September 2017 is SYFY’s 25th anniversary, so we’re using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We’ll be doing two “25 greatest” lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back. Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains.
What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments!
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS.
What happens to us after we die? It is a question that has become an intrinsic part of the human condition, and so, naturally, it is a perfect thing for both fantasy and science fiction to explore. The past 25 years have given us some pretty wonderful versions of the afterlife, and some of them are as strange as life itself. Lock the gates to Hell, grab your “pobody’s nerfect” t-shirt, and prepare to see dead people as we take a look at the 25 coolest versions of the afterlife from the past 25 years!
In this excellent adaptation of the Neil Gaiman masterpiece, it is what you believe in life that determines what comes after. In the middle of an incredible desert, the god Anubis weighs your heart against a feather. He judges your heart, and then sends you to the appropriate place. For Laura Moon, however, things aren’t so simple. She believes that there is no afterlife—that when you die, you rot. She sneers at Anubis’ judgement, she finds herself living out exactly what she believed in, due to other mystical events surrounding her. She’s back in our world, she is following her former husband, and she is rotting. Seriously, watch this show.
Black Mirror (San Junipero)
In this exceptional, Emmy-winning installment of the sci-fi anthology series, two women who are close to death live out their remaining days in a virtual world. It mostly looks like something right out of the ‘80s. The women find each other there, and they fall in love. In the end, they choose to have their respective consciousnesses downloaded into the virtual world of “San Junipero” permanently. Their bodies pass on, but the minds of these soulmates are preserved forever in a virtual heaven.
The Corpse Bride
An all-singing, all-dancing parade of the macabre, Tim Burton’s animated musical shows us an underworld as only he can. It’s dark and dreary, but its residential skeletons, ghouls, and demons have a good time anyway. They don’t just enjoy death; they full on revel in it. They also take friendship seriously—they love the poor Corpse Bride of the title, who was killed off in a most wicked manner, and they will defend her no matter what. The hell really hits the fan when they travel to the world of the living in the film’s finale, and the result is a crazy, deathly comic blast.
Dead Like Me
In some versions of the afterlife, death does not offer any relief. According to this 2003 Showtime TV series, certain people are offered the job of “grim reapers” after they die. Their job is to take the souls of people before death, and then to usher those people into the afterlife. People selected for the position of reaper often die as a result of Six Feet Under-esque accidents, and they are regulated by something called the “External Influence Division.” The job does have some perks: the reapers gain accelerated healing, and they are able to stay in the land of the living. Once they hit their secret quota of souls, however, they depart for the great beyond.
Kevin Pacalioglu is a medium for hire. He’s also an outrageous slacker. Played by Tyler Labine, “Pac” is able to see dead people, and occasionally helps them with their unresolved issues. If he can be bothered, he’s not bad at it. This is one of the many scenarios on this list in which dead people with unresolved issues are not allowed to “move on.” We are not given a clear idea of what they are moving on to, but they are going there with Pac’s help.
Death (From The Sandman Series)
She’s the last person you’ll ever meet. OK, we know that this isn’t an exploration of the afterlife like the rest of our entries, but this actual embodiment of Death, itself, is so cool that she earns a place here. She looks like Siouxsie Sioux, and was not based on Tori Amos. As the star of her own spin-off comics, this spiky haired woman (perpetually wearing an Ankh) spends one day in every century as a human. She does this in order to better understand the lives she takes. Compared to the rest of her family, she seems to be the only one who has things more or less together.
In Peter Jackson’s precursor film to The Lord of the Rings, certain spirits become ghosts instead of moving on. Two ghosts in particular decide to go into business with Michael J. Fox (who is one of the few who can see them), helping him pose as a faux-Ghostbuster. It’s a wacky way to spend time after death, but the levity the ghosts provide is needed in the first half of this film, which turns deadly serious around the halfway point.
Futurama (Robot Hell)
Located in Atlantic City, this is the place where all bad robots go when they die. When Bender suddenly decides to become religious, he instantly earns a place here. After he quickly renounces religion, Beelzebot, (or Robot Devil) kidnaps him and brings him there anyway. A place where the golden fiddle playing Beelzebot has prepared an agonizing (and ironic) punishment for each one of your sins, the destination is a bad place for any robot, despite the wonderful song.
The Good Place
Your eyes open, and words appear before you that say: “Relax, everything is fine.” Soon enough, a bow-tied Ted Danson welcomes you into his office, and he lets you know that you’re dead. There’s a good place and a bad place, and thankfully, you’re in the good place! Congratulations. Danson’s character, Michael, has created the entire utopian neighborhood. Soulmates are real, too, and wouldn’t you know it, yours is right here! Doesn’t this sound great?
