Surviving the Afterlife: Tips from Dante and Beetlejuice
Sometimes, the sludge of everyday life gets a little too oppressive, and the thought worms its way through this clogged and dreary existence: that it would be so much easier to be dead. There are no deadlines for the dead, no more dead ends to run into; the dead don’t need need to keep dyeing their hair as they age, or watch themselves slowly decay before the mirror. Come to think of it, being alive can be a real pain.
But that worm comes with this hook: do life’s problems really disappear with life itself? It the issue at stake “being alive,” or “being” in general—regardless of whether it’s above heaps of dirt, or below it?
A lot has been written on the subject, Dante’s Inferno being perhaps the most famous and lasting depiction of life after death. And it isn’t exactly a cheery prospect for most folks, who discover that saying adios to the light of day isn’t necessarily an escape from suffering. As it turns out, the afterlife looks a whole heck of a lot like the life that came before it—only in a more extreme manner, and without any bathroom breaks.
Besides being one of the most highly imaginative pieces of literature ever created, the Inferno has a decidedly didactic dimension. As we follow along Dante’s journey through the underworld, we are impressed with images of doom and gloom, yet not of the generic hellfire one might anticipate; instead, whatever the inhabitants of Hades must suffer is merely an amplification and extension of how they conducted their lives: the contrapasso, or “just punishment” for their earthly behavior. It’s a bit like karma: whatever you put into life—be it good or bad—will be dealt out to you in the afterlife, and you will be both dealer and recipient. The result is a highly impactful, gruesome, and original horror story that implicates the audience and not just the characters. But more on that later.
For now, it might be helpful to turn to another, more contemporary illustration of the crossover between earthly life and what follows it. I’m talking about the “ghost with the most,” our favorite bio-exorcist, Beetlejuice.
What has a Tim Burton film to do with Dante? A lot, actually.
Adam and Barbara Maitland, a young couple living the American dream on their New England property, find themselves the unfortunate victims of a fatal car accident. Under normal circumstances (whatever “normal” is in the underworld), you’d expect them to either go to heaven, or to hell, or at least reappear in some obvious ghostly form. But here’s where the plot takes a different set of tracks. Neither of the Maitlands even realize they’re dead at first; it takes them a few hours to catch on. And when the finally do, other than having no reflections in the mirror and the newly acquired ability to decapitate themselves ex tempore, life hasn’t changed all that much. Which brings us to the first point:
Afterlife Lesson #1: There’s no easy way out of life’s problems.
The first thing to realize is that “limbo” in the afterlife is not a dance move. If you think life at the office is tough, try spending the next 125 years under house arrest, which is precisely the situation in which the Maitlands find themselves. The couple’s old woes surrounding nosy neighbors are simply replaced by new ones as a snobbish family of New Yorkers, the Deetzes, try to move in, setting them on a mission to defend their beloved house. In the meantime, they are forced to camp out in the attic, plagued by cabin fever and wracking their ghost-brains over plan after plan to scare off their new housemates.
On top of these practical problems, the bureaucratic inefficiency of daily existence seems to have survived death with them. Adam and Barbara are sent on a wild goose chase to figure out the meaning of the afterlife, relying only on their befuddled wits and a highly unintelligible Handbook for the Recently Deceased. So the next time you find yourself staking out a place at the DMV at seven a.m., remember that you could be continually finding yourself the fifty-four million six hundred and first person in line for your appointment, as you would in Burton’s business world of the departed. At one point, Lydia, the angsty teenage daughter of the new homeowners—and, ironically, the only living person who can “see” the Maitlands—confesses her desire to be dead as well. Barbara responds, “Being dead really doesn’t make things any easier.” And she would know.
Dante likewise hits upon the idea that trouble isn’t buried with the body. A clear example of this appears in Canto X, where he meets Farinata. A Florentine who sided against Dante’s people in the famous war between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, Farinata has not succeeded in extricating himself from the concerns of party lines even after he has been confined to a tomb in Dis for all eternity. At Dante’s approach, he sits bolt upright in his grave.
