Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Corpse Bride Motif

(The following is based on the idea of the "Corpse Bride" from my thesis, You Only Live Twice: The Representation of the Afterlife in Film)

Title Examples: Liliom (1934 and Carousel 1956) A Guy Named Joe (1943 and Always (1989) Miracle in the Rain (1956) Jigoku (1960 Japan) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) Truly Madly Deeply (1985) High Spirits (1988) Beetlejuice (1988) Made In Heaven (1987) Chances Are (1989) Ghost (1990) The Crow (1994) Haunted Mansion (2003) The Maid (2005 China/Philippines) Corpse Bride (2005) White Noise (2005) Over Her Dead Body (2008) Drag Me to Hell (2009) After.Life (2009) Drop Dead Diva (2009-2014)

A woman’s wedding day should be the happiest in her life. No matter the era, the traditional Western image is a young woman wearing a white dress and a smile on her face. She is about to marry (hopefully) the man of her dreams to take on the roles of wife and soon-to-be-mother. But it is also one of the most haunting images in afterlife cinema: a pale young woman wearing a tattered white dress, a somber expression on her face and is undead. This is the "Corpse Bride" figure.

Marriage signifies transition to adulthood because of the responsibilities entailed. Suddenly a life of independence becomes a life of partnership. From the wedding ceremony on, there is a new way of perceiving life. The next several decades of milestone moments will be shared with another individual. To simplify, there is an eternity of commitment.

The Corpse Bride signifies the death of these expectations. Not only has she lost her life as a woman, a daughter, (and a sister,) but has also lost her life as a wife, a mother, an in-law, and all the other roles she personally and professionally may have had. Her life has been cut short just at the moment it was supposed to escalate. Instead she is stuck in her current body and a moment of transition. In film, the cause of death is either an accident or foul play: rarely is it a natural cause. Something or someone intervened on these women’s plans.

The reverse Corpse Bride is a woman whose fiancé or new husband has died. She is left alone with her dashed hopes, expectations and grief. She is physically alive but emotionally and romantically dead. Her story becomes one based on healing from the shock.

Every Corpse Bride has a mission. Young brides who die at the time of their wedding day are in-between phases and spaces. The bride is of marrying age, thus is no longer a child, but she has also yet to fulfill her potential as a wife. She cannot crossover unless what holds her back is resolved. Though this can be said for all the returned, it is of particular significance to these female characters. Whether they are ghosts, resurrected or reincarnated, their natural lives are over yet still exist in the space of the living or are at least able to visit the space of the living. Upon the film and the characters’ resolutions, the undead Corpse Bride enters a Final Destination: a final phase of existence (within the film story) no longer associated with her natural life. And for the living Corpse Bride, a return to her individuality brings her a new set of goals and outlook. Both types of women do reach a moment of accepting their loss of life and/or loved one and move on.

If she is an undead character, moving on usually means allowing her betrothed to let her go and find love with another. If she is a living character, it usually means allowing herself to let go of him and find new love. But in all of their stories there is resistance. There is jealousy. There is grief. These are the Corpse Bride films’ central conflicts. Because, what bride wants to see the man she loves with another woman? And what bride wants to re-enter the dating scene she fought/hoped so much to leave?

Emily, voiced by Helena Bonham Carter in Tim Burton’s stop-motion animated feature Corpse Bride (2005), already knew her fiancé killed her in the woods. Thus, the truth about Emily’s murder is not a secret or revelation except who the character her fiancé/murderer is. Her afterlife existence was about finally getting married: to experience the ceremony and relationship she died for. Bojangles sings, “So she made a vow lyin’ under that tree/ That she’d wait for her true love to come set her free/ Always waiting for someone to ask for her hand…” Even though Johnny Depp’s Victor had unintentionally raised her from the dead, it was speaking his marriage vows and placing Victoria’s ring on Emily’s twig-like finger that brought her back to the land of the living to claim her husband. Of course in the end, she realized she could not keep Victor from his true wife and thus left them together. It is her transformation into a hundred freed butterflies that marks her true transcendence of death.

To immediately show Emily was not alive, but had been dead for a long time, her body and clothing needed to look decomposed: gray-blue skin, skeletal, and even disjointed/unhinged wearing a tattered dress. As with so many of the other dead characters in the Underworld, her limbs can pop out and pop off at any moment. As declared in Bojangles’ song, and of what of the wedding dress and hair garland are intact, when alive she had been young, beautiful, and naive.

