Hell on Earth: Spatial Representations of Pain as a Moral Deterrent

My investigation into the 10 Courts of Hell as part of my long essay has led me down some interesting paths looking at various depictions of hell in parks and temples within the East Asian and South-East Asian context. In the European context, hell and various forms of the underworld are most often depicted in the form of art, essentially a 2D rendering, and lacks a physical and spatial representation. Although Buddhist and Daoist conceptions of hell do exist in a similar artistic form, it appears that many have made the jump from canvas to statue, and from statue to entire walk-in spaces. Both Haw Par Villa’s ‘Ten Courts of Hell’ (which is quite ironically being renovated to be air-conditioned) and Thailand’s Wat Mae Kaet Noi, both have explicit spatial depictions of hell, in park form that are ripe for analysis.

When I visited Haw Par Villa this summer, it was a shame that the Hell portion was closed for renovations. However, this particular part of the park is what exists in the living memory of many Singaporeans as being the most unsettling part of it. The purpose of this Chinese (in a mostly Daoist way) depiction of Hell had a clear moral purpose. Firstly, depictions of hell generally are seen as warnings and deterrents. As a writer from the New Yorker quite eloquently put it “The afterlife is an old room in the house of the human imagination”. Both Haw Par Villa and Wat Mae Kaet Noi’s spatial depiction of Hell fills this room with images of unimaginable pain and torture to those who commit sins or acts that are deemed immoral by society. This form of guiding morality through spatial representation has been used more positively, for instance in certain parts of Beijing’s parks in the Republican period. Where Republican ideals are enshrined in statues and poems on walls. However, perhaps the creators of this park understood that often fear is a more powerful motivator than the promise of reward.

This form of moral education through deterrent was applied to specific immoral acts that had corresponding punishments. In the case of Wat Mae Kaet Noi, that depicts a Buddhist conception of hell, Naraka. We see graphic representations of adulterers and promiscuous individuals experiencing the most severe forms of genital mutilation, scenes of badly-behaved schoolchildren having their tongues pulled out of their bodies and the sort of gore that would be perfectly at home in a horror film.

Haw Par Villa’s approach to depicting the punishments for specific crimes are done in a much more structured way. Each of the Ten Courts of Hell is meant to judge different sins and the strong Legalist undercurrent that pervades through Chinese culture is evident here. In each court presides a Yama (यम)a Hindu and Buddhist deity of the underworld. In both instances, they act as lawgivers, enforcers of the Dharma and punishers of wrongdoing. This concept must have appealed to existing Confucian concepts of fair judgement and punishment even in the afterlife and incorporated into Chinese conceptions of Hell.

After an initial trial in the First Court, which determines whether the virtuous acts in your life outweigh the evil. A person will either be sent across a “bridge” to reach paradise or to a corresponding Court of Hell that will mete out their punishment. The different crimes that each Court is responsible for are seemingly quite disparately organized, with rapists and rumour mongers being sent to the same Seventh Court. At the Tenth Court, offenders are handed a magical cup of tea and reincarnated. Similarly, to Wat Mae Kaet Noi, there are also grisly depictions of amputation, decapitation and being boiled alive. Neither parks are for the faint of heart and are intended to be as gruesome as possible.

One key aspect of both representations of Hell is that they are both cyclical. Whereas Christian conceptions of Hell are that of a terminus, Buddhist Hell may be considered more as purgatory if seen from a Western perspective. The existence of the Wheel of Reincarnation (related to the Buddhist concept of Nirvana) simply sees hell as a transitionary place where individuals go to receive punishment for their crimes before moving on to either paradise, whether in a 極楽 (Gokuraku) Pure Land Sense, or a Nirvana sense. In each instance, there is always hope for redemption. This strong soteriological message suggests that the fundamental conceptions of life and death, crime and punishment, in societies influenced by Buddhism was different.

Both depictions of Hell encourage virtuousness and morality in the current life that one is living in by graphically depicting what will happen if they don’t. More importantly, the existence of these depictions in the form of dioramas and parks were to convey this message to those that couldn’t read. Despite the original intention of these depictions being for the illiterate, they still serve as a powerful reminder to those that can. Showing, rather than telling us what may happen if we don’t lead a virtuous life.

Note: As the images are too graphic to be displayed on this blog, below are the links to both parks:

Ten Courts of Hell: Haw Par Villa, https://www.wheresidewalksend.com/court-of-hell/
Wat Mae Kaet Noi: https://matadornetwork.com/read/scariest-temple-thailand/