Go to Hell

Go to Hell by David Macfie

Ever since I was a little kid, people have been telling me where not to go. My mother was the worst. She even managed to make nursery rhymes and fairy stories sinister. I mean how innocent is ‘If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise….’ But my mom insisted that the teddy bears were there for not just a fun picnic.

“And do you know what they’re going to eat,” she’d declare, in her best warning voice. “You, my boy. They’re going to eat you. So you just better not go down to the woods today. Listen to me when I’m telling you these things. It’s for your own good.”

Then she’d tell the tale of Little Red Riding Hood and before long I wasn’t just scared of going to the woods, I had a phobia about trees. They were big and dark and menacing.

Then I couldn’t go to the river. I can still hear her voice insistently talking.

There’s nymphs in the river,” she’d say in a scaredy-cat-voice whisper. “They’ll beckon you down the bank with smiles and prettiness, and once you’re in the water they’ll drag you down and you’ll get drowned and have to stay in their under-water home forever.”

By the time I was ten, I was so paranoid about all the places I couldn’t go, all the forbidden places, I hardly left my room except to go to school. Of course the kids all laughed at me and called me a chicken, and a wimp, and a yellow-belly, and all the other insulting things they could think of for someone who was scared to go anywhere or do anything.

I wasn’t a happy little chappie.

I got sick, a lot, from stress. I was nervous and unsure around people, because one of the things my mother told me to avoid in the forbidden places was all the nasty, vicious people, who did indescribably horrible things to little kids.

Then I reached puberty and everything changed.  I had a dream – not a Martin Luther King dream – but a dream where I was beaten and broken and then I rose up and confronted my fears and bested them. It was weird. From one day to the next, I stopped being the ‘wimp of the world’ and suddenly became the ‘A1 ace of people who are afraid of nothing’.

I confronted those who had bullied me and bested them too. I went Bungee jumping and sky diving, I sought out frightening situations and faced them. I was, quite literarily, a different person. At that point in my surge to adulthood, I read Dante’s Inferno.  It was a defining moment. Here staring me in the face was the ultimate forbidden place – Hell. Nobody wanted to go there. So I decided that I would, literally, ‘go to Hell’. I would go and see for myself how close Dante got to the truth.

My first problem was that I didn’t have the shade of Vigil to escort me – I had become an atheist in my rejection of normal social structures including religion. So I called out to Satan and asked if I could visit. Not surprisingly, I was greeted with a stony silence, but I persevered until my calls were answered. The Devil’s messenger came to me and explained what I must do to enter through the gates of Hell past the legendary signage, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” or whatever the plaque said.

Time and place now confirmed, I studied the Inferno to make sure I had a really good idea of Dante’s vision of the underworld. I had my own conflicting ideas. It was time to find out the real truth.

I approached the gates. They were surprisingly unprepossessing. With my pack on my back I passed through. I was expecting the pre-Hell, the vestibule of Hell, where all the uncommitted were supposed to mill about in mists of confusion pursued by stinging insects and nobbled by maggots. Instead it was like a major railway station in the rush hour. I ploughed on through the crowd, not engaging or interacting. I was keen to get to the real action. I reached the river Acheron and met the ferry pilot, Charon, who agreed to take me across to the real first circle of Hell.

Now my curiosity suppressed my anxiety. Dante described nine circles, containing three groups. Before these groups was the first circle – a limbo area containing virtuous pagans and those who had never been baptized. As an atheist, I was skeptical of this blatant discrimination of the passionately religious to all others. Then came the three groups, first Incontinence or wantonness, which took up circles two to five – lust, gluttony, greed and anger in that order. Between the first group and the second was a buttress circle dedicated to the heretics of life. In this circle six, heretics were supposed to be condemned to eternity in flaming tombs. After that the second group was violence and bestiality in circle seven. The third group had fraud and malice in circle eight and treachery in circle. Beyond the circles, at the very center of Hell, Satan, was held eternally in bondage.

