Monday, June 11, 2012


(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.

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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.