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The creative urge to go to hell
Artists of all types seem to be endlessly fascinated by the darkness and chaos of hell. We plumb the depths of their psyches to find out why.
Right off the bat, let’s put all theological discussion aside.
I’m not concerned with Ephesians 6:11 (“Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the Devil”) as much as I am with Billy Joel 5/78 (“I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/the sinners are much more fun”).
No matter what religion you were raised with or without, you’ve come across some depiction of hell, Satan, and eternal damnation in a movie, video game, album cover, or even professional sports team in your life. Current pop culture nostalgia—fueled by ‘80s-set hits like Stranger Things—has even dredged back up the whole “Satanic Panic” craze.
(In case that was before your time, “Satanic Panic” refers to a media-fueled hysteria from the early 1980s where parents were convinced everything fun their kids were into was a golden ticket to a cult. We were supposed to believe that Satan finally figured out the best way to ensnare humanity was through Twisted Sister albums.)
But the question is why do we find the devil so creatively inspiring? Is it the innate sense of transgressive naughtiness? Is it a way to come to grips with the overwhelming concept of evil? Is it just because fire and batwings and pitchforks are just inherently cooler than robes and harps?
I asked creatives from various disciplines who have dabbled in the dark arts why exactly they find inspiration where others see only damnation. Here’s what they had to say.
Anthony DiBlasi (film director, Malum)
Dana Terrace (writer/animator, Creator of The Owl House)
Laura Anne Gilman (author, The Devil’s West series)
Jannik Wikkelsø Davidsen (fashion designer, Han Kjøbenhavn)
Charles Hedger (musician, Mayhem)
Nahuel Lozano (musician, Mental Cruelty)
Zachary Ilya Ezrin (musician, Imperial Triumphant)
Enrico Schettino (musician, Hideous Divinity)
When you think of the words “hell” or “Satan” or “the devil,” what immediately comes to mind?
Laura Anne Gilman: These are interesting questions for me, because Judaism has a rather different take on the devil than Christianity. I am not a rabbi, nor do I play one on the internet, but the word “satan” is generally used to mean “an adversary,” not the adversary. So when I think of the devil, I tend to think of a grand prosecutor of sorts, someone who will test you—your faith your goodness, whatever—not to be cruel, but because that’s their purpose. My brain immediately goes to one of the Far Side cartoons, where the devil is just a Joe with a job to do. No Great Evil, not even a Great Tempter. Jewish tradition doesn’t get hung up on those two concepts the way Christians do.
Zachary Ilya Ezrin: I think of a fiery infernal landscape where demons and devils torture the sinners while listening to the latest Imperial Triumphant release very loudly…in Times Square. My perception of hell has also been influenced by Diablo, Diablo II, and Diablo III. Especially Diablo II.
Jannik Wikkelsø Davidsen: To me it’s such a visual place I find it inspiring and interesting. I get fascinated by the danger of the universe, you might say.
Dana Terrace: For whatever reason, hell and "the underworld" are two completely separate places in my mind. They're both spaces for the dead but one is purely dedicated to torturing goofy-looking medieval sinners in fiery caves while the other is more of a dark but neutral world for spirits to exist after death. I went to Catholic school for eight years, so my image of hell is very clear. Our teachers never focused on what hell might look like specifically—probably didn't want parents calling up about their terrified kids—so all those cryptic conversations motivated me to look through textbooks from older students and find artists focused on the subject. I'd find the standard stuff, little demons with bat wings, sinners in chains, the classic red devil with a pitchfork, but no matter how horrific the creators would try to portray hell I always found it kind of fun, especially when I discovered the works of Hieronymus Bosch, Bruegel the Elder, Jan van Eyck, you know, the classic hits. Those are just my immediate thoughts and they've been the same since I was a kid. Hell looked fun, like a chaotic zoo.
Brom: For me, I think of burning souls floating in a river of flame with towering demons lording over them. I was heavily influenced by the Southern Baptist sermons early in my childhood.
Anthony DiBlasi: When we set out to make Malum, I wanted to draw more inspiration from what H.P. Lovecraft did than anything religious. We really wanted to create our own mythology. And there's just a few lines in the movie that hint at, “OK, this isn't about Satan, this isn't about Christ. This is about something different, something older.” And we wanted to separate ourselves from that. It still feels inherently demonic, but not necessarily tied to “hell.” in a way of what does that mean? Is it tied to hell? No, I didn't want it to be tied to hell. I wanted it to create our own phraseology in the movie using these things that people hadn't heard about before, but also something that feels familiar.
Charles Hedger: I immediately think of the standard lake of fire, blood, demons, suffering. Very much like a Bruegel or Bosch painting—chaotic and disturbing. But I also see it from a more internal point of view. Being trapped in extreme depression or mental illness for example, could be considered a form of hell.
Enrico Schettino: To quote Viggo Mortensen’s Lucifer in the criminally underrated movie The Prophecy, I think about a place away from God’s sight, hidden from his word and light. No oceans of lava or burning oil, just pure hopeless nothingness.