In High Spirits (1988), while Steve Guttenberg’s Jack drunkenly roams the Scottish castle halls, he comes upon the nightly ghostly reenactment of the family’s ancestral tragedy. Daryl Hannah’s seventeenth century Mary runs through walls chased by her jealous husband, Martin (played by Liam Neeson). Jack thinks this is just another of the castle staff’s haunted house gimmicks. He continues to witness their fight until he unintentionally steps between them; saving Mary and ending the curse. Over the next few nights, Mary’s spirit and Jack fall madly in love. Mary’s young yet pale afterlife appearance, in her rumpled wedding dress, do not show decay from death but are signs of suffering Martin’s physical abuse. Because it was her spirit and not body that was nightly resurrected, her physical form was not affected by time. However, for Jack and Mary to live happily ever after, he has to kiss her in full-body form: a withering wrinkled green skin barely-functioning corpse of decomposed clothes and thinning hair that represents the two hundred years she had been dead in the family crypt. Like Beauty and the Beast, luckily upon their kiss, she becomes as youthful as the day she died rather than staying a two hundred year-old rotting newlywed. In addition, throughout Jack and Mary’s courtship, his wife Sharon and Martin shared a passionate physical attraction. When Sharon dies/ jumps to her death, she became his eternal ghostly lover.

Eva Longoria’s character Kate in Over Her Dead Body (2008) is one of the best expressions of the Corpse Bride. In the opening scene, Kate micro-manages her wedding reception catering staff. Claiming she wants everything to be perfect, she also ignores her fiancé Henry’s (played by Paul Rudd) suggestions she stay relaxed. Just a few minutes later an angel ice sculpture falls and crushes her. In an In-Between white space, an angel tries to inform Kate she must return to earth but cannot say soon enough what her mission is. Back among the living, albeit invisible, Kate mistakenly believes she is supposed to watch over a depressed Henry and protect him from further hurt. Instead of trying to help him move on, she purposefully does all she can to prevent him from entering another relationship by sabotaging his new romance with psychic Ashley. First appearing at Ashley’s apartment, Kate pretends to be alive and under a trance: she levitates, turns her head 360 degrees, and speaks in a low demon-like voice to warn her of continuing to pursue Henry. But Ashley is not deterred for long. At a weekend getaway Kate further ruins what was supposed to be Ashley and Henry’s sexual consummation with distractions of fart noises and yelling. Only after their breakup and months apart can Kate see the damage she had on Henry’s life. His darkened mood returned now with two great love losses. By communicating with Henry’s parrot that he should get Ashley back, Kate reunites the lovebirds at the airport. Ashley and Henry’s wedding follows, where Ashley reassures Kate she will love and protect Henry. This peace of mind for her beloved fiancé and relinquishing her ghostly powers allows Kate to finally and healthfully move on as well. Kate’s controlling personality followed her into the afterlife but she had to come to the realization life must continue without her and that death must make way for new experiences.

In White Noise (2005) Michael Keaton’s Jonathan Rivers’ young second wife Anna disappears the day she tells him that she is pregnant. Devastated even after her lifeless body was found weeks later, and after moving to a new apartment, he mopes about depressed and unable to concentrate on work. Jon’s spirits are lifted for the first time when a mediator shows him Anna’s message from the afterlife. Though skeptical at first, increased research makes him a believer and subsequent apprentice. He keeps his EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) monitors on for any further communication. What he receives are Anna’s warning messages about the future: people he needs to save from death. The electronic ethereal Underworld’s guardians try to keep the two worlds separate by bullying and killing intruders when necessary: including the medium, Jon’s companion Sarah, and eventually Jon as well. Jon’s unhealthy obsession with crossing afterlife barriers began because he could not cope with Anna’s death and their would-have-been expanding family.  Whatever Anna’s reasons were for sending these messages to Jon, they put him in danger. She should have let him heal naturally from her death. And this film teaches that the death of a loved one, specifically a spouse, may be sudden and tragic but you must emotionally mend by focusing on life.

White Noise's Jon and Anna are a 21st century re-imagination of the Classical story Orpheus and Eurydice. After Anna’s death, Jon metaphorically descends into Hell to reunite with Anna, just as Orpheus had to journey into the Underworld to reclaim Eurydice’s soul. Upon the film’s ending, as the three gatekeepers kill Jon for his transgression and to restore natural order, it is reminiscent of Cerberus guarding Hades: except these shadowy figures cannot be swooned to submission. Orpheus’s second loss of Eurydice is too much to bear, goes mad and he is later killed.

