Exploring the Afterlife in Fantasy: Crossing the Threshold

Afterlife fantasies have always been a unique way to look at society. Since death is a fairly impenetrable wall, it gives us an opportunity to imagine all kinds of stuff on the other side. Visions of heavens and hells can be used as carrots and sticks to critique people while they’re still alive, hence Dante’s Divine Comedy, Faust’s terrifying trapdoor, and Jacob Marley’s chains.

When I watched Pixar’s Soul, I was reminded of a couple of afterlife fantasies—most immediately, Defending Your Life and A Matter of Life and Death. This got me thinking: is there a tradition to afterlife fantasies? Are there recurring themes or imagery? (tl;dr: YES, YES, and YES. That third “YES” is the surprising one, as I’ll discuss.) Wouldn’t it be fun to rewatch all these movies, and write about them? (tl;dr: SOMETIMES. I hope it’s fun to read?) And thus this miniseries was born, as I went back about a century and worked my way up through twelve (12) movies and one (1) music video.

In this post, I’ll talk about Outward Bound and its remake, Between Two Worlds. In the next, I’ll discuss Here Comes Mr. Jordan and its many remakes (AKA the Mr. Jordan Extended Universe). After that I’ll talk about two swoonily romantic humanist fantasies, Heaven Can Wait and A Matter of Life and Death. In the fourth I’ll talk about some modern approaches to the afterlife fantasy, including the aforementioned Defending Your Life, and, finally, I’ll talk about Soul.

A surprising theme emerged: as I watched movies for this mini-series I noticed a fascinating tension running through all of them. Each plot is caught between the idea that individual humans should be obedient, bowing to fate or the will of a deity/The Universe, and the idea that they should instead fight the universe for another shot at life, for love, for the fate of a loved one’s soul, etc.—basically that an individual still has rights, even after they’ve shuffled off their mortal coil. I’ll be discussing how that tension shapes each movie.

But first, let’s say what this series isn’t covering. There are angel movies, ghost movies, and what I’m going to call life-adjacent movies. Angel movies are things like It’s a Wonderful Life, Wings of Desire (and its remake City of Angels), A Life Less Ordinary—movies in which a supernatural entity comes to Earth and deals with mortals in some way, to help them, to observe them, to mess with them. Ghost movies—like Ghost, Ghost Town, The Frighteners, The Sixth Sense, and Truly Madly Deeply—are more about people needing to move on from grief. There are also several movies that use the specific setting of Dia de Muertos and the Mayan/Mexican conception of the Land of The Dead, but I’m leaving those out because they’re based in specific cultural beliefs—movies like The Book of Life and Coco adapt those beliefs and imagery for their stories. The films I’m looking at have for the most part come up with their own visions of the afterworld, and, generally speaking, they focus on liminal areas, “way stations”, or between places, where people can take stock before moving on to a permanent destination.

And now, join me on a journey through time and space, to the black and white world of cinema nearly a century ago.

 

A Thoroughly Modern Charon: Outward Bound (1930)

Outward Bound was originally a play that started in a small theater in London, and unexpectedly became the big West End hit of 1923, transferring to an equally successful run on Broadway in 1924. The film adaptation was released in 1930, and is very much an early-talkie play adaptation: people spend most of the film standing stock still on one of two sets, over-enunciating their dialogue at each other to be sure the mics pick it up. And Leslie Howard’s eyeliner can be seen from space.

The movie opens with a morose young couple discussing eloping, when an Irish stereotype of a police officer walks by and mocks their dog. Who is very cute, and clearly a good boi!

After that jarring start, there’s an abrupt cut to a mysterious ocean liner, and we meet the eight passengers: a steward, who seems to be the only staff member aboard; Mrs. Cliveden-Banks, a haughty, upper-class widow; Mrs. Midget, a meek lower-class woman who’s embarrassed to exist around the rich people; Tom Prior, a young alcoholic man who seems to be a down-on-his-luck “gentleman” (played by our smoky-eyed Leslie Howard); a ruthless businessman named Lingley (he once fired Tom Prior for being drunk at work!); the Reverend Duke, a nervous Protestant minister; and the eloping couple, who seem terrified—they repeatedly mention that they’ve done something wrong, but they can’t remember what it is. The tone of the film is weird and spooky, and watching it in 2021 I was impressed with how the director allowed the creepiness to build over time.