…Then he asked,
almost in disdain: “Who were your ancestors?” (X.41-2)
Discovering that Dante is a Guelph, his allegiance to the Ghibellines is again incited, and he embarks on another battle—this time, by talking dirty—in an attempt to wrest victory from the representative of his bitter enemies. Clearly, Farinata still hasn’t learned to let go of this particular bedbug. The fact that all he can do is argue over hard facts makes his confinement to hell all the more frustrating; his real-life problems continue, yet without the real-life resources to solve them.
Afterlife Lesson #2: It’s your funeral (so you might as well have it your way).
“It’s all very personal,” explains one deceased receptionist. “And I’ll tell you something: if I knew then what I know now,” she continues, bearing her slit wrists to the Maitlands, “I wouldn’t have had my little ‘accident.'” The fact of the matter is, death, like life, is an individual affair. In Beetlejuice, the circumstances of one’s life often spill over into death. One unfortunate employee, flat as a pancake, has his face and torso marred by tire tracks; some poor soul sits in the waiting room, his head shrunken to cartoonlike proportions by a witch doctor; another zombified man in a dusty suit hangs from a noose attached to a clothesline, distributing paperwork to various desks as he dangles above the floor. There is something very tangible about Burton’s vision of the afterlife. The dead don’t simply decay into a heap of ashes or turn into sheetlike ghosts (although the Maitlands do admittedly try out both options at various points). There is a marked correspondence between events in a person’s life and how he or she spends eternity.
While this concept is somewhat satirized in Burton’s film, Dante adopts it as a very serious lesson. That the dead are forced to spend eternity reenacting events in their lives adds to their punishment. The Wood of Suicides in Canto VIII of the Inferno provides a bleak example of the alignment of life and death. Upon coming to a dark forest in the underworld, Dante discovers that the trees are in fact the forms of souls who took their own lives. One of the sinners explains what will eventually happen to them after the Resurrection:
“We will come to claim our cast-off bodies
like the others. But it would not be just as if we again
put on the flesh we robbed from our own souls.
“Here shall we drag it, and in this dismal wood
our bodies will be hung, each one
upon the thorn-bush of its painful shade.” (VIII.103-8)
His words paint an unappealing picture, to say the least. As the damned soul sums up his fate, “I made my house into my gallows” (151). (Of course, the Maitlands just want their house back, period.)
A more graphic depiction occurs in Canto XXVIII, where the idea of contrapasso is introduced by Bertran de Born. Bertran stands shoulders above most souls in his sinfulness—yet only shoulders, with “his severed head/ swinging in his hand as if it were a lantern” (XXVIII.121-22). The head of Bertran recounts how planting the seeds of betrayal among family members led to his current condition:
“Because I severed persons thus conjoined,
severed, alas, I carry my own brain
from its starting-point here in my body.
In me you may observe my just punishment.” (139-42)
The notion that there must be some element of existence that organizes both life and death finds its way into both Beetlejuice and Dante: the former as a form of black satire, the latter in the idea of contrapasso, or just punishment. In any case, it’s something to take into consideration if you’d rather not look like Mr. Flat Tire until kingdom come.
Afterlife Lesson #3: Let anyone be your guide—except the guy in the pinstripe suit.
What both accounts of the afterlife hit upon is that the underworld, quite frankly, is a scary place, and you don’t want to go it alone. So it might be a good idea to invest in a decent tour guide. And how do you know when you’ve found the right one? It isn’t exactly hard to tell the difference, but there are a few general qualities to watch out for.
Virgil in the Inferno is the model guide: wise, fearless, dependable. He’s been through hell before—all the way to the ninth circle, as it turns out—and he has more than one trick up his toga sleeve for dealing with irksome monsters who try to derail their journey. Dante expresses his admiration of his leader:
“Set out then, for one will prompts us both.
You are my leader, you my lord and master,”
I said to him… (II.39-41).