Drop Dead Diva (2009 to 2014) was one of Lifetime Television’s most popular shows, (at the time of this article's original posting) now in its fourth season. Deb Dobkins, a young aspiring Los Angeles model with blonde hair and blue eyes, dies in a car crash. While in the In-Between for assessment, she refuses to accept death and hits the aptly fitting “return” computer key. She is promptly put in the overweight dark haired body of lawyer Jane Bingum. Deb is a Corpse Bride because on the day she died her longtime boyfriend Grayson was planning to propose. Her life would have immediately escalated had she been alive to receive the ring and marry her true love. However, Deb soon realizes there are many advantages to being Jane. Having plugged into this new body, Deb has access to Jane’s book-smarts (but not memories) that are used for creative legal problem solving. And she is now in a position of power with a steady salary that can afford a BMW. Deb’s extrovert personality transforms what was Jane’s dull introverted life and thus others’ perceptions of her. Jane’s existence as Deb-in-Jane shows how confidence can trump looks when seeking respect. Though Deb enjoyed her life as herself, her new life as Jane allows her to be more intelligent, able to help people, and win accolades for her work.

In the second season episode entitled, “Last Year’s Model,” Jane’s colleague/Deb’s fiancé, “Grayson takes on clients who think their house has been haunted...(At the house) Grayson is made a believer when he sees Deb. She asks how he is and asks if he’s seeing someone. And Grayson lies and says no…(Later,) Grayson goes back to the house to talk to Deb and admits that he is seeing someone (Vanessa, who finds toxic mold in the house)...he admits (to Jane) he saw Deb in the haunted house, which is a big surprise to Jane. Grayson admits to her that if he believed in ghosts he’d like to think Deb would find a way to stay close to him…(Kim tells) Jane that Grayson is still in love with his dead girlfriend. That’s got to give Jane a bit of hope.” (The Summer TV Blog by Kara Howland, Sunday Aug. 8, 2010)

Deb’s ghostly spirit appears to Grayson, bathed in light as if coming from Heaven, and in a white nightgown: perhaps how she would have dressed on their honeymoon. Ghost Deb assures Grayson she is happy and that though he can honor her memory he should find love with someone else. Though Grayson’s hallucination of Deb in the haunted house was caused by toxic mold, it shows that a year after her death, he still loves Deb and is hesitant to move on with his new girlfriend Vanessa. The show continues on to feature Deb/Jane and Grayson in separate relationships: Grayson almost marries Vanessa and Deb/Jane dates a few other men. While in most Corpse Bride stories the couples are supposed to let go of each other, the show’s plot hinges on a “will they or won’t they” reunion. Thus, because Deb is not in a separate afterlife space, she as Jane can still wind up with Grayson, and they can finally have their wedding ceremony.

Chances Are (1989) and Ghost (1990) are the reverse examples. Instead of physical death, the women emotionally died when their loved ones did, in front of them. While Sybil Shephard’s Corrine was already married to Louis for a year and expecting a baby, these circumstances are the definition of a life on the cusp of transition. They were supposed to raise their child and grow old together. Instead, Louis died and she was left to raise Miranda alone. Corrine may have continued on without him, but she has been attending therapy for years, refuses entering romantic relationships and refocused her energies towards her daughter and career. In addition, she still talks to him before and after bed, leaving him snacks by his picture on the side table, and keeps another photo in her car visor. Only when she is reunited with Louis in the young Alex’s body (played by Robert Downey Jr.) can she reclaim her sexuality and then let him go. The film closes with her wedding to longtime friend and confidant Philip (played by Ryan O’Neill).

Meanwhile Demi Moore’s Molly is made a widow even before her engagement. Though she and Sam (Patrick Swayze) have recently moved in together, she thinks they should keep progressing and get married. She brings up the topic with Sam as they leave the theater, that they should “just do it,” but before he can give her an answer, Willy kills Sam. Molly is left without her could-have-been-husband. In the time after his death she refuses to move on and throw away Sam’s possessions, let alone be convinced he is a ghost. When Oda Mae (Whoopi Goldberg’s award winning role) finally sits with Molly to prove Sam’s continued existence, Sam takes over Oda Mae’s body for one last physical moment. As the film ends, Molly can hear his last words of love and goodbye. She is able to let him leave as she knows he will be in Heaven. What happens to Molly afterwards is unknown, but it is assumed she will at least continue her art.

