Hell According To Popular Culture

  • Posted on
  • 18.4.15

What comes to mind when you think of Hell? It's an abstract concept, and obviously no one has actually been there to tell the story, so all we can do is draw inspiration from popular culture to help signify what it is from the movies, books and music. Could it be a common misinterpretation? Is it a state of consciousness? When the body dies, all that is left is nothing more than an eternal long lasting thought process? No-one knows, but lets take a look at some of the references.

Aside from The Bible, Dante's Inferno is probably one of the earliest pieces of fiction that represented Hell. Irish satirist, Flann O'Brien once described hell as "a revolving door" in his novel The Third Policeman, where a a protagonist is thrown into a surreal world  and forced to chillingly re-live every single day before the cycle starts again.

In Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, when Bill & Ted are replaced by androids, the real characters are sent straight to hell, where they are met by the grim reaper.

In Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, the film touches on a door or a gateway to where the lost souls remain, a dark and sinister place that can only be interpreted as a form of Hell.

Christopher Smith's 2009 film The Triangle put a new ideology to the idea of hell, borrowing from that of the aforementioned O'Brien's Third Policeman - as representing Hell as a revolving door. Like in that book, Melissa George's character relives the same chilling scenarios of a fateful day over and over. A personal version of hell in which she has created, by perpetrating years of abuse to her child.

Clive Barker's cult Hellraiser story explores ones own version of hell by using a Pandora's box to open up a dimension to untold pleasures, the dark pleasures that bind the real world with the afterlife.

Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell is very different to any previously mentioned, a curse is bestowed on the main character condemning him to a life of torment by dark forces, which brings with it a sense of Hell on Earth.

Hell has been a much frequent subject of inspiration in popular music as well. The album that was a strong foundation to what later became the most extreme genres of metal, death and black metal, was called Welcome To Hell and it was the debut album of NWOBHM band, Venom, in 1981. It is a landmark record for all metal in general that features the dirtiest sound possible for the times and shock-value characteristics, like it's blasphemous lyrics, satanic imagery, backmasking and song titles like In League With Satan.

Of course that wasn't the first time Hell has been the main subject of popular record. AC/DC's last record with Bon Scott, now a classic rock milestone; the produced to perfection by Robert John "Mutt" Lange, Highway To Hell, that eventually became the late singer's swan song, as only a few months after its release, his body couldn't handle any more of the hell he was raising with all the rocking and the partying.

Two years earlier, in 1977, Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell was his first collaboration with composer Jim Steinman, it slowly but steadily became one of the most popular albums of all time and produced two sequel albums in the next thirty years. With a mindset to write "the most extreme crash song of all time", Steinman and Meat Loaf after working together on Steinman's Neverland musical, brought Todd Rundgren onboard who thought this was all about doing a Springsteen parody.

A bit earlier, in 1976, Alice Cooper released his follow-up to the quite successful, Welcome To My Nightmare, only his second album as a solo act, one of the most underrated album of his long career, Goes To Hell, at a time when his problems with alcohol were almost at their pick and the man was already on his way to the sanitarium.

The bonds between Hell and hard rock/heavy metal music are so strong and the list of important for those genres titles, that got something to do with the place of the condemned, can be really vast. Heaven And Hell by Black Sabbath, Cowboys From Hell by Pantera, One Foot In Hell by Cirith Ungol, Hell Awaits by Slayer, Alice In Hell by Annihilator, William Blake's The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell interpreted by Virgin Steele as well as Ulver much later, See You In Hell by Grim Reaper... The list can really go on forever, particularly if you extend it to underground acts in extreme metal.

Born Richard Meyers, former member of Television and in Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers, one of the most prominent artists in the New York punk scene of the 70s, he became known as Richard Hell and with his band, The Voidoids released some of the most influential music of that genre, including Blank Generation, the anthem for New York's punk movement.

Also changing his name to "Hell", synth artist Jeff Witscher, a cult underground experimental composer who as Rene Hell, has recorded dozens of releases, though probably his inspiration for that moniker must have been French actor René Hell.

Though not as frequent as in rock, Hell has been a strong subject in rap and hip-hop as well, like in Run DMC's third album, Raising Hell in 1986, one of the first examples to combine hip-hop and hard rock and a much influential album, as well as DMX's 1998 classic, It's Dark And Hell Is Hot, his debut album which that year earned critical acclaim together with commercial success and much airplay, despite its violent themes.

The connection between Hell and the blues has been well known for many generations, having its foundations on the Robert Johnson legend, according to which he would take his guitar to the Delta crossroad at midnight, where this large black man, supposedly the Devil, would tune the instrument and hand it back to him, apparently granting him mastery of the guitar in exchange for his soul. John Lee Hooker's Burning Hell was recorded in 1959 and was released in 1964 in the UK and didn't see the light of day in the US until the 90s and it's an intimate acoustic LP,  tackling songs by Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Big Bill Broonzy together with a few originals.


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