The world has spun many times since the far-flung times of Faustian bargains and perfect punishments. These days Doomguy can put down an icon of sin by filling its brain with searing lead, and Ash has an arm attachment for every deadite-associated situation one may come across. Hell used to mean something different. What was once an endless pit of torture and pain has been revised, at least somewhat, in society’s collective consciousness as somewhere that might be visited and even conquered. We owe this shift not only to Sam Raimi and Clive Barker but also to the Vietnam war and its cultural effects. Once you’ve seen hell on Earth, writing stories about fighting back against the infernal becomes much more manageable.
Before the mid-1970s, depictions of hell didn’t stray too far from their biblical origins. During this time, it remained an inescapable realm that provides the damnation one earned in life. Dante’s Inferno depicts hell as a multi-tiered nightmare where each sinner meets a fate that appropriately reflects their misdeeds in life. Ne’er-do-wells are ripped apart by ravenous dogs or endlessly pelted by freezing rain, but our protagonist regards each torturous instance as just and perfect.
Similarly, in the 1906 silent film The Merry Frolics of Satan, William Crackford strikes a deal with a demon in disguise. Crackford dreams of making a high-speed trip around the world, but during each step of the journey he and his assistant are waylaid by the hellish figure they colluded with. Crackford’s family is killed when a bridge collapses under his demonic vehicle, and his trials continue when he is supernaturally starved and ultimately dragged to hell. Here, the audience is asked to take on the role of Dante. Crackford’s condemnation to hell must be correct because he conspired with forces outside of his comprehension. Decades later, this perception of hell as perfect and inescapable continued, most notably with The Twilight Zone and its love for, sometimes overstated, poetic justice. For centuries, the world of media was one where the guilty were punished and the devil always got his due, but those days were soon to come to an end.
It only makes sense that Americans would reconcile their first exposure to war via artistic expression. Footage of bombings and active combat flooded into civilian homes via their new color televisions. The hideous realities of battle were on full display, and there were no illusions of a victorious conclusion to dull the senses. We had destroyed, poisoned, murdered and lost.
Punk rose as one of the many ways Americans rushed to cover their psychic scars. Bands such as Ramones, Dead Kennedys and Blondie were on the edge of a new sound and echoing the ever-increasing anti-war rumblings that were so common during that era. However, none of these groups were content to simply denounce the concept of war — they also set their sights on criticizing the institutions that allowed for such tragedies to take place. From Ramones’ “We’re a Happy Family” to Dead Kennedys’ “Bleed For Me,” skepticism toward long-maintained notions was in high supply, and hell certainly didn’t make it through this intellectual restructuring unscathed.
Hell’s media identity was in flux. Pencil-mustached devils were abandoned in favor of extra-dimensional explorers of pain, and demons crawl from their holes only to be forced back inside. For the first time, hell and its denizens were constantly confounded by the humans they hoped to torment. The late 1970s and early 1980s were packed with films where humans fight back hell’s soldiers or even venture through its gates before returning to the land of the living victorious. In later years, this reimagining of the mythos of hell only strayed farther from the realm’s roots. Take your pick across music, film or gaming and this fact remains unchanged.
As of today, an innumerable number of Mega-Satans have been conjured and felled by a digital blade or imagined storm of bullets. In some ways, this refusal to submit to fire and brimstone is a perfect encapsulation of a pure, rebellious spirit. All at once, it represents courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable struggle and an unwillingness to be judged according to an archaic morality. It speaks to humanity’s indomitable soul and ability to change the world for the better. There’s work to be done and wrongs to be made right, but don’t be afraid to take your time. Hell is eternal, and you’ve always got until tomorrow to show the devil who’s boss.