In 2009, Justin Long’s characters Clay and Paul from Drag Me to Hell and After.Life, respectively, were going to ask their girlfriends to marry him, but the women died before he could. He is the Corpse Groom (possibly a topic for another article but will suffice here). In the former title film, Alison Lohman’s Christine turns down an elderly woman gypsy’s home loan extension and thus is cursed for Hell. In its last scene, believing she escaped death, she buys a new trench coat, and meets Clay at the train station for a weekend getaway. Just when he is about to ask her to marry him, the ground opens up and swallows her down into the fiery pits. Clay is left on the platform stunned. She may not return and thus Clay will have to grieve alone. In After.Life, Christina Ricci’s Anna loves Paul but her stronger instincts for emotional self-preservation prevents her from fully expressing those feelings. Paul’s initial intentions were to tell Anna he had been promoted, would have to move, and wanted them to marry so she can come with him. However, after only hearing the first part, Anna jumps to conclusions and from her seat, accuses him of wanting to breakup. She leaves Paul before he has the chance to pop the question, and he will never have the chance because that night she is supposedly killed in a car accident. Actually, the funeral home director (played by Liam Neeson) holds Anna hostage drugged in the basement, making her believe she is not alive. Paul tries to save Anna (after her burial) but can’t, and he too is held captive. Both are unable to tell each other their true feelings and neither will be able to have the life they both wanted.

The Crow (1994)’s Eric and Shelley were killed the night before their Halloween wedding. As the detectives examine their apartment crime scene, the camera shows the invitation and mannequin wearing the white wedding dress. In flashbacks, we see Eric and Shelley alive and happy: especially his proposal of marriage. They are in love and expect to grow old together. Eric’s resurrection and purpose is to bring their deaths justice. When his mission is completed and as he returns to his grave, he sees Shelley bathed in white light and wearing a white dress. She comes to him so they will celebrate their marriage in a Final Destination.

A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Steven Spielberg’s remake Always (1989) each feature a couple that has just reconciled their commitment issues, but are separated by the male pilot’s tragic death. Pete (Spencer Tracey and Richard Dreyfus) loves Dorinda (Irene Dunne and Holly Hunter) but he loves flying just as much, if not more. When he faces losing her, he agrees to settle down and get married. But before doing so, he has one more flight mission to complete: which also happens to be his last. Pete dies but returns to Earth to help train Ted; a (much) younger pilot. Pete then happens to invisibly reunite with Dorinda a year later. He inadvertently brings her and Ted together. Instead of promoting Dorinda’s obvious romantic feelings for Ted, which will let her move on from mourning Pete, he lets his presence influence her reluctance. He feels slighted that she could love another man. Upon the film’s resolution, Pete must use his presence to help Dorinda fly a dangerous mission but realizes her own skills are capable of recuperation, professionally and romantically. He whispers he loves her,

Made in Heaven's (1987) Michael and Annie met in and are married in Heaven. But soon after their ceremony, Annie must leave to be born on Earth to fulfill her incarnation destiny. Michael is grief stricken and demands to be reincarnated as Elmo, with a mission to find Annie born as Ally. Before Michael left, Heaven’s chief administrator tried to convince him that Annie’s life on Earth would not seem so long because of how relative time is experienced. He goes anyway because any amount of time without her was not worth wasting. Here, it is life, not death that tears them apart just as they could begin an eternity to be together. Heaven’s rules for reincarnation are equally as natural as death is for the living.

Geena Davis’ Barbara and Alec Baldwin’s Adam’s newlywed bliss in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988) was cut short when they careened off a bridge in their newly adapted rural community. However, much time passed by, they returned as full-bodied spirits who can change their appearance to spook the house’s new owners and levitate under sheets. Barbara and Adam’s farmhouse interior design plans and escape from the Yuppie lifestyle were no longer possible. They would not be able to stop Delia’s redecorating endeavors of abstract dark sculptures. Towards the end, two couples are wearing wedding attire. Barbara and Adam’s decomposed green wrinkled bodies (like Daryl Hannah’s Mary in High Spirits) signify lost time and death while Wynona Rider’s Lydia and the ghoulish Michael Keaton’s Beetljuice are getting married in prom-ready costumes. Lydia’s ceremony is of course stopped but until so, she is facing the end of her life as a teenager, to begin eternity as a monster’s young wife. The last scene features Barbara and Adam’s acceptance of death and making use of their time as Lydia’s second family. Meanwhile, Lydia rids her Goth image for ‘school-girl prep’ and concentrates on scoring higher test grades. Having defeated an early death and marriage, she strives for a life beyond high school.

