Jacob’s Ladder is a film which draws specific conclusions on exactly what takes place in a person right before death, and the afterlife which await them. Hell is seen as a temporary stop where people’s memories and attachments are taken away so that they can enter heaven cleansed of their past life in order that a new beginning can be had. Death is seen as something that should not be feared, it only makes your inevitable transition into the next world more difficult, while being at peace with yourself at death allows the transition to your afterlife to run smoothly without remorse. Heaven is seen as a good place, a place of inner tranquility where there is no pain. The cultural attitudes of this film in respect to death and afterlife have undertones of the Christian attitudes toward death and afterlife, although large differences do exist.
The central cultural attitudes toward death and afterlife in this film can be summed up by a quotation from Jake’s chiropractor (who can also be seen as his guardian angel), who said, “The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life, your memories, your attachments, they burn it all away. But they aren’t punishing you, they’re freeing your soul.” The chiropractor also says that the way he sees it, “If you’re frightened of dying and you keep trying to hold on you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.” The film Jacob’s Ladder uses the character of Jacob Singer to demonstrate how the film’s creators view death and afterlife. The central character in the film is a man by the name of Jacob Singer (Jake), who is in Vietnam in 1971 fighting for the U.S. against the Vietcong. The film begins with a surprise attack by the Vietcong on the American camp which started a furious gun fight with heavy casualties. Jake is himself severely wounded in the stomach, which as you find out later is a mortal wound of which he is dying. The rest of the film appears to take place over a period of days to weeks or at least that is how Jake perceives it to be, however as far as time goes this is all taking place between the time that he was wounded and the time that he dies (probably a few hours).
All of what Jake sees he believes to be real, but it is really hell that his mind\soul has been taken to in order that his feelings and attachments to the life he is about to leave can be taken away. Jake wakes up from a dream where he had been thinking back to that time in Vietnam, and he realizes that he is on a subway with strange demon-like individuals. The subway represents the way he is transported from this life to hell although he does not realize this, he believes that it is after the war and he is coming back from work like any normal day. After getting off the subway, Jake goes home to his girlfriend Jezebel. Jake believes he has been divorced from his wife Sara for some time and that she threw him out. Jake looks at old pictures of Sara and his son’s Gabe and Jed, he cries when he looks at them, because he misses them. Jezebel became annoyed with Jake’s love for his former family and takes the pictures and burns them. All of this that Jake takes to be reality is really hell, Jezebel is really a devil (demon) including everyone else Jake encounters (accept the chiropractor who is his guardian angel).
They are all trying to erase his memories and attachments to his past life so that his soul can be freed from earth and can enter heaven. This is why Jezebel burns the family pictures, so that Jake will not remember his family, to erase his memory of them. From time to time in the film Jake will flashback to memories of Vietnam during that period of time when he was wounded and being brought to the hospital. Almost like little images or clips that he picked up as he came in and out of consciousness. These images that he recalls are really Jake’s periods of greatest resistance to death, where he is fighting hell’s attempts at taking his memories and attachments. During these periods throughout the film Jake is really coming back to life for brief moments. The harder Jake tries to fight his inevitable death the worse and more bizarre his experiences become in hell, as the demons must try harder to take his memories and attachments from him. The majority of the devils\demons that Jake encounters in hell appear as normal looking human beings. However, some appeared slightly deformed and mutated looking more like what most people imagine them to be. Jake throughout the film is always in denial that he could be dyeing. Therefore, the demons try to trick Jake into losing his memories and attachments by confusing him, messing with his head. For example Jake had been a part of the Veteran’s Outpatient Program under a doctor Carlson, after some strange encounters he needed to talk to Carlson so he went back to the hospital that he had been seeing Carlson at for years.
He was told that the doctor had never worked there and that he was not on file as ever being a patient there. Another example involves Jake at a party with a palm reader who tells him that according to his lifeline he should already be dead. An interesting point in the film is when Jake meets up with five ex-army buddies who were with him on the day of the raid, and none of them can remember what happened during and after the massacre. They all blame this memory lapse on some sort of government cover-up and get a lawyer to investigate the matter, and they all admit that they keep seeing strange demons showing up around them. Suddenly Jake’s five friends back out with their only excuse being that “it’s war, stuff happens.” Jake cannot understand why his friends have deserted him, but what has really happened is his friends were also mortally wounded in the raid in Vietnam and are now in hell with him, however they do not have the same will to hold on like Jake does and have given up in their resistance and died. Jake also meets up with another army buddy Paul Rutger from that day in Vietnam, Paul is completely paranoid of the demons and believes he is about to die. Sure enough after talking to Jake, Paul leaves and is killed in a car bomb. Paul was obviously also mortally wounded in the raid but had the most unpleasant stay in hell because he was the most frightened of all of death. Throughout the film the one person that Jake can trust is his chiropractor who is also his guardian angel. Jake has a bad back so he goes in for treatments to see his chiropractor for therapy. Not only is this therapy physical but spiritual as well, with the chiropractor guiding Jake in what he should do to make it through hell, without actually letting onto Jake that he is in hell.