All of the passengers seem to be suffering from memory loss, and this along with a few other clues helps Tom Prior figure out that they’re all dead. (This in turn leads to an epic offscreen bender, and some first-rate drunk acting from Leslie Howard.) As the characters accept their predicament, the ship becomes a liminal space between life and death, and they refer to it as a “way station.” They can reflect on their lives, but they can’t change anything, and they have no choice but to wait for…The Examiner.

Since this is a pre-Hays Code movie, they get away with a lot of salacious stuff! The young couple are living in sin (gasp!) because, it’s heavily implied, the man is married to another woman who doesn’t love him (gasp gasp!) and, as we gradually learn, the terrible thing they can’t quite remember is that they’ve committed suicide. (They figure they can be together forever in death, which I guess? But divorce, though?) After Tom Prior is established as an alcoholic, it’s also lightly implied that he and/or Reverend Duke might be queer. In fact, we never learn why Reverend Duke is so nervous about meeting the Examiner. His one concrete failing occurs on the ship: when Prior asks him to pray with him, Duke agrees, and tells him to meet him on the deck, in the dark (which, again, queer?), but we later learn that Duke ran away from this meeting. (So, yes, pretty dang queer.) But maybe more to the point is that he abandoned a frightened person in need, which isn’t great behavior from a minister?

The only overt religious reference the film makes is when Duke leads them in a child’s bedtime prayer that namechecks Jesus, at Mrs. Midget’s request, and everyone seems fine with that. No one asks for anything specifically Catholic, Jewish, or anything else, and we’re clearly dealing with a solidly Protestant worldview. When the Examiner shows up, rather than being some sort of saint or famous holy figure, he’s revealed to be a Protestant minister who was Duke’s teacher back when he was alive and Duke was starting out. So the only religion that’s explicitly represented is some form of Protestantism, which makes it even more interesting to me that the playwright/filmmakers have made up their own vague afterlife rather than going with a basic clouds-and-angels scenario.

All the passengers, from the people who seem pretty morally okay to the total jerks, are going to live a slightly heightened version of their old lives. The Examiner is short with Lingley for being such an arrogant bastard, but he doesn’t explicitly condemn him to Hell, either. The arrogant Mrs. Cliveden-Banks is going to be forced to live with her husband even though she used him for his money and cheated on him; my own personal Ghost-of-Christmas-Future Tom Prior is going to have to work in an unspecified way to make up for wasting his time with liquor; the honorable poor woman, Mrs. Midget, is offered a lovely seaside cottage with a garden, but chooses to spend her afterlife as Tom’s maid once it’s revealed that she’s the mother who gave him up for adoption (!!!); and Reverend Duke learns that he’s still going to be a minister—essentially doing his old gig but for dead people. And here’s where I find the movie fascinating, because it’s implied that Duke expects to be punished in some way, but instead is overjoyed to learn that he gets to keep his job. He sees what, on paper, could be interpreted as a form of Purgatory as a literally Heavenly reward. So….what did he do wrong? Am I reading the coding correctly, and the movie’s saying that his queerness is fine, actually? (I’m honestly not sure, so if anyone happens to be an Outward Bound expert sound off in the comments!)

About that tension I mentioned up at the top: the passengers are reminded, first by Scrubby the Steward, then by the Examiner himself, that their pasts are completely, totally, for real for real, past. Unlike in most interpretations of Purgatory, they can’t make up for their mistakes, they can’t change their behavior—all they can do is explain themselves to the Examiner and hope for the best. (This goes about as well as you’d imagine.) There is no exercise of will or amount of pleading or bribing that will change the verdict.

BUT. Remember our poor lovelorn updated Romeo + Juliet? It turns out they’re only mostly dead. They are, in fact, unconscious and asphyxiating in their apartment throughout the events of the film. Scrubby explains that he was a suicide, and to pay for that crime against Nature he is doomed to pilot this boat back and forth for Eternity. In this film’s universe people who kill themselves don’t go to Hell or become depressed trees or bored civil servants: they become modern Charons. It’s not really a punishment—no one hurts them, and they get to meet new people on each trip—but they also can’t stop or leave. This is the fate awaiting Henry and Ann. They’re still OK with this as long as they can be together, but even that’s snatched away when Henry vanishes from the boat because their awesome dog revives him. And this is where individual fortitude and love save the day, because despite Scrubby telling Ann she has no hope, and that Henry has abandoned her to go back to life (is this what happened to Scrubby?), she keeps calling him, refuses to accept her fate, and he is somehow able to revive her, too. The movie doesn’t state whether this is some type of divine intervention, human will, or simply luck.