Monday, June 11, 2012


(The following includes direct quotes from my thesis, You Only Live Twice: The Representation of the Afterlife in Film, pages 8-15)

There are eight distinct afterlife film formulas plus a number of titles with original plots and conceptions.
1. Main character is alive, main character dies, main character arrives at Final Destination. Ex. Titanic (1997) and The Twilight Zone’s episode A Nice Place to Visit (1960)
2. Main character is alive, main character dies, main dead character goes to the
(gates of) an afterlife space but is returned to earth, has a mission, Final
Destination decided. Ex. A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Angel on My Shoulder
3. Main character is alive, main character dies, main dead character stays on earth,
has a mission, Final Destination decided. Ex. Ghost (1990)
4. Main character is alive, main alive character meets dead character, main alive
character helps dead character complete formula 1 or 2. Ex. The Sixth Sense
5. Main character is alive, main character dies, main character enters an In-Between
space, has a mission but not on earth, completes mission, Final Destination
decided. Ex. The Lovely Bones (2009)
6. Main character is alive and stays alive, finds his or her self in an afterlife space,
and must escape. Ex. Spirited Away (2001 Japan)
7. Main character alive, due to mistake remains alive instead of death, judgment,
Final Destination decided. Ex. A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven
1946 UK)
8. Main character is dead, gives life review (for judgment), Final Destination
decided. Ex. Heaven Can Wait (1943) and American Beauty (1999)

As each formula’s accompanying examples show, the formula does not dictate which Space, Figure, or Process of Judgment the story includes. The formula is merely a set of landmarks the story uses for structure. In addition, for most of these formulas, the story opens with the main character alive then experiencing their "Death Event." We see this character’s life while they are alive for two reasons: for the audience to identify them as as people and because it is how the audience can easily transition between phases from active to passive viewing. As with watching any story, the audience sits in the dark theater gradually escaping into the projected story, but here they must see how life turns into death.

However natural or tragic the Death Event is, it differentiates between the story’s first and second parts. Upon the dead character’s arrival in the next phase, learning the mission to be completed is integral to the story’s progression. This determines all following intentions, actions and consequences. Whether for protecting, informing, assisting, redemption, justice for murder, self-growth and learning truths, moving on and letting go of life, romantic or family love and to complete unfinished business, this is  when and how the afterlife story aligns itself with a predetermined genre or mix of genres: drama, horror, comedy, romance, sport, war, etc. The characters’ personalities and how the events transpire make the audience react: laugh, cry, gasp, scream, etc. This leads to how the Final Destination is decided. However the character is assessed, the assessment concludes the character’s particular mission and designation to another space that is this story’s last space. It does not have to conclude the character’s story. The character, in a sense, can be resurrected for later stories involving new missions.

Such original afterlife cinema stories that combine narrative and visual elements of the above formulas are Beetlejuice (1988) and White Noise (2005). They show the unexpected and conceive new characters and their purposes.

The history of the afterlife film corpus can be divided into six eras defined by cultural events and technological advances.
            1st: (1880s to 1928) Silents and Trick Films
            2nd: (1929 to 1949) Depression and War
            3rd: (1950 to 1976) Foreign and Independent/Low Budget America
            4th: (1977 to 1997) Star Wars/Heaven Can Wait to Pre-Y2K
            5th: (1998 to 2010) Turn of the 21st Century
            6th: (2011 to Present) Drive Angry is the first 3D afterlife film story

The earliest films were highly experimental short films. Any attempt to show imagined afterlife features built upon traditional campfire and lantern show narratives (as per Tom Ruffles’ Ghost Images). George Melies’ works were explicit tricks that the apparatus was capable of. Except for a select few (Faust and Sparrows both from (1926)), inaccessibility and brief scenarios disqualify my immediate study. The Second Era clusters those that serve as escapism from The Great Depression and World War II’s harsh realities. The former featured luxurious fantasies and the latter featured soldiers’ ultimate happily-ever-afters in Heaven.

