A Short History of Hellmouths

Bourges Cathedral Medieval Last Judgement HellmouthLiving just outside the gates of hell is a very convenient plot device. It handily solves the narrative challenge of providing a plausibly endless supply of demons and evil beasties for a protagonist to fight, and it’s not like hell ever goes away. Maybe you get lucky and manage to close the gate near you, but in a world where hell is manifest, I suspect entrances are a bit like Whack-A-Mole. Once the denizens realize there’s a way out, they ain’t ever going to stop trying. Shows get cancelled before the writers run out of options for villain of the week. It’s a simple equation:

1 Hellmouth = lifetime employment for 1 or more heroes

How long that lifetime is for a hero living upstairs from hell remains to be seen, not that death is necessarily a permanent problem in those circumstances. Buffy the Vampire Slayer dies twice, and the first scenes of Sleepy Hollow involve Ichabod Crane crawling out of his grave over 200 years after being cut down by the Headless Horseman. The weirdness of resurrection is easily rolled into the general weirdness of a hellmouth itself. Buffy describes it as a place “where the way a thing feels — it kind of starts being that way… for real.” Given the range of things people are capable of feeling and imagining, that alone would be enough to create something like hell even without the kinds of demons that have horns and snaggly teeth.

What they all have in common is that they’re portals to other dimensions – spiritual realms, parallel realities, far away galaxies, past or future times – usually all terrible. Sometimes they’re gateways to a specific version of hell, like the Old Testament-based one in Sleepy Hollow. Sometimes they open the way to multiple evil dimensions like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They almost always seem to be located somewhere unexpected to reduce the likelihood that anyone other than the heroes will notice or believe in them, like a small town in the Hudson River Valley (Sleepy Hollow), or under a high school in SWelcome to Sunnydale signunnydale, California (Buffy). Kaiju from a different dimension appear at the bottom of the ocean (Pacific Rim), and you might find portals to hell in the basement of a Long Island Dutch Colonial house (Amityville Horror) or a kid’s closet (Poltergeist).

One of the earliest examples I remember encountering was the Nexus of All Realities in the Marvel Man-Thing comics. It’s an inter-dimensional portal that was opened in the middle of a swamp in the Florida Everglades in the 1970s and Man-Thing becomes its guardian. It proceeds to generate all kinds of characters who would otherwise never either come to Florida or encounter a reclusive, plant-based humanoid swamp-dweller.

14th century Taymouth Hours HellmouthThe image of the entrance to hell as the mouth of a giant monster which will consume the damned on judgement day first appeared in Anglo-Saxon art circa 800AD and spread throughout Europe during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Medieval theatre troupes often included a Mouth of Hell prop in their mystery plays, sometimes with moving joints so it could swallow people whole. Descriptions of some performances included fire bursting out of the mouth, and actors in devil suits popping out and dragging sinners back in with them. Hellmouths were popular in depictions of the Last Judgement, and references often included creatures with large or many mouths, like the biblical sea-monster Leviathan, Cerberus the three-headed hellhound who guarded the entrance to the Greek underworld, or the Norse wolf-monster Fenrir who ate Odin during Ragnarök.

The depiction of hellmouths has changed somewhat since those days. Rather than being a gaping maw that threatens to suck in all sinners come the end of days, the hellmouths of tv and movies mostly seem to spew forth demons into the world and the hero’s job is to send them back from whence they came. Ichabod and Abbie Sleepy HollowThat job is usually theirs whether they want it or not, either because they can’t duck destiny or because it just flat out follows them around. Buffy is the Chosen One, gifted with the strength and ability to destroy vampires and demons when she’d rather be cheerleading or shopping at the mall. Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills are forced together from different eras as Witnesses to the end of days.

As soon as you’re The Slayer or The Witnesses, you’re famous and there’s no tapping out. It’s like holding the championship belt in the kind of fight league where you can be challenged anywhere, anytime. Those demons all know who you are and they’re coming for you, whether you’re hunting them down, running away, or making toast. Your destiny is to fight off whatever creatures the show-writers come up with each week until you finally find a way to blow that hellmouth back to hell and earn yourself the right to drink a cup of coffee in peace.



alex MacFadyen is happy to be a wallflower in this particular dance.

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