Stories of Heaven That Turn into Hell

I wrote and published a short story last year called He Lifted Up His Eyes. It’s based on the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus from the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament. In my story, a rich man called Mr Diver dies and ends up in a place that he initially takes as heaven. He seems to have beautiful company, a blazing fire, and a rich banquet to enjoy. But the fires produces no light or heat, the food doesn’t satisfy his hunger, and the company leaves him longing for loneliness. He finally realises he’s in hell and his vision of heaven only makes matters worse.

A Nice Place Turns Nasty

Since then, I’ve come across a few other stories with a similar plot twist. The first is an old Twilight Zone episode called ‘A Nice Place to Visit‘ (Season 1: Episode 20, 1960). The second is a more recent fantasy series called The Good Place (2016-2020). The excellent wiki TV Tropes tells me that this is a plot device called This Isn’t Heaven, which it describes as follows.

“Bob dies and goes to the afterlife. At first he seems to have gone to Fluffy Cloud Heaven: it’s beautiful, there’s sweet harp music playing, he has everything he ever wanted, etc. But then he realizes that there’s one essential thing missing or wrong, and the sudden realization dawns: this isn’t Heaven! Cue the frantic screaming of a damned soul…”

TV Tropes

The idea that a place or state you think is heaven but that turns out to be hell reminds me of different things. It makes me think of that well-known song by the Eagles and its account of decadence, hedonism and addiction. Drug addiction, and I suppose any sort of addiction, starts off as a pathway to pleasure. But those same pleasures, while remaining pleasures, end up feeling more like hell. You can check-out any time you like…but you can never leave!

There she stood in the doorway
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself
“This could be Heaven or this could be Hell”

Hotel California

From a political viewpoint, it makes me think of communist counties where citizens are told they’re living in a workers’ paradise even though there’s starvation and oppression everywhere. In 2019, North Korea opened a new city called Samjiyon that was hailed as a “socialist utopia“. However, the reality of living in North Korea is more accurately captured in a recent, award-winning documentary appropriately named Beyond Utopia.

Pleasure and Paradoxes

In terms of horror, it makes me think of the Hellraiser franchise. The entire premise is a fluid nature of pleasure and pain. The Cenobites – essentially the villains of the films – describe themselves as angels or demons, depending on your point of view. The switch from heaven to hell is more something that happens in your own mind than in your environment. Pain can be pleasure for some.

Psychologists talk about the paradox of pleasure, or the hedonic paradox. The more you pursue pleasure, the less you enjoy it. Theologians and philosophers have distinguished for centuries between true and false pleasures, or, to put it differently, real and fake heavens. In pop culture, hell is sometimes portrayed as pleasurable because of the parties and the company. But the problem with this view of hell is highlighted by Jean-Paul Sartre in his play abut the afterlife.

“So that is what hell is. I would never have believed it. You remember: the fire and brimstone, the torture. Ah! the farce. There is no need for torture: Hell is other people.”

No Exit

A place where existence is one unending party! Doesn’t it sound great? But what if you couldn’t leave and there was no exit? No rest or quiet. No innovation or novelty. No conversation or intimacy. Forever. That sounds like a bit of a bummer. But it would provide the background for an excellent horror story!

Photo by Nathan McDine on Unsplash

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