High words of praise, indeed. Virgil embodies all the qualities Dante strives to imitate in terms of his poetry and his virtue while remaining his guidepost throughout the journey. More than a physical guide, Virgil becomes a mentor to Dante and his most devoted—in fact, his only—friend, earning his trust even in the throes of ever-present danger:
But he who helped me many times before,
in other perils, clasped me in his arms
and steadied me… (XVII.94-6).
He’s the sort of guy you want to have on speed dial at times like these.
And then there’s the total opposite end of the spectrum, represented by the one and only Beetlejuice. He’s not exactly an exemplar of virtue, nor is he a classical poet; in fact, he pushes the wise man image just a little too far in the direction of “wise guy.” Already, we learn from other characters that Beetlejuice doesn’t work well with others, causing him to start his own “bio-exorcism” business of ridding haunted houses of pesky humans (get the joke?). So what, exactly, are his “qualifications”?
Well… I attended Juilliard… I’m a graduate of the Harvard business school. I travel quite extensively. I lived through the Black Plague and had a pretty good time during that. I’ve seen the EXORCIST ABOUT A HUNDRED AND SIXTY-SEVEN TIMES, AND IT KEEPS GETTING FUNNIER EVERY SINGLE TIME I SEE IT…NOT TO MENTION THE FACT THAT YOU’RE TALKING TO A DEAD GUY… NOW WHAT DO YOU THINK? You think I’m qualified?
Hm, maybe. But if you smell a rat—or a beetle—watch out. Despite what Beetlejuice says, there appears to be a marked difference between his mannerisms and Virgil’s rather sober disposition. But Beetlejuice isn’t just the main antagonist/comic relief figure. The Maitlands could have done no worse for themselves if they had appointed Jiminy Cricket as their guide—at least he has a conscience. But Beetlejuice turns out not only to be a worse enemy of the Maitlands than the Deetzes, but his own worst enemy: he is the epitome of Dante-esque characterization, causing as much misery to himself as he does to others through his actions. “Hey, these aren’t my rules!” he says. “Come to think of it, I don’t have any rules!” And that’s just the point: he simply can’t be trusted. He has a subtler hand than any con artist out there, and his entire purpose in death is to cajole clientele into taking him on as their agent, then juicing them for all they’re worth. His blatant advances toward Barbara and his flippant abuse of power rank him among the worst of the worst when it comes to the bad boys of the underworld: Dante, for his part, would surely have sent him straight to Satan’s maw.
Yet in the end, Beetlejuice is outwitted by his own cunning, and his scheme falls apart: his plans to take over the Maitland house grow to proportions that exceed his control, and he ends up right back where he started: in the waiting room of a drab government help center, where many a soul kills time. He will likely spend the rest of eternity vacillating between temporary success and bitter defeat, always hunting, being hunted, taking everything, but gaining nothing. The eventual eviction of Beetlejuice from their house is what allows Barbara and Adam to move forward in their…er, deaths, and carve out a happy niche for themselves between the corporeal and incorporeal spheres of existence.
So returning to the question of whether death is a more tempting offer. Well, it has its perks; but just the same, whether you’re following the Christian epic tradition or modern comedy-horror films, it seems that it’s hardly more enthralling than the ordinary and mundane lives we know. If there is a secret to a happily-ever-afterlife, it’s probably just as obscure and unreliable as the typical jargon about life splayed across magazine covers at the supermarket. But one message does appear to be clear, and it helps to keep it in mind: nobody said death was going to be easy.
Excerpts from the Inferno taken from: Dante Alighieri, Inferno, trans. Robert and Jean Hollander (New York: Anchor Books, 2000).
Featured image courtesy Thomas Hawk (https://www.flickr.com/photos/51035555243@N01/11038610043).
Gustav Doré etching courtesy Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/gilli59/12873070333/).
Beetlejuice theatrical poster courtesy Movies in LA on Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/56692742@N05/6195657841).
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