The first movie I recall discussing death was 1991’s My Girl, the tale of an 11-year-old girl and her relationship to others in the ‘70s. As Vada Sultenfuss (Anna Chlumsky) navigates life surrounded by death while living in a funeral parlor, there isn’t much discussion of an actual afterlife. Vada’s “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude allows her to ignore the pain and trauma of coping with death, but also shows her childlike approach to what lies beyond. Discussing what Heaven’s like with her best friend Thomas J. (Macaulay Culkin), Vada’s conception is comforting, if a perfect summation of feminine childhood: “Everybody gets their own white horse and all they do is ride them and eat marshmallows all day. And everybody’s best friends with everybody else. When you play sports, there’s no teams, so nobody gets picked last. [And the horses] aren’t regular horses. They’ve got wings. And it doesn’t matter if you fall, because you’ll just land in a cloud.”
Secular iconography like clouds and wings provide a land of limitless freedom. Vada’s Heaven is also inclusive, where best friends abound, calories don’t count and pain is removed. As someone who grew up with surgeries and lengthy hospital stays, Vada’s Heaven was comforting and explained away all the questions I had about God’s reason for creating pain. And since this is aimed at children, there’s no overwhelming or perplexing religious minutiae. The two children’s discussion doesn’t involve questions of sin, Hell, or what judgement awaited from the omnipotent God above, all of which relaxed me.
With My Girl opening up a proper discussion of what lies beyond death, it was hard to reconcile clouds and winged horses with confession and communion. Catholicism’s rules and regulations were one thing, but it also left Heaven as a vague concept. It’s one thing to know death puts you at the right hand of the Father, but is that an all-day thing? (Full disclosure: that question received a raised eyebrow from my Sunday school teacher.) Death is already terrifying enough, but a Heaven filled with “happiness” doesn’t give people much of a concept to look forward to. Tim Burton’s 1988 film Beetlejuice sees loveable ghosts Barbara and Adam (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) live a life as normal as it once was. They don’t notice they’re dead right away, returning home as if nothing happened. Upon discovering their untimely demise, they go to sleep. The dead sleep, but wake up…that’s Inception-esque – and go back to cleaning their house and working in the attic, leaving Adam to say “Maybe this is Heaven!” Sure, they can’t leave the house, but the two’s homebody status during their lifetime implies they were never seeking a great adventure beyond their small-town.
Barbara and Adam have the best interpretation of the afterlife I can think of. They can enjoy catching up on the things they always wanted to do without having to worry about responsibilities related to finances, hence no need to work or pay bills. But there’s also an afterlife community that acts as a familiar bridge between the land of the living and the dead. Ghost can have day jobs if they want – Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice is a “freelance bio-exorcist” – while there’s a governmental structure, as seen with Sylvia Sidney’s Juno. And though My Girl eschews all talk of religious affiliation, Beetlejuice playfully ribs Catholic “mortal sins.” “You know what they say about people who commit suicide? In the afterlife they become civil servants,” says Otho (Glenn Shadix). This is a fact the living Otho accurately predicts when Barbara and Adam meet the afterlife committee’s receptionist whose “little accident” is a pair of slit wrists.
Barbara and Adams’ trouble comes from having to deal with the living, and it is this “breaking of the barrier,” the acknowledgement and awareness of death takes on added poignancy in Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others (2001). The Others is one of several movies that existentially terrifies me yet, oddly enough, gives me a depiction of the “Heaven” I’d be content with. Nicole Kidman’s Grace is a devout Roman Catholic living in WWII-era England with her two photosensitive children, coping with mysterious “intruders” no one but her daughter can see. As someone raised up on the concepts of sinning and Hell, Grace’s obsessive desire to prevent her children from falling into eternal damnation is relatable. You can only be told so many times, especially as a child, that one bad thing can condemn you to a life of pain before you become terrified of doing anything bad.