 

I’m On a (Purgatorial) BOAT: Between Two Worlds (1944)

Fourteen years later, Between Two Worlds takes Outward Bound’s premise and updates it to reflect the political turmoil of World War II. The remake reflects the ongoing horror of the war in an oddly gentle way, and comparing it with the original 1930 version shows just how conservative the movie industry had become since the adoption of the Hays Code.

In addition to Outward Bound’s original eight forlorn souls (desperate young couple; alcoholic Tom Prior—a failed newspaperman in this version; cold businessman Mr. Lingley; good-but-poor Mrs. Midget; ineffectual minister Reverend William Duke; arrogant Mrs. Cliveden-Banks + Scrubby the steward), the remake gives us three shiny new dead people: Pete Musick, a merchant marine who has survived three torpedo attacks, Maxine Russell, a struggling actress and companion to Prior, and Mr. Cliveden-Banks.

Rather than opening with the star-crossed lovers of the original, the film gives us a steamship waiting room where a voiceover instructs passengers:

You are reminded that you are traveling to America under wartime conditions. England is still very much a battle area. In the event of an enemy attack at sea, or an air raid in transit to your ship, your wholehearted cooperation will be necessary. Follow instructions. Do not ask questions. And be sure there is a good reason behind everything we ask you to do.

Which is a fun mirror of the fairly rigid afterlife our characters are about to encounter!

Instead of the morose couple of Outward Bound, we meet Henry Bergner, a Viennese pianist/freedom fighter who wants to book passage on a ship to for America, but is told there’s no space for him yet. He returns home, as his wife, Ann, rushes to the ship terminal to find him—just in time to see the portside waiting room group get blown up in an air raid. She runs through the rubble to get back home, where she finds Henry, disconsolate, gas turned up to 11. She refuses to leave him.

It’s a lot.

By the ten-minute mark the movie has left ambiguity behind, and when we cut to the liminal liner we know everyone’s dead, we just don’t know if they know it yet. This gives the movie a firm push from Outward Bound’s eeriness to a more fatalistic “are you prepared for judgement?” tone, which was probably far more resonant for people who had struggled through the Depression only to be presented with genocide and war.

On the Hays Code front, Maxine is an obvious “fallen woman” type—when we meet her she’s Prior’s companion, and is just as brittle and sarcastic as he is. She’s also willing to wear the most revealing dresses she owns to try to snag a richer man if one should come along. Instead of an unhappily married man dying of love for another woman, our sad couple are now legally married and socially A-OK, with no hints of adultery or common-law cohabitation. The women’s fates are decided entirely by their relationship to men, which range on a spectrum from “faithless wife” to “gold digger” to “possibly-too-faithful wife” to “devoted long-suffering mother.” As in Outward Bound, the only religious figure is the Protestant Reverend William Duke, but here there’s not even a slight hint of queerness, and we don’t get anything as morally dubious as the scene of him running away from a man in need. Duke’s only failing seems to be that he spent too much time studying theology in his room, and not enough out among people.

But it’s in Between Two Worlds’ response to WWII that the differences really come through. As I mentioned, Henry is a Viennese concert pianist and former Free French Resistance Fighter who’s been shattered by War, and only wants to gas himself to save his young British wife from a bleak future with him. Ann chooses to die with him rather than live without him, but the movie adds a couple of details to make its audience sympathize with the suicidal couple: since Henry is played by Paul “Victor Fucking Laszlo” Heinreid, and a very Casablanca-esque musical score plays every time the two are onscreen, the audience is reminded that these are good people trapped by a terrible moment in history.

Pete, the Merchant Marine, was on the way home to his wife, Connie, and the infant son he hadn’t met yet. Pete is a jolly man, obviously the life of the party, in love with his wife, and, vitally, he does not act like a traumatized war veteran. As in Outward Bound, it’s Prior who drowns his dark mood and caustic wit in liquor—Pete seems untouched by the horrors he’s seen. He’s carrying birth announcements for his son and joyfully passes them out to a boatful of strangers because he’s so excited to be a father. He doesn’t know yet that he’s already dead, and that he’ll never meet his child. When he learns the truth he’s furious, saying that it isn’t fair—not that he’s died, but that he miraculously made it through multiple torpedo attacks only to die on his way home. It the sense of losing his luck at the last minute that makes it so cruel. But the Examiner quickly reassures him that given everything he sacrificed fighting against evil, he’s earned a beautiful Heaven, and will eventually be reunited with his family.

