On Writing: Tales of the Afterlife

So over the past Lockdown period I’ve played a number of (yes gloomy) games set in some version of the afterlife including LimboPinstripe and in the past I’ve found myself heavily invested in the grimey Binding of Isaac

All of which are set in an afterlife, and/or deal with the mortality of the protagonist, the games often steeped in symbolism or overt mortality stories.

Spooky Ghost Joke - YouTube

Now maybe its just me, and maybe its just these times, but I do think many films and stories spring to mind with the “dead all along” trope. While not always about the afterlife, oftentimes will make some comment about it – very often implying that once plots are resolved the dead go onto heaven, or some variant of positive afterlife.

Why do these stories appeal to us?

Well there is the obvious, that many believe that all stories are about sex or death, so that in some regards asking why stories like the above appeal is somewhat redundant. Death and mortality is the flipside to life (while also being a terrifying topic) which makes for obvious story fodder, but I think there are some strange reasons ‘they were dead all along’ and afterlife tales appeal.

Guilt beyond death presents the ultimate wound

We’re told in writing advice to give our characters ‘wounds’ or burdens from their past that require resolution. Having guilty characters as dead not only presents the most extreme unresolved guilt, it also presents the ultimate crucible (the crucible is the binding agent that prevents characters from walking away) how can a character leave the afterlife?

By creating the ultimate wound stories in the afterlife also create the ultimate resolution – forget “lived happily ever after” imagine leaving a character fully resolved and settled post-life?

(of course not all stories have happy endings)

Cheeky way to get away with ‘it was all a dream’

It seems odd to me that two such tropes with so much in common can be so polar opposite in acceptance. Although it makes sense. Both dreams and afterlives may create perfect fantasy settings to really mess with readers/watchers/players realities but each are very different in implication. One of the reasons dreams are such a big no-nos is that it presents a sequence where the stakes were less in almost all ways, whereas ‘dead all along’ type resolutions does the opposite, it raises the implications (although can also change them in ways that aren’t so great. When people misunderstood the ending to Lost as they were dead all along it was not well received [if anyone wants to argue about this I’m pretty sure the final scene was intended to be where all the characters ended up after their individual deaths whenever that would have been NOT that all the characters were dead all along]).

So what afterlife settings give us is the same illogical and unrealistic potential as dreams without the literary drawbacks.

So why do you guys think that his trope exists? OR do you think I’m exaggerating the interest??

Any good or terrible examples of this trope from the Screen or Page?


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