What can movies tell us about the afterlife?

What do our stories tell us about who we are? What do our songs, our books, our paintings and our movies reveal about the reality of our existence? Do our artistic expressions point toward deeper truths that lie beyond the merely physical, or is our creative output only a subjective reflection of our innate longings and desires?

In “Death at the Movies: Hollywood’s Guide to the Hereafter” (Quest Books), Lyn and Tom Davis Genelli wrestle with these questions through an exploration of cinema’s metaphysical side, examining what our movies have to say about life, death and beyond.

The Genellis focus on “transit” films: movies that explore a “transition or change, as to a spiritual existence at death.” (3) In their understanding, “the essence of the transit film is to show characters learning and developing, mastering their limitations in an essential way.” (80) These cinematic narratives thereby function as “vehicles for the subconscious infusion of perennial mystical/spiritual concepts about death.” (3)

The authors think that such films reveal important metaphysical truths and set out to show “how popular motion pictures have intuited transit through their visions of death and the afterlife, and how those visions play out their largely unconscious role in the evolution and guidance of human consciousness toward understanding the meaning and purpose of death.” (3)

The Genellis walk us through the metaphysical insights of movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life, Resurrection, Poltergeist, Ghost, Groundhog Day, The Sixth Sense, The Others, Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz and others, exploring the symbols, metaphors, and narrative significance of each in relation to their theme.

They approach their discussion through a broadly Buddhist lens but remain intentionally neutral in regard to specific religious doctrine, choosing to discuss life, love, death, heaven, hell and purgatory in general spiritual terms. This isn’t a book of theological doctrine, but a collection of spiritual reflections on movies.

My only disappoint with the book was the omission of several movies. Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries surely merit mention in any book about film and death. There’s also fertile ground for discussion in the work of Andrei Tarkovsky — Stalker in particular — as well as Aronofsky’s The Fountain and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Obviously the authors couldn’t include every film that touches on death — don’t they all? — but for me these were particularly egregious oversights.

“Death at the Movies” offers an important starting point for reflection on how the dominant narrative form of our society both reflects and reinforces our thoughts about the very nature of existence. While I remain dubious of the notion that the films the authors discuss contain actual truths about life after death, I agree that “these two primordial themes — the crisis of death and an intuition of the transcendent” will continue to define and inspire our creative pursuits. A movie may not tell us if we’re going to heaven or hell, but it can give us profound insight into what we think about the afterlife — and about what we value in this life.

Dan WilkinsonDan Wilkinson

Dan is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and has two cats. He blogs at CoolingTwilight.com.

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  • Michael Tymn

    Certainly, “What Dreams May Come” with Robin Williams must be number one on the list.

    • The authors do make mention of that movie, though they didn’t devote a chapter to it. For their main movies they stuck with better known and usually better made films.

  • I cannot imagine living in some Tammy Faye Edition mansion inside a pearly gated community with neighbors who really like gaudy gold-plated streets. Now I might take to a home where the buffalo roam, but they say whites aren’t welcome in the Happy Hunting Ground. So I’ll happily settle for Ecclesiastes’ version after death, which is going to the same place as the pony I buried in the pasture.

    “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals.”

  • I’m left wondering if I’m weak, wrong or stupid to want to go into light rather than into darkness. I’m not talking about a Fluffy Cloud Heaven, I’m talking of some other kind of experience – exploring the multiverse or just getting a sense of peace when I die. In other words, if I see the kinds of things like we see in the movies, light, having some kind of ghostly experience – finding oneself in an impressionist painting – even if it’s “just my brain giving them to me” — does that mean I failed as a human? I cannot deny that I want this kind of a thing, but whenever I read stuff on the Internet from people who are content to “just die” or to “go into the dark” I feel bad for not sharing the sentiment.

    Then again, my picture of “Heaven” is less clouds and harps and more like “I found the portal to Hyrule!” (world of a favorite videogame series). Does that make me the least bit forgivable?

    • Hyrule! That magical place I can never get my stupid green character to access because he’s too busy being pounded by the boss.

      I can’t buy the clouds, and everyone has a mansion, and singing angels idea of heaven either. It seems to fluffy to me. Of course I’ve had a lot of fun imagining who to put in as neighbors in a mansion subdivision.

      I don’t know what happens afterwards. Its nice to speculate, but that’s as far as I’m willing to take it.

      • I kind of have this idea (please, no one piss on me over it. I’ll get bitey) that we’re all kind of mentally-immortal, anyway. What I mean is, if death is a true cessation of existence, you logically cannot be aware of when you are dead, so I tend to wonder if whatever last moments one’s brain goes through constitutes a subjective eternity -if you “go into the dark” you’re aware of dark, if you “go into the light” you see light because your brain decided to not be a turd to you that day, and maybe you’ll be “Ahhh! There’s a knife in my chest, get it out!”

        The last bit and the fact that we live in a world where, because Hell is other people, some people have lived and died only getting a raw deal in life without seeing justice done for them is why I am hoping for “something more” than that, but who knows. I seem to remember reading a Wikipedia article on Swedenborgiansm and checking out a blog for it here on Patheos where the conception of “heaven” in that sect is something along the lines of “tailored to the individual” and what a particular soul gravitates to. I know it’s a fairly common thing in some modern Fantasy fiction settings for the powers that be in them to “give people what they think they’ll experience.” If that’s the case, my “heaven” might just resemble CloudCuckooLand from the Lego movie and I wouldn’t be happier. Or again, Hyrule.

        The only thing in these speculative exercises on the Internet I get mad over is when people who decide they “don’t need heaven” think that gives them a ticket to look down on those who admit to needing or wanting a heaven and those of us who like to throw out dreams for fun. I like to speculate what alien races might be like, too – hopefully no one here has a problem with that, either. It’s called “being a wannabe speculative fiction writer.” For some of us, dreaming happens *on default.* I find “living only for Heaven” and ignoring the life around one to be sad, but I also contend that not everybody has a great life in the here-and-now. Not everyone is well-adjusted enough for all that “live life to the fullest” and “suck the marrow out of life” claptrap to have any effect. (In fact, those kinds of lines make me feel like barfing whenever I see them. Try battling a beast of Apathy every day of your life that threatens to swallow you up and is always lurking two steps behind you even when you’re having good days and not actively having to fight it). Those of us who are locked down in survival-mode for whatever reason sometimes like to dream of the kind of justice and peace we know we will never see in a lifetime.

        I am working on a story right now where (even though I’ve never had an NDE kind of thing) I am thinking of giving one to one of my characters – tailored to the mythology of his society. I plan to make it a “maybe it happened, maybe it it was just his mind playing tricks” kind of a thing. And he’ll wind up keeping it a secret from his friends (rather than you know, going on Oprah). I don’t even care who I’ll offend by it – that is, for all two of the human population who ever reads my stuff.

        • double, triple like! The wisdom in your thoughts is just beautiful.

          I’d love to read your story, when you finish it.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Movies about the hereafter, in general, make me barf, unless they focus on the positive power of memories and effects of actions that live on long after our bodies do. I believe we’d have a world more in keeping with “heaven” if we simply saw ourselves as energy and focused on sharing more of the positive instead of the negative types.