Spoiler Alert! For those of you who have not watched Hellbound this critique reveals the plot.
Recently I watched season one of Hellbound, a compelling new Netflix series directed by Yeon Sang-ho and co-created by cartoonist Choi Kyu-Seok. While art is subjective, I couldn’t help but interpret this story through the ominous lens of the prevailing cultural landscape.
Set in Seoul South Korea, collective frenzy is ignited by ‘Angelic’ prophesies condemning people to Hell. Spiritual teacher Jung Jin Su, construes that the monstrous infernal creatures carrying out the brutal executions are enacting God given decrees intended to discourage sin and inspire righteousness. Desperate to make sense out of these horrific occurrences the masses blindly accept Jin Su’s explanation.
Concealed behind Jin Su’s charismatic mask of virtue is a seething sadistic malevolence fomented by two decades of lying in wait for his own prophesied Hell bound condemnation to come to fruition.
Following Jin Su’s ‘disappearance’ his teachings are systemized through The New Truth Society. The primary tenet that God as a moral gatekeeper who incites his agents of Hell to violently obliterate sinners, is widely lauded. Even though the mythic beasts appear Satanic, those who dare to surmise that they may not be Gods emissaries are vilified.
Naturally the media pounces on the opportunity to televise what are referred to as ‘demonstrations.’ In full view, much like gladiator spectacles and public lynchings, the hell bound deaths are filmed as entertainment. Masked VIP’s are given front row seats at the demonstration proceedings. Human nature’s thirst for violence ensures top ratings.
Meanwhile, all are convinced that being good and pure is ostensibly the path to redemption or at least a path to dodging the hounds of Hell. Those who dare to question this indoctrination are viewed as immoral subversives. Although these subversives side with humanity in that they recognize that no one can live a life completely without sin, as this perfectionistic ideal does not align with the human condition, they are designated as sinners.
We see this narrative evidenced in contemporary culture through ideological purity tests. A popular means of social control in which evil is differentiated from innocence, purity tests view all behavior and circumstances in all or nothing terms. What is idealized (all good and virtuous) is permitted and what is deemed shameful (all bad and sinful) is hated. This dichotomous perspective assuages the discomfort intrinsic to ambiguity and uncertainty. It also nullifies the possibility of meaningful dialogue.
Coupled with snitch culture, what is condemned is subject to active persecution irrespective of contradictory or extenuating evidence. Being deeply mired in black and white thinking (splitting) has led to vast polarization and a hate the hater creed.
Just as Hellbound depicts, through collective thought control and ubiquitous fear, dogma that is devoid of critical thinking and ameliorates the terror of not having control has taken root in contemporary culture. Nuanced contrarian information is censored. Hence what we’ve wound up with are one-dimensional generalizations that denounce and simplify.
All men are rapists. All white people are racists. All women are nurturing. All Jews are miserly. All Republicans are morons. All people of color are disenfranchised. All feminists hate men. All conservatives lack moral compassion. All liberals are foolishly idealistic.
In Hellbound, this sort of extreme posturing is personified in the Arrowhead cult. The Arrowhead, originally comprised of sociopathic teenagers, are representative of those in society frothing at the mouth to vindictively condemn and judge anyone who deviates from prescriptive narratives. They sublimate their violent ambitions through the New Truth doctrines.
Ultimately the Arrowhead and the New Truth join forces. Bending others to their will is the endgame. Through instilling fear, compliance with their fall-redemption ideology is ensured.
It isn’t until an innocent newborn baby is fated to die at the hands of the demonic executioners that the people begin to consider that the belief system and institution of New Truth is touted by virtue signaling psychopaths.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
Nietzsche warns us that we can easily devolve into the monsters we condemn. We are vulnerable to being subsumed by the abyss of darkness, and unconsciously assimilated into its endless chasm of fear and hatred.
Indeed, with religious fervor we pick sides and succumb to propaganda, blindly following without question. This is a universal and historical reality. Once comfortably ensconced in the abyss, survival fears take over generating hypocrisy and diluting compassion and morality.
This central theme in Hellbound is implied through the assumption by the populace that the monstrous executioners are agents of God and its arbitrary victims, sinners. The imbuing of God and justice as merciless and brutal legitimizes and even glorifies inhumanity. Here Hellbound elucidates the senseless cruelty of human beings.
Hence, Hellbound cautions us to consider the choices that we make. Deciding to act from consciousness and humanity allows one to see the evil not just out there, but also in oneself. Choosing this path is a courageous act of self will. Unfortunately, more often than not we are apt to be complicit in evil agendas cloaked in virtue.
Nonetheless all hope is not lost. At the near completion of season one of Hellbound, the parents of the newborn condemned to Hell sacrifice their lives to save their baby. Their act of love sends the message that applying free will to defy the status quo is also an act of love.This is a much needed wake up call that questions how we choose to engage with the unfairness of life.
We may be driven, out of bewilderment and impotence, to convince ourselves that the good are rewarded, and the bad punished, or that there is someone to blame. Fueled by fear like the folks in Hellbound, we might point fingers at the wrongdoers, the ones who fail to conform, who dare to question established ways. Ignorantly creating demigods out of celebrities, gurus and social justice warriors we direct our wrath at those the puppet masters decry as bad.
In the search for that secret sin to explain our plight we lose sight of how unmerited pain challenges us to reconcile with our mortal limits. We get diverted from our responsibility towards one another. We forget about the ethical significance of taking the high ground.
Hellbound caused me to reflect about how self-chosen values and individual conscience are swayed by the collective ‘Group Mind’ and how the quest for power and control lends itself to corrupting our most noble principles. Most important, it drove home the notion that justice that lacks mercy is not Divine. Nor is it woke. One can only hope that we can collectively receive that message.