is based on a video game (not sure how well the movie follows the game's plot).
posted by knave at 6:27 AM on March 28, 2008

What Dreams May Come
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:37 AM on March 28, 2008

Wings of Fame
posted by maremare at 6:38 AM on March 28, 2008

Vanilla Sky does that, or at least is reasonably close. As well, the novel Glasshouse, by Charles Stross is an interesting take on a similar scenario, where the character purposefully enters a given virtual/experimental world. And let's not forget the almost-canonical Super Mario 2!
posted by Lemurrhea at 6:44 AM on March 28, 2008

The Bridge, by Iain Banks.
posted by biscotti at 6:44 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

The 13th Floor.
posted by Sparx at 6:44 AM on March 28, 2008

The Sixth Sense
posted by Scoo at 6:52 AM on March 28, 2008

This is a spoiler.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:53 AM on March 28, 2008

Seconding Passage, an excellent book. Also, how about Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder? It's supposedly a young adult's book (I read it as a teenager), but given that it's about a teenage girl who enrolls in a philosophy correspondence course and subsequently works out that she's a work of fiction, I think it has all-ages appeal.
posted by bettafish at 6:55 AM on March 28, 2008

posted by jjg at 6:56 AM on March 28, 2008

Kid Eternity
posted by gauchodaspampas at 6:58 AM on March 28, 2008

The Devil's Advovate

Angel Heart
posted by Scoo at 7:02 AM on March 28, 2008

The Matrix
posted by Scoo at 7:06 AM on March 28, 2008

And on the I'm-a-fictional-character! tip (SPOILERS, naturally):

- Grant Morrison's Animal Man, in which the protagonist discovers he's in a comic book character...

- The Filth, by Morrison and Chris Weston, in which pretty much everyone eventually discovers they're fictional characters of one kind or another...

- This adaptation of Clive Barker's short story, "Valerie on the Stairs," in which...well, you get the idea.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:07 AM on March 28, 2008

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Birchmeier.
posted by palindromic at 7:11 AM on March 28, 2008

Duck Amuck
posted by Scoo at 7:12 AM on March 28, 2008

That whole season of Dallas when JR got shot, and it turned out it was just Pam dreaming it.

And St Elsewhere, which turned out to be the dream of an autistic boy. And by extension, a lot of other shows.

American Werewolf in London had an excellent dream-in-a-dream-in-a-dream sequence.
posted by adamrice at 7:29 AM on March 28, 2008

Maybe The Science of Sleep? The main character increasingly blurs the lines between his waking and dreaming self.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:41 AM on March 28, 2008

Mulholland Drive, in an oblique sort of way. Lanark, by Alasdair Gray, also deals substantially with this situation but is not focused exclusively on it.
posted by newmoistness at 7:49 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

What about movies such as Fight Club, The Truman Show, The Others and Identity?
posted by sapphirebbw at 7:49 AM on March 28, 2008

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin. Link contains spoilers.
posted by elendil71 at 7:51 AM on March 28, 2008

Peace by Gene Wolfe.
posted by misteraitch at 7:51 AM on March 28, 2008

Playwright Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt has a play, Hôtel des deux mondes (which I haven't seen), which plays with this very idea. It has characters stuck in a type of purgatory waiting to get on elevators that either go up or down. The central question of the play is where exactly are they, purgatory or somewhere else? It turns out they're all in comas.

Disclaimer: I haven't seen or read this play and am recounting a second-hand description I heard 7 years ago or so.
posted by Kattullus at 8:02 AM on March 28, 2008

Eyes Wide Shut
posted by deadmessenger at 8:08 AM on March 28, 2008

wristcutters: a love story

After Zia commits suicide by cutting his wrists, he finds himself in an afterlife limbo that is much the same as his former reality, just slightly worse. This strange realm is populated by people who have committed suicide....
posted by meeshell at 8:32 AM on March 28, 2008

stranger than fiction?
posted by misanthropicsarah at 8:34 AM on March 28, 2008

oooh! the occurrence at owl creek?
posted by misanthropicsarah at 8:35 AM on March 28, 2008

Bruce Jay Friedman's play Steambath.
posted by SPrintF at 8:45 AM on March 28, 2008

"His End and His Beginning" by Jorge Luis Borges, probably among others that I can't think of at the moment.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:00 AM on March 28, 2008

Gyan is right, Life on Mars (British TV series) fits the bill perfectly. As does its sequel, Ashes to Ashes. (And both are brilliant, to boot.)
posted by Banky_Edwards at 9:01 AM on March 28, 2008

As I Lay Dying and Waters of Kronos come to mind.
posted by Toekneesan at 9:15 AM on March 28, 2008

Eternal Sonata is game for the 360 centered around Frederick Chopin.
posted by slavlin at 9:16 AM on March 28, 2008

Abre los ojos is the original Vanilla Sky and it's much better. And I definitely second the Niven & Pournelle book. What about Murakami? The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is excellent, and the protagonist goes in and out of a dream world without understanding why.
posted by cachondeo45 at 9:22 AM on March 28, 2008

I would also suggest Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Murakami.
posted by jenne at 9:38 AM on March 28, 2008

The Wizard of Oz.
posted by gyusan at 9:43 AM on March 28, 2008

Continuing with David Lynch, Lost Highway is another one that seems to take place in the protagonist's dimly-understood afterlife. Also, there is a good Sopranos episode, Join the Club, that takes place largely in Tony's coma-dream. I believe this episode is actually being broadcast tonight on A&E, if you're in the States.

