Take a Number and Wait: Bureaucracy in the On-Screen Afterlife

According to the movies, death looks a whole lot like the DMV.
By  · Published on March 21st, 2017

According to the movies, death looks a whole lot like the DMV.

Applying to grad school can feel a lot like limbo. Like being stuck in a waiting room, clutching a call number with wingdings on it, praying you dotted all your i’s correctly. You’d be forgiven for thinking your curriculum vitae was being weighed on a scale against the feather of Ma’at, Egyptian deity of minimum GPA requirements. It feels just about as esoteric.

Divine judgement, like academia, has a bureaucratic bent to it; an adherence to policy and procedure at odds with any human tendency towards sense-making. That’s a particularly humorous metaphor: that complex administrative systems are as inscrutable and baffling as divine ones, that something so nefariously human could be otherworldly. It’s a relatable, “so taxes are like, literally hell, huh?” The joke’s longevity extends at least as far back as Virgil’s Aeneid, where a spirit in the underworld is seen enumerating new souls on a stone tablet – a comedic bit echoed over two thousand years later in Disney’s Hercules. In this way, the bureaucratic afterlife is very effective as a quick gag. Abbott & Costello’s Time of Their Lives concludes with the punchline that heaven is closed for a statutory holiday. Likewise, Out of This World, a sales training video from 1954, features a Job-like bet between two celestial emissaries flanked by filing cabinets and productivity graphs.

There are, of course, more narratively significant comedic trends, one of my favorites being “bungled soul-reaping”: when someone is, through some obtuse heavenly clerical error, improperly “processed” by the Powers That Be. The cinematic adaptations of Harry Segall’s 1938 play Heaven Can Wait are stand-out examples. In Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), an officious angel known only as Messenger 7013 assumes that protagonist Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) failed to survive a plane crash and preemptively follows procedure, escorting Joe’s soul to an hazy liminal way station, where a plane will take him to his “final destination.” When the heavenly records prove his death was a mistake, a disembodied Joe must restore cosmic balance and return to earth by possessing a freshly-dead corpse…hijinks ensue. The 1978 Warren Beatty remake follows a nearly identical premise, only with 100% more sweatpants and football.

There was, somewhat confusingly, a different Heaven Can Wait in 1943, unrelated to the Segall play, directed by urbane comedy maestro Ernst Lubitsch. Helpfully, Lubitsch depicts yet another humorous wrinkle of the bureaucratic afterlife: divine judgement as a familiar, hyperbolically tedious judicial process. Lubitsch opens with a deceased Henry Van Cleve, who approaches hell’s reception desk, where he must petition for his admittance into the underworld he thinks he deserves. There’s a similar celestial legalism in the Albert Brooks comedy Defending Your Life (1991), which envisions purgatory as a court system where defendants plead their case in an effort to qualify for the next stage of existence. There’s even a Tom and Jerry short, “Heavenly Puss,” in which a deceased Tom is faced with his lengthy record of misdeeds, and is told he can only board the train out of purgatory (purr-gatory?) if he can get Jerry to sign a document saying he forgives him.

thinly-veiled contempt: in three parts

Likewise, in “One for the Angels,” an early episode of the Twilight Zone, a warm-hearted if otherwise unremarkable salesman named Lou is visited by an angel of death. As his goofy on-the-nose name would suggest, Mr. Death (played by a deliciously dry Murray Hamilton) is a stock image of a corporate grim reaper: meticulously dressed, by the book, and fluent in legalese. When Lou asks if he’s a census-taker, Mr. Death smiles impatiently; he’s on a tight schedule, and must get to the inevitable business of Lou’s “departure.” Like many romantic depictions of celestial bureaucracy, Mr. Death’s obstructionism acts as an opportunity for Lou’s to demonstrate his humanity – though, because it’s the Twilight Zone this ultimately proves somewhat bittersweet.

It goes without saying that a bureaucratic afterlife is gallows humor. And while I don’t doubt that juxtaposing the sacred and the corporate is funny, I do find it strange that, on the whole, on-screen depictions of a bureaucratic afterlife are so light-hearted. There is a subtle nightmarish implication to the bureaucratic afterlife; a kind of disorienting, menacing complexity that haunts an otherwise cute and tongue-in-cheek joke.

Beetlejuice’s afterlife quite explicitly addresses this: it is a bureaucratic haunted house, complete with waiting room, vouchers, caseworkers, and my personal favourite, the file pile. The call numbers have no meaning; there are spatially improbable corridors populated with exorcised souls; and the wait times take centuries. Where the bureaucratic chaos of comedies like Heaven Can Wait and Defending Your Life results in confusion that ultimately gives way to self-discovery and romance, the administrative tone in Beetlejuice is genuinely frightening. Sure, the macabre sight gags are hilarious, but this is an afterlife of profound and frustrating stasis. It’s like being immortal and shot out into space with only a TPS report to keep you company. While it’s implied that the receptionists and clerks have been assigned these jobs as a form of Dante-like contrapasso for committing suicide – at least they have something to do, some purpose beyond just, you know, aimlessly waiting. You can hardly blame Adam and Barbara for summoning an unhinged bio-exorcist – at least he’s guaranteed to spice things up and introduce some conflict!An unnerving thing about the bureaucratic afterlife is that it is hopelessly full of hope. Which is to say, that theoretically, if you just follow the rules you’re promised eternal rest— where in reality, you don’t stand a chance, not really. As we’ve seen, the bureaucratic afterlife is far from infallible or unbiased, let alone efficient (efficient bureaucracies are a whole other breed of terrifying). And even if you make it onto the paradise train, there’s little to suggest there won’t be more forms to fill out, more wait times, more trials. It’s a surreal landscape where you find yourself up against a nightmarish force that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to preconceived notions of how the world works. Even in romantic comedies like Heaven Can Wait, there is a sense of pointless striving in the face of bleakness; of doing push-ups in the fog of limbo while an angel shouts terms and conditions at you because it’s all a dream, and you’ve got a big football game coming up and what do you mean I’m dead.

Basically, all roads lead to purgatory. This is a terrifying notion because as far as afterlives go it sounds extremely boring. And I can’t think of a more sure-fire way to incite atrophy in the human spirit than to deprive it of struggle and bamboozle it with absurd managerial jargon. I don’t know if one can imagine Sisyphus happy if he’s stuck waiting in a DMV for all eternity. Dude was lucky to get a bolder.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.