Maxine, one of the other new characters, is sentenced to what sounds like a difficult but worthwhile purgatory for allowing herself to become something of a fallen woman. (There’s that Hays Code again.) But I think part of it is a bit more complicated. In Between Two Worlds, Mr. Lingley isn’t just a stuffy businessman who didn’t practice kindness or empathy, he’s a war profiteer. It was exposing him as such that cost Prior his newspaper gig. And Maxine knows this, but, not yet realizing she died in an air raid, she chooses Lingley and his ill-gotten money over Prior’s slightly more genuine love. I think this is what really dings her in the Examiner’s eyes when it’s her turn to be judged. Henry and Ann Bergner are, in their own way, also casualties of war. Where in OB, the Examiner ignored the couple because they weren’t fully dead yet, in BtW the Examiner has Henry sit in the room to see Pete’s judgement, in order to shame the man into wanting another shot at life. It seems like the movie added Pete specifically to be a counterpoint to Henry: the cheerful American fighting the good fight no matter what and earns a Heavenly reward, versus the despairing European who nearly lets the horror destroy him, and is almost doomed to ferry souls back and forth for eternity because of it.

This is a fascinating way to deal with the cost of WWII. Between Two Worlds grapples with the fact that a lot of GIs were not going to make it home—a lot of families had been broken, and were going to continue to be broken, but it somehow puts a hopeful spin on it. It gives us a noble European who has to learn optimism from his American counterpart, as in Outward Bound, he and Ann are allowed to return to life, but only once he’s recognized that it was wrong to give in to despair. The movie doesn’t quite say “suicide is a win for Hitler!” but it damn sure implies it.

***

 

Also, as in Outward Bound, you may get to the end of the film wanting to yell SHOW AFTERLIFE. All we’re allowed to see is the boat. We know that in both versions, Mrs. Midget is offered a seaside cottage, but turns it down in favor of spending her afterlife with her secret son. In Between Two Worlds, Mrs. Cliveden-Banks is going to be in a grand villa, but won’t be allowed to have any guests, even the husband she never appreciated; meanwhile, he’s going to be reunited with his old drinking buddies who have all predeceased him. Maxine and Tom Prior are both going to have to work to make up for their wasted lives, but it’s not really specified what “work” means in this cosmology. Here, in some of our earliest film takes on the afterlife, we have a basic, bland, unquestioned Protestantism, but it’s mixed with a watery Purgatory that doesn’t seem to be under any particular theology. We never see the afterlife—the passengers leave the ship and the boat turns around and goes back for the next group. Because of this people are able to imagine whatever they want on the other side of the gangplank. This hesitation to give a definitive take on  the afterlife (and risk offending audience members) is repeated in almost all of the fantasies I’ll be discussing.

On the other hand, these movies hold firm to the idea that suicide deserves special treatment. While the suicides in this movie aren’t instantly damned (as in many films that throw a sort of loose, inaccurate Catholicism around) they also seem to have no hope of redemption once they’ve died. Tom Prior and Maxine can work their debts off, but had Henry and Ann fully died, they’d be stuck as stewards forever. We’ll see this idea that suicide is somehow different than other deaths repeated in many of the films in this series.

The other thing I noticed in these two films, and in most of the ones that will follow, is what I’ve come to call the “I’m too special for Death” narrative. Now granted, if a movie’s protagonist just like, dies, that might not make for much of a story. But even so, one of the threads through many of these movies seems to be people who refuse to believe that The Thing That Happens to Everyone can possibly happen to them. They refuse to believe it even when everyone around them accepts it, even when they’ve lived a life full of accomplishments or died a completely reasonable death. (Speaking personally, I’m going to try to avoid dying for as long as possible, but if I was in a plane wreck, or a truck hit me, or I fell down a manhole, I think I’d have to accept that I was in fact dead, and not spend an entire movie’s running time arguing that I should get to go back.) And yet! Through most of these movies either the main characters come up with reasons why their death doesn’t count, or the movie narratives themselves contort themselves to give their characters an out.

In both Outward Bound and Between Two Worlds, the films twist themselves into knots and break the laws of physics to save the young suicidal couple. But interestingly it’s the films themselves that seem to be structured around convincing the couple to live again, not the couple themselves fighting for another shot. The films take a few moments to be extremely dark anti-suicide PSAs—OB essentially saying: “Don’t throw your life away, young person!” and Between Two Worlds saying: “Don’t give up, traumatized French Resistance fighter!”—before veering away from tragedy and having Henry and Ann revive even though wayyyy too much time has passed. As we’ll see in the rest of the series, nearly all of these afterlife fantasies have characters who are much more attached to their lives than Henry and Ann.

Footnotes

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