And for a nonfictional take, check out Marianne Faithfull's autobiography, Faithfull, for a really unsettling account of her post-overdose trip to the underworld where she meets up with the recently-deceased Brian Jones.
posted by newmoistness at 9:52 AM on March 28, 2008

posted by deadcowdan at 10:01 AM on March 28, 2008

A Pure Formality by Giuseppe Tornatore is a great film that's right in the genre you're looking for, with great performances by Gérard Depardieu and Roman Polanski. Very interesting presentation.
posted by nanojath at 11:25 AM on March 28, 2008

Murther and Walking Spirits, by Robertson Davies. One of my favourites of his.
posted by orange swan at 11:34 AM on March 28, 2008

The Cell involved a policewoman traversing the dreamscape of a murderer trapped deep in a coma.

Others have mentioned Waking Life, which took place in a neverending lucid dream. The Science of Sleep looked similar, though I never saw it.

Part of the story of The Fountain was told through a metaphor (the spaceship) that mirrored the main character's inner state of mind.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:34 AM on March 28, 2008

William Golding, Pincher Martin, where the protagonist is dead or dying, and the 'island' on which he appears to be stranded is actually the inside of his head.

Susan Cooper, Seaward, a fantasy novel set in the land of the dead, or possibly in a sort of 'between place' (as the protagonists get to choose, at the end of the novel, whether or not to go back to ordinary life).
posted by verstegan at 11:41 AM on March 28, 2008

Five Fates is a science fiction anthology made of stories written with the same common short beginning that concluded with the viewpoiint character dying.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 12:01 PM on March 28, 2008

After Dachau is a story about reincarnation. Saying anything more would give too much away. Not exactly what you're thinking of, I think, but very close.
posted by Doohickie at 12:42 PM on March 28, 2008

No Exit, by Sartre.
posted by O9scar at 1:34 PM on March 28, 2008

Looking forward a bit, I would say the TV series Lost (2 seasons from now, that is).
posted by garfy3 at 1:48 PM on March 28, 2008

It's not, like, well-known or anything, but I stage managed a play in college called Getting Wrecked that fit this mold. The play started with the sound of a plane crashing, and then the lights come up on a woman clinging to some plane wreckage. She relives scenes from her life while waiting for help to come, and then at the end of the play - spoiler! - she discovers that she's been dead the whole time, and just working things out before she goes.
posted by web-goddess at 4:13 PM on March 28, 2008

I saw an excellent production of Marlow’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus that implied the play is Faustus’s hell and he had to repeat it over and over again. There is the textual support when Mephistopheles says, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.” Although, he may have also been saying that if your not in heaven, your as good as in hell.
posted by Pangloss at 4:44 PM on March 28, 2008

It's not a movie, but St Elsewhere had an episode where Howie Mandel's character gets shot and goes to purgatory, hell, and heaven.
posted by bibliowench at 5:30 PM on March 28, 2008

Also, the young adult novel Elsewhere, by Gabrielle Zevin (which I enjoyed way more than I should probably admit, not being a young adult), is about a teenage girl who dies and then lives backwards in an afterlife world.
posted by bibliowench at 5:35 PM on March 28, 2008

One of the best: Pedro Paramo y el llano en llamas. Good luck finding an English translation, the Spanish original is great.
posted by Dr. Curare at 6:45 PM on March 28, 2008

"The Night Face Up" by Julio Cortazar -- excellent story.
posted by frances1972 at 7:23 AM on March 29, 2008

Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.

The Matrix.

Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man can be read as an adaptation of Dante's Inferno, i.e. a journey through the circles of hell.

The book that Angel Heart is based on, Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg, is worth a read.
posted by hot soup girl at 8:10 AM on March 29, 2008

A subplot of the movie Total Recall was about him not really knowing if he was in reality or a memory state.
posted by sapphirebbw at 2:08 PM on March 29, 2008

The Odyssey was a tv show from the early 90's which seems to fit the bill. A boy falls into a coma, and enters another world, while trying to find his father.
posted by tomcochrane at 2:52 PM on March 29, 2008

Defending Your Life
posted by sapphirebbw at 12:30 PM on March 30, 2008

The Last Battle - the final book in the Chronicles of Narnia.
posted by janecr at 3:58 AM on April 4, 2008

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