Well it would, if you were meant to be there. Unfortunately for Eleanor Shelstrop, (Kristen Bell), she’s here by accident... she really belongs in the Bad Place, home of torture, room temperature clam chowder that isn’t even available, and a hilariously douchey Adam Scott. But are things really as cut and dry as all that? To write anything further would spoil the many, many surprises that this overlooked gem of a show have in store. So go watch it now, and don't forget to take it sleazy!
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
After willingly sacrificing himself to Voldemort, Harry appears in a heavenly version of King’s Cross Station. In both the book, as well as the second part of the finale film, Harry encounters his old mentor, Albus Dumbledore. We’re glad he does, too, because we are due some answers. Harry has a choice—he can return to life, and continue to fight, or, as Dumbledore puts it, he can take a train. Where will this train take him? Dumbledore’s only answer is “on.” Much cleaner than the real King’s Cross, this waystation to the other side might not even be real, even though Dumbledore tells Harry that it is all “his party.” Harry decides to return to the world, but he has a final question. Asking if everything that he is seeing is real, or just inside his head, Harry receives his last great line from Dumbledore— “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on Earth should that mean that it isn’t real?”
Guillermo del Toro’s first Hellboy film gives us a few insights into the afterlife, and most of them involve resurrection. Hellboy is constantly fighting the demon dog Samael, and the reason he has to fight it over and over again is because this particular demon resurrects himself (times two) every time it dies. The main villain of the film, Rasputin, has also been resurrected. Audiences also get a small glimpse of Hell itself, which they expect from a film (and a character) bearing this title. Spoiler: Hell does not look pleasant.
Christopher Nolan’s epic film of ideas and dream theft doesn’t really give us a glimpse of an afterlife, but it does give us an idea of how a dead person can live on in someone’s memory. Marion Cottilard’s character is long dead, yet she continually pops up in her former husband’s dreams. She messes up the plan for everyone on more than one occasion, so she’s definitely a persistent problem. The idea that our dead loved ones gain a kind of immortality through our memories sounds good at first, but the hindering of a person unable to let the memories go is the real truth that the film demonstrates.
At the start of this HBO series, 140 million people vanish without a trace. People assume that it was a part of a rapture, and they soon dub the event “The Sudden Departure.” We don’t know where these 140 million people went, but the humans left behind are pretty keen to find out. Some people of faith turn their lives to cynicism, and others are so intent on being raptured themselves that they join a cult called “The Guilty Remnant.” Members of this unit believe that living good lives from this point forward will earn them their own rapture. Things don’t really play out that way in the end. This series is full of surprising twists and turns, and again, it would be a shame to ruin them here. We urge you to dive in and experience this banquet of faith and ideas for yourselves.
Based on the 2004 film They Came Back, this French series debuted in 2012. It depicts a small French town where many dead people reappear very suddenly. They don’t look like they’re dead, for all intents and purposes they look fully alive and normal. “The returned” attempt to resume their former lives, including the victim of a school bus crash, a boy who was murdered by thieves, a suicidal bridegroom, and a serial killer. It would seem that some kind of higher power is not happy with this, however, as evidenced by the town having mysterious power outages and a slowly lowering water level. Worst of all, strange markings begin to appear on the bodies of the living, as well as the dead. This is an incredibly haunting tale, and it will stay with you long after you’ve finished watching it.
The Life After
Jude’s life seems like it’s on repeat, and he soon discovers that this is because he’s living in the purgatory of suicides. Awakened to his actual situation, he joins up with the spirit of Ernest Hemingway to change things in the afterlife for the better. They are aided in their quest by a Victorian woman and her daughter, as well as an army of unbaptized children. Together, this eccentric team fights off both the powers above, as well as the powers below. Is there anything extraordinary about Jude, himself? You’ll have to read this comic from Joshua Hale Flakov to find out.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
“White shores, and beyond. A far green country, under a swift sunrise.” Minas Tirith is almost completely overrun, and with it, Pippin and Gandalf. When Pippin says that he didn’t think it would end this way, he receives one of Sir Ian McKellen’s finest moments in the trilogy, and the frightened Hobbit learns that this is most definitely not the end. Gandalf’s description of “what comes next” mirrors images we see at the Grey Havens in the film’s end (as well as lyrics in the song that closes the movie), and his words comfort Pippin like a blanket made of pure wisdom. “Death is just another path... one that we all must take,” says Gandalf. His words are not conjecture, he’s speaking from experience—he “died,” himself, somewhat recently. Coming in the middle of one of the most epic battles in film history, this quiet moment shines with hope, and gives courage when it is needed most.
Looking back, about half of the final season of Lost took place in the afterlife. What we originally thought was a sideways-flashback, the alternate realm where their plane landed safely and the island’s inhabitants gradually find each other again is revealed to be a place after death. It was one that they created, so that they could face the final unknown together. Whether they had died in seasons past, or would not die for hundreds of years to come, they were all here, and time didn’t seem to matter. Most of the show’s major couples reunited, and once everyone was ready, the church doors opened... and away they all went. They had been lost on an island, lost within themselves, and lost in time—having them lost in the afterlife was an interesting way to finish the show.
