Recently, I’ve been thinking about the ways guilt influences our actions, how it can drive us into irrationality, towards darkness, and sometimes, towards death. Like loss, guilt is something that lingers not only in our minds but also our bodies. In fiction and media, guilt may present itself as an injustice that we do to ourselves and to others. As much as we fight it, we might still blame ourselves for the causes of guilt, or we might experience denial and push the responsibility of the guilt onto others. Regardless, it is something that persists and consumes—and, potentially, kills.
Bound Feet by Kelsea Yu
In Bound Feet, Jodi Wu sneaks into Portland’s Chinese Garden, and the Ghost Museum that resides within, during the night of the Hungry Ghost Moon. With her best friend, she searches for the ghost of her passed daughter Ella. However, the pair find more than just Ella at the garden.
In this novella, Yu calls into question the depths of a mother’s love for her child and the lengths she might go to get her child back. It is a meditation on grief, the mourning of a parent’s unfortunate early loss, and the guilt that Jodi feels as she believes she is responsible for her daughter’s death.
Guilt drives Jodi towards irrationality, to seek the dead rather than run from them, to draw them close by the collar, and ultimately, to also desire death, even at the expense of friendship and her own morality, when presented the opportunity to bring her daughter back to life.
Helpmeet by Naben Ruthnum
This body horror novella follows a woman, Louise Wilk, and her husband, Edward, who is dying from a strange condition. Louise brings her husband to the place of his childhood, but along the way, she discovers the secret behind his disease.
Ruthnum takes a different approach towards the relationship between guilt and death, where the guilt of Louise’s husband’s affair, I believe, manifests in the form of an illness that is eating her husband alive.
The illness is cosmic horror, but it is also the metaphoric karma that Edward must suffer for his injustice towards his wife, who devotes herself to him even with knowledge of his betrayal.
What makes this novella fascinating is how Louise does not shy away from her husband’s grotesque transformation. It is a juxtaposition between a virtuous individual and one who succumbed to lust, desire, and stumbled headfirst into infidelity. Perhaps this is not always the case, and certainty the consequences of infidelity in our world do not have the same severity as in Helpmeet, but the novel calls attention to the way guilt might devour us and refuse to release its clutches even after death.
Alice in Borderland (Season 1 & 2)
In the first season of Alice in Borderland, Ryōhei Arisu and his friends run from the police after causing a ruckus in the middle of traffic, only to discover that they have somehow been transported into a different world, but the city looks exactly like their own—just empty. They discover that not everyone has disappeared and that there are various games across the city they must take part in to survive.
In this multi-layered series that is not only fascinating but also philosophical, Alice in Borderland calls into question the rawness of humanity and our survival instincts. In the face of death, can we swallow guilt and trauma and abandon others for the sake of our own safety, sacrifice others’ lives for the sake of our own? It sheds light on the cost of survival, the importance of teamwork, community, friendship, love, and how all these things can just as easily crumble after being painstakingly built up when selfishness dominates.
The series asks us to reflect on whether our lives are worth living, and if we are willing to keep tackling the challenges and difficulties we experience daily, or might death be preferable, might this alternative game world in the show be more appealing? Particularly for those who live in desperate and unfavorable situations that might seem worse than the often-inhumane games they must play in this alternative world, perhaps staying is the better option.
The series often explores the meaning of life through its characters and asks us what is considered a meaningful life, what it means to truly live. For some, a life worth living might entail the chasing of a goal or ambition, for others, it might be to spend time with or protect family and loved ones, and for few, there might be nothing left in the world that they wish to live for—not even themselves.
It seems that those who come to realize the futility of the real world and their roles within it are also the characters who cause the most destruction in this alternative world. There are also individuals who place themselves above others, much like in our world, and are willing to do anything to survive, even if it results in the death of others, even if they must carry the guilt for the rest of their lives. For some, the guilt may have long since became numbness.
In season two, on top of the themes in season one, it explores the corrupt ability of the wealthy in controlling life and death, but this is something I will explore further in the next piece. Many of the characters have become jaded after their prolonged stay within this alternative world, though it seems there are still individuals who remain to confront their guilt and repent for their past actions, even when they are given the choice to leave.
There is a search for hope in hopelessness.
At the heart of both seasons, the concept of survivors’ guilt drives many of the characters’ actions and motivations, particularly in the case of the main protagonist Arisu and his constant struggle and self-questioning concerning whether his life is worth all the others that had been lost.
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