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.

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Although the afterlife is a sensitive topic, this blog focuses on how it is visually represented in film. Please do NOT comment your personal beliefs, religious doctrine, or a philosophical argument. Please DO comment on the film or topic analyzed in the article, afterlife movie news, and afterlife movies to watch or write about.