The chiropractor wants Jake to be at peace with himself so that he can leave hell and enter into heaven, he also physically protects Jake from the devils who would torment him more by tearing his life from him by force. For example Jake was kidnapped by human-like devils and escaped by jumping from their car, severely hurt he was taken to a hospital where he was brought on a stretcher through an insane asylum where blood and body parts covered the ground, he was strapped down and devils of which one was Jezebel began to poke him with needles. Jake woke up in a hospital room with the chiropractor barging in taking him out with little resistance from the hospital staff that were devils. It seems from this example that in this hell guardian angels have power over the devils, power to interfere and look out for the well-being of the person they are in charge of. The chiropractor brought Jake back to his office and gave him one of his treatments which fixed Jake up physically, then he gave Jake the spiritual advise he needed to make it through more easily during the period of time he would have to spend in hell. Repeating from earlier the chiropractor said “The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life, your memories, your attachments, they burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you they’re freeing your soul,” “If you are frightened of dying and keep on trying to hold on you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.”
By saying this the chiropractor meant that if you are going to die (which Jake will do) then be at peace with yourself, don’t try and hold on to the things which you can have any more (Jake’s family), accept this fate and your experience in hell will not be as unpleasant. The biggest reason for Jake’s difficult time in hell is that he won’t give up his memories and attachment to his family, his wife Sara and two sons Gabe and Jed. The love for them and the desire to be with them again is the driving force behind him holding on to life as long as he can. However, after having that talk with the chiropractor Jake sees that he can still love his family and cherish the memories, but that he will never be able to see them again and that’s just the way it is so don’t try to stop the inevitable it will only hurt you more in the end. Be at peace with yourself, it is better for you. Jake’s acceptance of this was displayed when he told a cab driver to take him back to his old house that he had with his family. His son Gabe was sitting at the bottom of the stairs, Jake hugged him and told Gabe that he loved him. A bright light began to shine at the top of the stairs, Gabe stood up and took his father by the hand and walked him up into the light (heaven). At that moment the doctors in the hospital back in Vietnam pronounced Jake dead, “Ok, he’s gone, he looks sort of peaceful the guy, put up one hell of a fight though.” Jake had finally made peace with himself allowing his physical body to die and freeing his soul to go on to heaven. The attitudes toward death and afterlife in the film are in many ways similar but also different then what the Christian views are. Both have a heaven and hell, however in the film hell is a temporary place where your soul is freed of your past life, it is prepared so it can enter heaven.
Whereas the Christian view of hell is of a place where those who did not merit heaven through their life on earth are sent for all eternity in great suffering. Christianity believes you go to one or the other but not both as in the film. The film does not comment much about heaven other than giving the impression that it is a place that you can be at peace with yourself, free from any pain of your earthly life. Whereas Christianity sees heaven as being a place of eternal happiness, a place where you are delighted beyond your wildest dreams, a reward for leading a good life on earth. The difference portrayed of heaven and hell in the film is not as extreme as Christian views, where hell isn’t “fire and brimstone” it’sjust a temporary place of cleansing and heaven just a calm peaceful place, not a place of more happiness then you could ever imagine. Christianity portrays a heaven and hell as major polar opposites, either incredibly good or unbelievably bad. Both are more similar in their views of guardians angels which are assigned to a person in order to protect and help them out. Christianity sees devils as incredibly evil spirits who tempt you into falling toward hell. The film sees devils as spirits who perform the unfortunate but necessary task of forcibly freeing a person’s soul from the earth, not near as bad as the Christian outlook.
No reference to a god is made in the film or even the existence of one, although one would assume a god must exist, a god who dictates the roles of hell and the devils, as well as heaven and the angels. The film Jacob’s Ladder portrays a much different attitude toward death and the afterlife then what most religions profess. At death a person must go to hell where their soul is freed of the earth by the devils who erase their old memories and attachments, the more at peace the person is with their death the easier the process is. Once the person is at peace with themselves, they can enter heaven. Guardian angels are assigned to each person to help them make as smooth a transition from hell to heaven as possible. In certain ways the death and afterlife portrayed in Jacob’s Ladder appear similar to those depicted in Christianity, although substantial differences do exist.
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