After the War ended, American audiences were not as much focused on existential questions and thus turned toward the popular romance and musical spectacles. Meanwhile American Film Noir pictures were more so appreciated by foreign audiences and critics. The Third Era is defined by European, Asian and American independent or B-pictures. For nearly thirty years these filmmakers produced at least a hundred afterlife titles.

The Fourth Era came about with George Lucas’ phenomenon Star Wars (1977). With new and exceptional-quality special effects, visuals of almost any nature can enhance a film story.  Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait’s (1978) popular release marks a turning point in a new Hollywood obsession of afterlife stories. In the years since, the number of afterlife title productions more than tripled worldwide.

For example, on, if you search ‘ghost’ as a keyword, sort by ‘Release Date,’ and narrow the list to ‘Movies,’ then just over 1,400 titles qualify. As you scroll down to those titles released in 1977 and later, there are over 1,100. The number increases when television and short films are added. The number is exponential when you include those with other forms of return and spaces.
The 1980s and 1990s were satiated with afterlife titles of great story range. The majority of beloved afterlife films were released in this era. Such examples are: Poltergeist, Ghostbusters 1 & 2, Truly Madly Deeply, Defending Your Life, Beetlejuice, Chances Are, Casper, All Dogs Go to Heaven 1 &2, The Crow franchise, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, Death Becomes Her, Ghost, The Heavenly Kid, Hercules, High Spirits, Jacob's Ladder, Made in Heaven, Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, My Boyfriend's Back, The Frighteners, as well as Michael Jackson's iconic music video Thriller.

The Fifth Era is also defined by advances in stunning computer generated images (CGI), as well as a technological and cultural apocalypse sentiment leading up to and passing over the Y2K scare. There were not only the most released afterlife films in 1999 and 2000 up to that point but also catapulted the annual increasing pattern of releases since.

With the release of Enter the Void and made-for-3D movie Drive Angry both in (2011), there is now even greater potential for the afterlife film. Instead of just watching the character die and completing a mission, the audience is the character that has died and is completing a mission.


(The following is a summary and/or direct quote from various sections of my thesis, You Only Live Twice: The Representation of the Afterlife in Film)

For the purpose of understanding this blog’s particular perspective on Afterlife Cinema, here are some terms that will be used in forthcoming articles: SPACES, FIGURES, and the PROCESSES of JUDGMENT.


  • The visuals that fill the screen. 
  • The world that the characters exist within and move between. 
  • A designated place defined by its visuals that represent the living and afterlife worlds.
  • An imagined world created by art production designers from studio set materials or computer generated image technology.
  • The exteriors and interiors shot-on-location that stand-in for other-worldly places.
These spaces are imbued with religious and/or secular symbols that act as visual shortcuts to a favorable, neutral or damned assessment on the dead character’s designation. They are eternal or transient destinations. They are pre-existing or personally formed. It also refers to a realm shared by the living and the dead, or a living realm marked by death.

Spaces can be divided into two categories: (1) horizontal levels situated above or below the earth’s surface, also described as layers, and (2) vertical dimensions, like walls separating rooms of a house, or within that of the living’s reality like a pocket. Very rarely, the afterlife space is away from Earth, in another area of the universe.

Such names for the various afterlife spaces are: The Underworld, Heaven, Hell, and the In-Between. Other spaces specific to afterlife cinema are dreamscapes (a world the dead character (mind or spirit) inhabits before death or during cryogenics), the disembodied voice (the living world narrated by a dead character), the earthly afterlife space (looks similar to or shares with the living), the ‘Spirited Amusement Park’ (an amusement park specific for the dead or inhabited by the dead), and the technological Underworld (a singular space created from an invisible electronic frequency).


  • The multitude of characters that exist within the story
  • The characters that interact within the spaces and with each other to push the narrative forward
  • Their forms of return
  • The spaces’ representatives and their corresponding responsibilities
  • The main character’s completion of a mission or of unfinished business.
The main dead character’s forms of return include: resurrection, reincarnation, the ghost (full-bodied or transparent), and body possession. Each film creates its own rules concerning retaining memories and the body’s appearance.