I wasn’t sure that this arrangement reflected either the true progression of wickedness from minor to major or the severity of evil out to in. And I was fascinated with the concept of ‘let the punishment fit the crime’ that was embodied in the environment of each circle.

Straight away I was disappointed. Already limbo looked all too similar to normal service never being resumed. I passed into lust. Here the punishment of strong winds keeping the denizens permanently off balance and unable to find peace or rest, seemed to be ineffective. There were people flying kites, wind surfing, yachting, paragliding and so on. Every possible wind-assisted pastime was in progress.

I moved on to the third circle – gluttony. I was never sure whether this really counted as a sin or wickedness. Unwise and unhealthy certainly, but surely not a worse sin than lust? Turned out that gluttony and greed had been combined by the management of circles three and four. They thought one led to the other, or vice versa and they had put in place a system of processes and procedures to manage the problem. It was a farce. I couldn’t believe that a bunch of dead people could be so anal, but there it was, right in front of my eyes.

My cynicism began to float to the surface. Surely Hell wasn’t just a continuation of the bureaucratic stupidity of real life? With some trepidation I moved on to circle five – anger. I was tense and ready for anything. But, the fighting on the river Styx looked like WWF and was just as theatrical. Once more my main feeling was disappointment. Even a John Cleese sketch on the ministry of arguments would have provided more entertainment.

Circle six, the buttress layer dedicated to heresy, seemed out of place. I always thought that freedom of expression was sacrosanct. So heresy seemed like a contradiction in terms. It sort of said ‘believe what I believe or you will be damned forever’ – in flaming tombs as well. I was not impressed.

By circle seven, I was disillusioned. Here, in an outer ring, were murderers and those who committed violence to other people and their property. In a second ring were suicides and those who committed violence on themselves and in an inner ring were blasphemers and sodomites. Again I was disappointed. In the first two rings the people were like kittens with plenty of milk. I could only conclude that this environment suited them much better than life had. The blasphemers were as blameless to an atheist as the heretics had been and the sodomites were fine as long as they did it with consenting adults. This Hell business was becoming a bit of an anticlimax.

Now I only had circles eight and nine to pass through. I was hoping they would provide a big build up to my meeting with the head honcho of this circus. Circle eight was over engineered in my opinion – ten different stony ditches with bridges between them – separating different kinds of frauds. Panderers and seducers in the first, flatterers in the second going on to those dealing in ecclesiastical privileges, sorcerers and false prophets, corrupt politicians and so on. It was all a bit pathetic, watching as these shades of their former selves practiced their skills on each other. Talk about setting a thief to catch a thief – it was worse than the worst soapy.

In level nine all the people were frozen in an icy lake, which restricted conversation somewhat. I suppose treacherous people can’t be trusted to talk to each other anyway, but it was a bit boring. By now I was feeling that, on balance, I’d rather have had a holiday in a graveyard. So far, Hell had been beyond dull.

I rushed on to get to the man himself. Satan was sitting, disconsolately, on a plain wooden chair, and he was weighed down by shackles on his arms and legs. I greeted him politely and thanked him for letting me visit. He was sullen at first, but I chatted inconsequentially about this and that and soon he warmed a little. I asked him about his childhood and how he’d got into this line of work. He admitted that he’d been a difficult child with antisocial tendencies from the start. He was charming and sad and a bit pathetic, not at all the stuff of nightmares. All in all he reminded me of an ancient politician, bowed down by his years of uselessness and living through his memories. He became a bit animated when I asked him how I could get back home. He gave me directions and warned me that I had to pass through Heaven on the way out.

“If you thought this was boring,” he said, with the semblance of a smile. “You are in for a real treat. Heaven will bore you to death.” He cracked up laughing and wished me a very good day.

I followed his directions and reached the Pearly Gates. After showing my ID card and my passport, I was allowed to pass through to the real world on the other side. The devil had been right. It was seriously boring – all harp music and ‘hail fellow, well-met’.

I reached home, after a very full day, with a number of things to consider. But there was one thing I was now sure of.

Never again would I be afraid of forbidden places.