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Here for the drama
Why do you think artists, and people in general, are so drawn to hell and the devil as sources of inspiration?
Dana Terrace: I can’t speak to that kind of fear or curiosity because my interest came from a place of wanting to belong somewhere. I remember every time someone told me I was going to hell: for watching anime, for liking girls, for swearing in class. So I thought it was more of a “home for misfits” rather than a place to be feared. I’m gonna go to hell for playing video games and being queer? Sick! I can’t wait to meet other nerds like me! It’s actually difficult for me to think of hell as a place of “darkness” because it was the only afterlife I was allowed—though it’s not literally “hell,” I tried to capture that feeling for the Boiling Isles in The Owl House. I think a lot of artists have felt like outcasts at one point or another and maybe their focus on the subject is a form of rebellion or a cathartic release. Or maybe I’m just projecting. (laughs)
Brom: I believe fear is foremost—because no matter how sure you are in our beliefs, there is always that nagging dread that some form of hell is real and is waiting to gobble you up. It’s such a rich mix of mythology, religion, and drama. And not just from a Christian perspective, but almost every religion has some version of hell. So the overlapping mythologies and characters and demons are endless.
Laura Anne Gilman: That’s a story literally as old as Adam and Eve—not just the forbidden fruit, but the knowledge that it’s forbidden; the taunt of something shown to us, and then told it’s bad, to be avoided. Humanity’s first coherent thought, I’m convinced, was “but why?” The devil is all that wrapped up in smoke and brimstone, the thing we’re not supposed to want, not supposed to touch, the thing we spend our entire lives being told is there, waiting…and forbidden. So yeah, I think it’s all about curiosity, at its base. The fear element is getting caught reaching for that forbidden thing, of being judged and cast out of the community for it.
Jannik Wikkelsø Davidsen: I think this depends on who you ask. For me it evokes different feelings. It’s filled with layers that I take in and that I use to create with. There are different layers to that universe, and the shadows within every layer make me endlessly curious.
Anthony DiBlasi: I think it's our sense of optimism, actually. A belief that something happens after you die, and until we answer the question of what that is, there's always going to be that big search for that answer. So if people like to believe in the good of the universe—be it God or the gods, or whatever people believe in—then guess what? It's always going to scare people because when you're in bed alone at night, you're like, "Well, yeah, geez, am I really safe? Or can something get me from beyond or some interdimensional place?" It always is going to freak people out until we answer those questions. What happens to us after we're gone? So things like horror movies allow us to face our darkest fears in a safe environment.
Enrico Schettino: I believe it lies in our primordial instinct to search for art where it’s forbidden. We trade our soul for knowledge and inspiration, we willingly pay a price, the highest of all, for it. And we still believe it’s worthy. Fear is what makes it feel real. In this age, the fear that hell can be revealed on earth… therefore, hell would be a man’s creation. We don’t need the devil to create hell, we’re doing pretty good by ourselves.
Charles Hedger: We’re always fascinated by the more horrific aspects of life. It's a good survival mechanism; the bad things are more likely to kill us, so it makes sense to pay them more attention. But I think we also are fascinated by the concept because it is like a concentrated form of the awful things that happen around us and throughout history. We also use it to deal with injustice, in the hope that evil people will be punished eventually, even if they evade justice in life.
Nahuel Lozano: Without darkness there is no light. It’s something every human being has inside and for everybody it is something different. Living can be hell, not properly living can be hell, dreaming can be hell, no dreams at all can be hell—you name it. It can also be a kind of moral compass that every human being uses differently. There are people who feel more attracted to the darker side of things, whether it’s music, movies, or whatever. Some can find peace in chaos. There’s room for inspiration in all kinds of art.
Your personal hell
Apart from depictions of hell or Satan in your own work, what’s your favorite version of the underworld?
Laura Anne Gilman: I’ve generally been pretty unsatisfied with most depictions of hell; brimstone only goes so far before it becomes blasé. But when the TV show Supernatural showed an iteration of hell as an endless queue for the DMV, where even when you get to the front of the line you still have to go through it again for something else, over and over? Yeah, that sort of banal torture is an effective hell. I also think of Dante’s Inferno, the world’s most famous self-insert fanfic.
Brom: It’s Dante’s Inferno for me.
Dana Terrace: Wayne Barlow’s paintings of hell, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, and the 2005 movie Constantine. As much as I talk about turning “evil” stereotypes into something cathartic I can’t help but fall for these classic depictions of Hell as a fiery and bizarre nightmare. (laughs)
Charles Hedger: My favorite vision of hell is also the one that I think would be closest to the version I could most believe existing, and it certainly draws on lots of literary sources in its approach. It's from a Robin Williams film What Dreams May Come. Hell is shown as a more cold and empty feeling place, where there are lakes and floors of lost souls and what look like burning war zones. People are also essentially trapped in a hell of their own creation, surrounded by a world built out of their own negative emotions and thoughts. I don't think we even need the devil to scare us when we have our own darkness to deal with.
Nahuel Lozano: I personally hope to get into the elevator to hell one day and be welcomed by Lemmy Kilmister with a bottle of Jack.
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