The Lovely Bones
Young Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is murdered in a truly brutal fashion in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel, and she finds herself in a vast world full of lush fields and huge versions of her father’s treasured ships in bottles. Aside from being able to find peace in this ever-shifting visual paradise, Susie is also able to keep up with life on Earth. She watches her family struggle with her death, and she even watches her murderer (Stanley Tucci) cover up his crime. Susie is eventually able to connect with all of her murderer’s victims, and after wishing us a long and happy life, she moves on.
After locking the gates of hell and handing them over to Dream of the Endless (The Sandman series), Lucifer Morningstar joins the land of the living, as well as his own spin-off comic. His exploits also adapted for television, Lucifer has forsaken his previous life of torture and judgement. He now enjoys the pleasures of club life. He is cocky, charming, powerful, and he also solves the occasional crime. His ever-faithful servant Mazikeen (one of the Lilim) is always at his side, and he has the very handy ability to make people tell him their darkest desires. He may abuse this power on more than one occasion.
Garth Ennis’ wonderful comic series is full of references to the afterlife. God has abandoned Heaven, and Jesse Custer (the titular preacher) is determined to track him down. Along the way, Jesse and his two companions (his ex-girlfriend and a vampire) encounter an angel of death called “The Saint of Killers,” several fallen angels, and a secret organization called “The Grail,” which has the objective of prolonging the bloodline of Jesus. Oh, and did I forget to mention that Jesse himself is imbued with a heavenly force known as “Genesis,” which enables him to command the obedience of almost anyone around him? The series is jammed with references to the afterlife and the occult, and has recently been adapted into a fantastic TV series.
Sophie Bangs is interested in the occult, and ends up getting far more than she bargained for. She is warned early on, too: “You don’t wanna go looking for folklore. And you especially don’t want folklore to come looking for you.” If only she had listened! Before long, Sophie becomes the embodiment of the titular entity, Promethea. This entity has one task—to bring about the apocalypse. Bringing together elements of superhero mythology, mysticism, and spirituality, this lesser known work from creator Alan Moore also brings in the afterlife—in the identifiable form of the Tree of Life.
A war reporter is about to propose to his girlfriend, but instead, they are both killed in a terrorist attack. The two of them wake up to find themselves on a strange planet, where everyone who has ever lived on Earth is reborn. They exist now along the banks of an endless river, where they encounter lost friends as well as historical figures. The planet “Riverworld” was created as a purgatory where humans can get a second chance, but it isn’t perfect—the beings in control of it are engaged in a nasty civil war. Based on the Riverworld books by Philip Jose Famer, this four-part SYFY miniseries was adapted by Robert Hewitt Wolfe in 2010.
The Sixth Sense
Here’s another entry that features the ghosts of dead people hanging around due to unresolved issues! Instead of going to Tyler Labine or Lucifer for help, these ghosts decide to bother a young child, famously played by Haley Joel Osment. The child is naturally frightened out of his mind by this, until he finds the only person he can talk to about it—a child psychiatrist, played by Bruce Willis. Together, they go about solving the issues of the various dead people that are bothering the boy, and they (of course) discover that all of the ghosts have “unfinished business.” With all of their work done, the end of the movie famously reveals one last ghost that needs the boy’s assistance.
When we talk about the afterlife in the Spawn comic series, we’re talking about hell. What did you expect? A great deal of the series takes place there, and hell is depicted with a near Brazil-like sectional bureaucracy. The 12 levels (or spheres) of hell include a tropical jungle, a frozen wasteland, a level where souls are fed to demons, a level where souls become drugs for demons, a level of demon toy collectors, and several unknown levels. The comic’s lead hell-spawn made his deal to return to Earth here, as this version of hell is also inhabited by the demons Violator and Malebolgia. As far as iterations of hell go, this one is hilarious—but still, no thank you.
What Dreams May Come
The heaven depicted in this film is one of the most beautiful ever rendered. Young pediatrician Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) is killed in a car crash, and he lingers on Earth for a bit before passing on. When he finally does, he finds himself in a glorious world of imagination that he is able to control. Taking the form of a painting come to life, this version of heaven also allows Chris to visit the dreams of other people. He is thankfully able to look after his beloved wife, but this means that he sees the grief of his loss overtaking her. She commits suicide and is sent to hell, where she is tortured by a nightmarish prison based on her own pain. Chris journeys across the whole of the afterlife to save her, and he ultimately succeeds. The end of this gorgeously rendered trip through the great unknown finds the two soulmates choosing to be reincarnated, and we see them meet as living children back on Earth.
These were OUR choices of afterlives from the last 25 years. What are yours? Let us know in the comments which you’d put on your list!
And be sure to check out our complete “25 Greatest” lists here!