Compared to Beetlejuice’s layering of the dead over middle-class suburbia, The Others leaves you asking if death comes not with a boom, but with the blink of an eye. Grace and her children come to the horrifying realization that they are the ones who have died, and Heaven hasn’t brought winged horses or condemned Grace to civil servitude. It is the arrival of the living “intruders” that terrifies them as it is the acknowledgement of the unknown and a walking reminder of their once living status. But the most haunting aspect is Grace’s question of whether God has abandoned her. Her children are free of their photosensitivity and can enjoy the sunshine, but is this Purgatory or Heaven? Does it really matter once you’re dead? These grand questions are frightening in their grandiosity and the film never provides an answer. But it is the fact that “life” goes on that’s comforting; Grace and her children can go on about their routine, have tea and play, and know that they’re no longer of the living.
Confrontation between the living and the dead is common in afterlife films. Beetlejuice and The Others use the trope as a means of exploring how we respond to death, appreciate life, and posits a world to look forward to (or dread). M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) is similar but its protagonist, Bruce Willis’ Malcolm Crowe, blindly refuses to see he is no longer a living, breathing presence in the world. His invisibility to others, including his wife, acts as a metaphor for how he’s seemingly ignored appreciating his mortality in favor of putting his work first. When he’s finally able to move on, there isn’t an acknowledgement of Heaven or Hell, so much as an acceptance of his fate. 1995’s Casper is another childhood favorite that breaks the barrier between the living and the dead with silliness. Unlike The Others these present an agnostic view of death, free of religious connotations, as well as routine that positions “Heaven” as being free of societal restrictions.
Nearly all of the afterlife movies I’ve referenced see their characters bound to a temporal location, predominately their own house. Growing up disabled saw me spending a lot of time at home, so the idea of spending eternity bound by the same four walls presents a unique dread for me. Casey Affleck’s C in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, though, finds the idea of a life lived through the construction and eventual rebuilding of a house comforting. Clad in a bedsheet (a possible nod to questions of whether we retain a human form after death), C can only mournfully watch as others, including his wife, live their life in the house he once called home. Similarly devoid of a religious affiliation, A Ghost Story’s biggest “secret” is C’s desire to find a living piece of his wife, manifested as a note she’s hidden in the wall. C plaintively waits for something to change, an epiphany in a world where he should have already received all of life’s answers. A Ghost Story is the most cerebral of all the afterlife films that have stuck with me. It takes the invisibility of The Sixth Sense, as well as elements in The Others and Beetlejuice, to provide a death that is lonely, frustrating and infinite.
When I solicited online suggestions for positive depictions of life after death movies, a majority of people brought up 1998’s adaptation of Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come. In it, Robin Williams plays Chris Nielsen, a man who dies in a car crash and has to deal with finding his wife and children in the afterlife. Matheson’s text didn’t draw on specific religion, though there are shades of Hinduism and New Age mysticism. The film, however, draws heavily from Catholic and Christian teachings with the bright, Edenic Heaven Chris drops into. Chris’ wife Annie ends up committing suicide and drops into a Purgatory-like Hellscape from which Chris has to save her. The movie tries to avoid condemning suicide as a mortal sin by presenting it more as Annie’s refusal to acknowledge her demise. (I equate the subplot as Annie being a human Artax succumbing to the Swamps of Sadness in Neverending Story). One of the few films I saw to look at both Heaven and Hell, What Dreams May Come pleases all comers. For me, the depiction of Heaven comes complete with the ability to create your own home and routine, change your appearance, and be reunited with pets. As Chris himself says “A place where we all go can’t be bad,” and if you ignore the mortal sin elements of the plot, it’s easy to see why this film is often considered the best interpretation of Heaven.
Depictions of Hell in movies don’t often require a serious religious component, more often falling into the adage of “what goes around comes around.” 1995’s Tales From the Hood has parallels to the “we’re not dead” mentality of The Others, but uses the element of surprise to force its three protagonists to see their life’s decisions play out in front of them. The movie’s social commentary on gang violence and corruption ends with an ominous moral that African-Americans in America are all living in Hell, whether of their own creation or not. The literal interpretation of Hell at the film’s conclusion has the typical fork-tongued Devil, but the fears of what we’re living in now are far more frightening.
Regardless of gender, race or religion, most of us can all agree on our fear of death. And where some find comfort in prayer, I remain committed to seeking solace with film. Being raised Catholic should have provided answers but it mainly left me with confusion and questions that movies, through creative worldbuilding, helped me transcend. I can only hope that Heaven looks like something out of a movie….fingers crossed!