Six Fire Depictions of Hell

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

Although the Bible provides scant details on what heaven is like, it’s ready to dish about hell. Hell is a furnace that never goes out, where the worm never dies. There’s weeping and gnashing of teeth, the body is tormented and destroyed, people get thrown into a lake of fire and the smoke rises forever. As a writer, I recognize the way that specific details make a good story feel real. This stands in stark contrast the vagueness of heaven, which the bible describes as “pretty, and also god is there, I guess.”

There’s no contest.

With rich source material like this, it’s no wonder that depictions of hell in movies go so hard. There’s so much to work with! Plus, everybody loves fire. So let’s run through some of the best examples!

6. Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Despite being in the title, hell is not fully shown in this Sam Raimi film. Instead, the specter of hell haunts the story of an exorcism gone wrong (and housing instability) the way the shark works in JAWS. It’s always circling, and always hungry, but rarely seen. However, this is a classic downer ending, and our heroine is (spoiler) dragged to hell! Who could have foreseen that? A fiery portal opens up in a subway track after she has fallen. Muscular zombie-demon arms emerge from the flames and paw her downward like the worst crowd-surfing incident you’re ever seen. It’s brief but it’s all there: flames, torment, screaming. Solid hell work, two tridents up.

5. Hellboy (2004)

This Guillermo Del Toro joint based on Mike Mignola’s beloved comic book character has something unusual going for it: instead of hell being a dreaded destination for the unwilling, it’s the main character’s home. These stories play fast and loose with the ideas of good and evil, of fate and determinism, and of what it means to be a hero. Best of all, every depiction of hell (or hell on earth) in this film and its sequel is basically an excuse to show Hellboy in his native state: his trademark stumped horns grown in and as commanding as the rack on an elk. Surrounded by flames that reflect of his muscular red-hot torso, he wields various weapons glowing from hell’s own forge and forces us to ask: is this really so bad? Drag me to hell.

4. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

Keanu Reeves and some guy offend Death with a sophomoric prank in this adorable sequel, and so they end up in hell. They fall through a long dark hole into a deep-red rock quarry, inhabited by a bestial, armored devil who is as unamused by the pair as Death was. He pulls a brutish lever to drag them via long chains into the mouth of a flaming hell-beast-cum-muncher-machine, from which the plucky pair immediately endeavors to escape. Wise fools as always, they ask the question all denizens of hell should ask: how much risk are we taking when we attempt to escape? After all, we’re already dead.

3. What Dreams May Come (1998)

Adept at depicting both heaven and hell, this movie does a chillingly good job of showing us a different, more menacing hell. Instead of the stock characters in their red horns and tails, this hell is a cold, deserted version of one’s own Chez Depression; a house where everything is familiar and damp and grey and relentlessly cheerless. Not since Dante has any art form made the possibility of a torment specifically for suicides look so devastating. This film is not for the faint of heart, or those who are on the edge in any sense.

2. As Above, So Below (2014)

A group of young people in the catacombs of Paris undergo a confusing journey involving ghosts, the Knights Templar, the Emerald Tablet, Dante, and a lot of garbled mythology and magic to arrive in hell. This time, the Bad Place is an inversion of the city above, complete with hideous details like the ground has mouths that bite you. Director John Eric Dowdle does a great job with torments both large and small, and landing on the fact that each of us makes our own hello for ourselves, with our lies and failures of courage. This one is horror with a heart.

1. Constantine (2005)

In a criminally underrated film about the commerce of demon hunters, Keanu Reeves (again!) plays dark wizard John Constantine, who knows all about hell and putting bad guys back there. The movie is a triumph of performances: Tilda Swinton as the angel Gabriel in a genderless performance of pure genius, Peter Stormare as the definitive Satan, and Rachel Weisz as a tormented psychic who needs help from our infernal private dick. Director Francis Lawrence only gives us a few glimpses of hell, but they’re extremely effective. Hell’s terrain is simply that of Los Angeles on a bad day: it’s too hot, the Santa Anas are blowing, and brainless toothy creatures swarm your every movement on the street. It’s a believable, shuddering vision of an existence one would certainly give the finger to the devil to avoid.

You can use this list and go to hell. Have a nice day!

[graphic: Universal/Columbia 1998]