Audiences attach themselves to the story's Figures to witness the story from start to finish. From the central figure’s perspective the audience can move from life to death to the afterlife without experiencing actual death: no harm comes to their bodies as their minds weave through projected spaces and phases. (J.M.L. Peters’ 1961 UNESCO publication Teaching About the Film

The supporting figures of other living or dead characters assist their transition in each successive phase. Each space’s representatives are identified as if they are part of a bureaucratic pyramid all referred to as "Space Agents": God and the Devil (for example) are the respective spaces’ Chairmen while angels and demons are their top executives. The Grim Reaper is an independent consultant. Low-Level Management refers to (1) Record-Keepers, (2) the Welcoming Committee, and (3) Gatekeepers. They may interact with the dead character but their main responsibilities are upholding their space’s policies. Guides or Mediators are essential to the afterlife story because they must uphold the space’s policies and are empathetic to their post, and thus must assist with their acclimation and mission. In some cases, guides are living characters familiar with the afterlife and must help a spirit move on to their final destination. The "Community of Souls" are the anonymous dead, or the scene’s extras. They represent the universal experience of death and the afterlife, or rather, the main dead character’s story is just one among all others who have died and exist in the afterlife.

  • The process and the verdict, whether shown or alluded to, make the story complete. 
  • This is how the character is assigned to a "Final Destination" and is the story’s conclusion. 
The raison d’etre for the afterlife story. There are three such ways for a main dead character to be assessed: (1) ‘Automatic Arrival’ is the immediate transport from life to an afterlife space, whether (a) behind-the-scenes/between-the-frames’ judgment of pre-determination to a space of rewards or punishments, or (b) to a singular existing afterlife space such as the Underworld, where there are no rewards or punishments, thus no judgment. (2) The Trial is a courtroom setting where a single judge or panel of judges, and possibly lawyers, and sometimes a jury, make a case for determining where the dead character will go next. The courtroom or other such space for judgment is also considered an In-Between space. This process requires a choice between at least two spaces, one of which may also be returning to life. (3) The Life Review is a visual and or verbal showcase of the main dead character’s personality and events that will determine the next phase. This may be conducted by the main dead character’s own journey of posthumous self-discovery achieved by a clarity only available upon death. Or the main dead character’s guide may conduct it. The next afterlife phase will be of their own volition and possibly their own creation. A variation on the Life Review is a detour to Heaven: the character may be worthy of Heaven if not for a few indiscretions that a detour can fix. Whether as a ghost in the living world to better understand his or her own life or a journey through Hell to better appreciate Heaven’s rewards. The latter is mostly associated with Eastern beliefs because of reincarnation.

In addition, there are afterlife films that do not show an afterlife space, its agents, or a specific process of judgment. Though this seems like an oxymoron, it is not. For such films as The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), the numerous Frankenstein titles, or the television show Pushing Daisies (2007-2009), the dead characters return to natural life but make no (visual or verbal) mention of where they have been. Whether because of budget constraints (to construct a space or costume its agents) or rejection of seemingly favoring one concept over another, they avoid the topic all together. For this type of afterlife story, the only form of return is resurrection. It is like the lights went off and then were turned back on.

(UPDATE: After Jon Snow's resurrection in the sixth season of Game of Thrones, he outright said there was nothing. It gives "You know nothing Jon Snow" and entirely different meaning, in that he knows there is nothing!)

The main importance of the afterlife film is for the character to understand his or her significance within the Universe. The afterlife story represents the indefinite variations on life and ultimate judgment, or lack of. No matter the character’s mission, the afterlife also represents opportunity for second chances. The film story has also allowed opportunity for a character’s never-ending series of missions. No character has to stay dead or stay in one afterlife space. Because the filmmaker (screenplay writer, director, etc) is the ultimate authority who decides the characters’ fates, and now with popular practice of franchise characters and set-ups, the individual film’s ending is merely a suspension of that story. There is always creative room for television reprisals and serials, and movie sequels, remakes, reboots, and re-imaginations.


AFTERLIFE CINEMA is a term for all the visual content featuring a character that exists after clinical death, a character that has experienced a Near-Death Experience, and a character that moves between the spaces of the living and the dead. Though thousands of titles have been produced around the world since the beginning of film, the majority have been released since Y2K. This trend will exponentially continue, especially as even better special effect technologies advance. Some of the most popular in contemporary culture are part of the afterlife body of work. Vampires, zombies, and ghosts are ruling the box office and television airwaves!

This blog will post articles of in-depth analysis, reviews on recently released film and TV shows, and news updates on afterlife cinema productions. Comments on articles and suggestions are encouraged to enrich the community readership experience.