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Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. -- Dante Alighieri
Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company. -- Mark Twain
There is one immutable fact of life: It does not last forever.
And for as long as humans have been capable of pondering their own mortality, they have pondered most deeply upon one crucial question: What happens when life on earth is over?
Around the globe, throughout the centuries, across all manner of cultures and religions, the answer to this question has been twofold: We go to heaven. Or we go to hell.
The basic concept of a postearthly reward or punishment is one of the most enduring in all of human history, and it remains a bedrock tenet of faith in most modern religions. Some form of heaven is there for souls that have lived lives of essential goodness and for believers who have followed the dictates of their religion and embraced the will of their God. Hell is there to receive the darkened souls of sinners -- those who have caused pain and suffering among their fellow humans and who have turned their backs on their deity.
But there is a strange corollary that accompanies this heaven/hell concept, one that has also endured through time, place, culture, and belief: Heavens have almost always been vaguely, sketchily defined as places of peace, happiness, oneness, comfort, or bliss, while hells, rife with twisted passions and bloody violence, have been meticulously mapped out almost inch by inch, with every torture and torment awaiting a condemned soul vividly imagined in excruciating detail.
Heaven has been a place where mystery ispart of the appeal, a place so wonderful it is literally beyond comprehension. And perhaps humans have not wanted to jinx any chances of getting into that place by appearing to be celestial know-it-alls.
But we haven't shied away from hell. After a few thousand years of civilization, it seems fairly clear that humans have been, and remain, deeply, darkly fascinated with the place. We mortals have written about it, imagined it, painted it, filmed it, dreamt it, and debated its very existence with a level of specificity and a degree of passion rarely mustered in considering "the better place."
It would seem that we humans want desperately to end up in heaven. But in the meantime, we can't get enough of hell.
Maybe that's because, by nature, we feel a little closer to hell. Heaven is a place of perfected spirit. Hell is the final destination for corrupted flesh. There aren't too many of us who walk around feeling perfect, but just about everybody can think of a fleshly stumble or two to call their own. We may not be certain who the angels among us are, but we sure as hell can spot the wicked. And so hell -- from religion to religion and century to century -- has become a landscape where all our darkest, basest, most corrupted impulses run rampant. In Hollywood-speak, hell has proven to have some legs: it's got conflict, drama, villains, sex, violence, fire, darkness, torment, and ultimate justice -- everything we might demand and expect of our late-night entertainment.
Which raises another interesting twist in hell's history. For as long as the place has been a focus of fear, it's also been a setting for wicked fun. Homer's descriptions of Hades in the Odyssey weren't intended as religious instruction; they were rip-roaring adventure tales. The mystery plays of the Middle Ages often made hell a crowd-pleasing showcase of vulgar slapstick. And today, when many of us still believe in hell as a very real place of final, eternal punishment, we can still root for a "Demons" sports team or watch an actor dressed as the devil hawk a brand of spicy salsa without feeling our souls are in particular peril. The proverbial Martian glancing upon our culture-in-general would observe that the hell we might hear about in churches coexists in an oddly symbiotic fashion with the hell of horror movies, heavy metal bands, video games, New Yorker cartoons, South Park, and pizzerias with "Inferno" in their names.
It is in that mixed spirit of fear and fascination that we have assembled our chapter-by-chapter tour of hell. This work isn't intended as a soberly academic one. And it's not a heavy-duty study of comparative religion. Our goal has been to offer up a layperson's look at the way hell has been imagined and reimagined over time, and across cultures and religions. The work also takes a look at the way hell has been able to serve seemingly contradictory roles, as both the scariest after-earth destination imaginable for human souls, and as one of the deepest and richest sources of art and entertainment for those very same souls while they're still earthbound. We've tried to balance a fairly thorough examination of hell's religious history with a more playful look at its shifting significance as a fixture of pop culture around the globe and through the centuries.
As a part of our look at hell's heated presence in pop culture, we've included throughout the book some segments titled "My Hell." These are varied, brief, personal thoughts on hell's makeup, drawn from our interviews with a mix of creative folks from the worlds of film, television, books, music, and academia (and ranging from the generally beloved to the decidedly controversial). Their responses are meant to play off a larger point: Our world's ongoing, unsettled religious and philosophical debates on the nature of hell indicate that the place below might still be considered a work in progress, continually reshaped, restoked, and reconsidered by all humans still interested in pondering life's imponderables.
To be honest, for those with a devout sense of faith, this book may be entirely beside the point. If a believer already has a strong sense of the singular truth, the last thing he or she needs is a postmodern, pan-religious, omnicultural history of hell to muck things up. And yet that history is out there, dynamic and undeniable, and we feel it is a history worthy of at least some investigation. It is a strange, eventful history that is by turns grand, fearsome, comic, mortifying, and always wickedly compelling. In laying out our look at hell, we've attempted to stay true to the blend of tragedy and comedy that has marked discussions of the place since such discussions began millennia ago. It has been our sincere desire to do justice to the seriousness of the subject, while acknowledging that hell is a subject that mortals have not always taken so seriously.
With the understanding of just how remarkable, significant, and influential a place hell is, the intention of Go to Hell is not to dismiss the netherworld, but to illuminate it just a bit. The hope has been to create a book that's engagingly readable, rather than one that's simply damnable.
Copyright © 2005 by Chuck Crisafulli and Kyra Thompson