Hell is an ever-changing landscape, a neighborhood every would-be master of the macabre wants to build real estate on. The bible says Hell is a lake of burning sulfur, a blazing furnace filled with much weeping and gnashing of teeth yada-yada-yada. It’s actually a bit fuzzy on the details. There was a lot left for the likes of Dante and Milton to fill in. It’s from their foundations the blueprint got passed down for generations.
The Hell Loop
While hell has enjoyed many renovations since its inception several storytellers have settled on the one design. Let’s call it the hell loop. In a hell loop a sinner is forced to relive their worst memory for all eternity. It’s like Groundhog Day if Bill Murray’s character couldn’t change the events he relived, learned nothing from them, and had less time before the loop came back around.
You’ll see examples of this in movies like Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey andConstantineand in TV shows like The Twilight Zone,American Horror Story, Preacher, and Lucifer.
I think the hell loop cheats the audience. Hell is one of those colorful settings where writers have license to go big, get weird, and revel in the absurd. Looping a real world event feels like a copout. It’s an easy scenario to film on a budget and it doesn’t require much imagination. The scenario provides a safe default when hell’s architect doesn’t feel like drawing up a plan.
While a hell loop would be a horrible thing to experience it isn’t all that poetic.
I prefer the ironic hell scenario.
In Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous play No Exit, three serial liars enter hell expecting the tortures of the damned. Instead they’re corralled into the same living quarters and forced to endure each other.
On a show I won’t name (for fear I’ll spoil the first season) four deeply flawed individuals are duped into believing they died and went to heaven only to realize they’re in an experimental circle of hell.
OnThe SimpsonsHomer sells his soul for a donut and finds himself force fed all the donuts in the world (okay, bad example).
My favorite rendition of the ironic hell scenario is in an episode of Night Gallerycalled Hell’s Bells (season 2 episode nine segment 4). John Astin plays a hippy that dies while driving drunk. He isn’t surprised to find himself sliding through hell’s delivery shoot, but he’s taken aback by how tepid the waiting room is. He pictures Gustave Doré’s etchings of the inferno, fire and brimstone a real horror show, but when he gets to his cell it’s like Squaresville Daddy-o: floral wallpaper, ceramic figurines, and nothing but ballroom music on the record player. His only companions are a senile old farmer who speaks entirely in scripted small talk, a couple with an endless carousel of vacation slides, and a maid who shouts “Slob!” every time he chucks his gum wrappers on the floor.
There are no whips, no chains, and no boiling hot oil. No pyrotechnics, no demons, and nothing so entertaining. Mistaking his new digs for another waiting room the hippy calls out the devil, who dutifully appears in red tights and a glitter speckled trident.
The devil explains that this is it. This beige studio apartment is the hippy’s permanent residence, a hell specifically tailored to offend his tastes. It isn’t a cavernous carnival it’s something much more personal.
I like the idea that there are many hells, with many circles and many subbasements, each tailored to fit the sins of its inhabitants.
Making Additions to the Inferno
Dante set a good a precedent by ordering his hell around the seven deadly sins, but I think we writers should be adding new wings to better suit our times. It’s our job to sentence people who text and drive, who die memeing, who have heart attacks while harassing cashiers.
I’ve always wondered what would happen if the customer from hell woke up in the literal one. That was the inspiration behind my latest short story Retail Hell; a place where it’s Black Friday every day, inventory every night, and the customer is always right… about to torture you.
It’s pretty much Hellraiserin a Walmart.
Write About the Hell You Know
Hell can be a daunting venue for writers, because it seems so grandiose, like it requires too much research, too much world building, and more suffering than most writers feel like stomaching.
I’d argue there’s a third option, one that doesn’t require a subterranean spectacle or a Groundhog Day scenario: write the hell you know. Write a list of most trying aspects of your daily grind and intensify them. Catalogue some extreme examples and exaggerate them. That was the formula I used for Retail Hell.
I have done time behind many a checkout counter, stood my ground when bullies tried to barter, and lived in fear of secret shoppers. I have upsold impulse items, pushed predatory credit cards, and memberships with measly benefits. I’ve taken verbal abuse from all walks of life, from small-towners dressed head to toe in camo to city folk in coyote pelt jackets with those tacky Canada Goose patches.
Retail Hellis an anthology of my experiences.
Barbara, the protagonist, is unsympathetic at the moment of her death, giving us permission to snicker at the torments she endures while shadowing her micromanager. We want to see her learn the error of her entitled ways.
Does Barbara ultimately come out of her encounter as evolved as Ebenezer Scrooge? Not quite, but we learn a lesson on the type of energy we put out into the world.
Hell is Versatile
Your hell need not have a moral, ironic punishments, or demon stand-ins for the Ghost of Christmas future. It need not showcase aspects of the world that horrify you, lecture your enemies, or try to teach them empathy.
Your hell could be where your intrusive thoughts go when they’re not pestering you. Perhaps they swap notes on overwhelming you, like a twisted version of Inside Out.
Your hell could be where all your phobias are dialed up to 11. Are you afraid of in-closed spaces, heights, and spiders? Welcome to your cell: a cramped cavern, atop a tall skinny peak, filled with tiny slugs. Oh and it’s surrounded by giant daddy longlegs with furry limbs as wide as tree trunks and eyes as big as beach balls. Those eyes are always on the lookout for you and your delicious little body.
Your hell could be a treasure hall of triggers, a pavilion of panic attacks, a foyer of fear, a rotunda of… well, you get the idea. It need not be a place for Christian fan fiction, backhanded moralizing, or a scare tactic to make believers compliant. It could be the Hades of Greek Mythology, the Hel of Norse lore, or another dimension where chaos reigns.
Hell is other people. It’s a state of mind. It’s a lucid nightmare for you to explore. So pack some SPF 100 and take a sabbatical in inferno, where the only limit is how far down you’re willing to go.