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The Best Fictional Representations Of Purgatory In Modern Pop Culture

Updated October 24, 2019 1.2k votes 227 voters 7.3k views12 items

List RulesVote up the creepiest representations of purgatory in modern media.

According to Pope St. John Paul II, the word purgatory “does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence.” The Roman Catholic Church believes purgatory is a location in the afterlife for souls who need to atone for their earthly sins. Thus, the already dead in purgatory are redeemable and eventually fit for Heaven, meaning they cannot be returned to earth or sent to Hell for their actions in this liminal space. Purgatory is a process or transition that should be difficult, perhaps even painful, and only after enduring may a soul be freed and ready for Heaven.

Purgatory is perhaps most famously described by Dante in his 14th century poem series the Divine Comedy, Purgatorio. The poet envisions a long climb up a mountain through suffering, and muses on the nature of sinto reach earthly paradise at the top.

In modern pop culture, the terms purgatory and limbo are regularly used to describe a physical place or state of being where misery and pain are sharp but temporary. Often these portrayals involve some sort of wait or the feeling of being stuck, and the setting may not be on the Earthly plane.

From a day that keeps repeating until a grumpy weatherman learns to love to a European city where a hitman waits to learn of his fate, movies, films, and video games about purgatory - real or imagined - have long been favorites for fans and critics alike.

  • Vietnam And New York City In ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ 
    Photo: Paramount

    Jacob’s Ladder is a psychological horror film released in 1990 about protagonist Jacob (Tim Robbins), a Vietnam war veteran whose experiences and memories viscerally haunt him. Throughout the film, Jacob hallucinates visions of episodes before and during his time in Vietnam. He regularly sees his absent wife and late son and has visions of faceless figures, giant creatures, and unpleasant flashbacks.

    There are narrative threads that indicate Jacob and his platoon were given a mysterious substance that turned them against one another. In the final scene, Jacob follows his son’s ghost up a staircase to bright lights that turn into a medical tent in Vietnam where Jacob is declared dead. Fans speculate the entire film is purgatory.

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  • Purgatory In ‘Supernatural’ 
    Photo: CBS

    Supernatural follows Dean and Sam Winchester , two monster hunter brothers played by Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki. At the end of Season 7, Dean is banished to purgatory (or the show’s version of it) after the brothers defeat the Leviathan.

    Purgatory is shown as a thick forest, always cloudy and gloomy, usually dark and foggy. Monsters and other inhabitants craft weapons from sticks, rocks, and bones. While Dean describes it as “Bloody. Messy. Thirty-one flavors of bottom-dwelling nasties,” he also finds it pure and appreciates its simple predator or prey nature.

    In Catholic teachings, purgatory does involve some painful and difficult trials, but monsters are not likely.

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  • In Beetlejuice, the afterlife is portrayed as rather meaningless and bureaucratic; purgatory is more of a formality than an opportunity to better oneself in preparation for Heaven.

    Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin star as Barbara and Adam Maitland, a young couple who lose their lives in a car wreck and find themselves haunting their country home as a new family moves in. This family is known as the Deetzes, played by Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones, along with their teenage daughter Lydia, played by Winona Ryder.

    When Barbara and Adam realize they have to live in the house for 125 years before the next phase of their afterlife, they enlist the help of a demon spirit Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) to scare the other family out of the house.

    After Beetlejuice attempts to marry Lydia and wreak havoc in the mortal world, the two families agree to live alongside one another in peace while Beetlejuice is stuck in the afterlife waiting room.

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  • Purgatory In ‘Sleepy Hollow’ 
    Photo: Fox

    Sleepy Hollow is a Fox television show loosely based on “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” short stories written by Washington Irving. The show follows Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), a man from 1781 who wakes up in 2013 and intends to face the (also revived) Headless Horseman. Ichabod Crane’s son Henry Parrish (John Noble) says:

    Purgatory is a maze of temptation. If you are offered food or drink, you must not accept it. The reality you're presented with will seem entirely true, and every part of you will want to embrace it, but if you do, you will be trapped there for eternity.

    In Sleepy Hollow’s version of purgatory, temptations are meant to hold souls in purgatory indefinitely. This is not really how the Catholic concept of purgatory works, as it focuses on atonement rather than temptation.

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