THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE  IN WESTERN CULTURAL TRADITIONS
Master's Thesis by Alan Pew

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NDERF Gives a special thanks to Alan Pew (e-mail link alanp46@msn.com), who kindly has allowed his Master's Thesis to be published on this web site.

Abstract

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE IN WESTERN CULTURAL TRADITIONS

Despite the failure of the scientific, philosophical and religious communities to attribute importance to the near-death experience, the phenomenon has been, and continues to be, a significant motif in Western cultural traditions.  This paper shows this significance by identifying and analyzing works in the fields of Western fictional literature, art, film and religion which contain the near-death experience as a major motif.

Introduction

Although Dr. Raymond Moody , in his 1975 best-selling book Life After Life, is generally credited with coining the phrase "near-death experience" (NDE), it is the work of two psychiatrists, Russell Noyes, and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in the early 1970's  that generated contemporary interest in the phenomenon (Walker & Serdahely, 111-112). Since that time, there have been a plethora of popular books, magazine and newspaper articles, talk show discussions, and investigations which have examined, discussed, analyzed and theorized about the NDE from a variety of vantage points. Unfortunately, however,  the anecdotal and subjective nature of the NDE does not lend itself well to definitive verification within the scientific method. And, since such scientific inquiry is the foundation of truth within most Western societies, this lack of verifiability has hindered acceptance of the phenomenon within the scientific community (Walker & Serdahely, 108). So, though there has been over a quarter of a century of research studies into the near-death experience by experts in the fields of medicine, biology, psychology, philosophy, and theology, they are still unable to definitively explain the phenomenon or its meaning in human life. A review of the literature generated by this research reveals a general feeling of skepticism, and in many cases, outright denial of the existence of the near-death experience (Walker & Serdahely, 108).  Even within studies that acknowledge its existence, many are unwilling to attribute any more then cursory significance of the phenomenon to humanity. The near-death experience has often been explained away as simply drug-induced hallucinations, depersonalization, limbic lobe dysfunction, ego regression, Freudian reductionism and birth-recall models (Walker & Serdahely, 118).   It is this indifference and/or denial which provides the impetus and rationale for this paper. It is my contention that, while the scientific, philosophical and religious communities fail to attribute importance to the near-death experience, it has been, and continues to be a significant motif in Western cultural traditions. In support of this contention, I will research the fields of Western literature, visual arts (film and art), and religion in an effort to identify those works which contain the near-death experience as a major motif, in order to show its significance in those fields. 

The Near-Death Experience in Literature

Written accounts of near-death related experiences have existed in Humankind�s writings since early antiquity and gained contemporary popularity through the publication of works by researchers such as Noyes, Kubler-Ross and Moody in the early 1970�s. Other researchers soon joined the parade of authors who offered their own specific views, results, conclusions and, in some cases, questions about the phenomenon. Some of these non-fictional offerings either supported or disputed the views, results or conclusions of previous writers. Others presented new or different foci or perspectives in the analysis of the phenomenon. While these non-fictional offerings are certainly informative, thought provoking and important in the investigation of the near-death experience (NDE), their significance as part of Western cultural traditions will only be reviewed as supplementary reference materials in this paper. The primary focus of this section, as well as the next section on the near-death experience in visual arts, will be the review of fictional works that contain the near-death experience motif. Throughout the review of these works, there will undoubtedly be situations where the particular work has been produced in more then one genre. For example, a book may later be produced as a movie or vice-versa. Unless the remake is significantly altered so that its relevancy to this paper is changed, I will present the work only once and in the genre which I feel is most familiar to the general reader or most pertinent to this paper.

A review of the field of fictional literature reveals numerous books, poems and plays from various historical periods that contain motifs that depict near-death or related experiences. The depictions of these experiences include stories in which the NDE phenomenon is specifically identified and where this phenomenon is an integral part of the storyline. In these examples, it is fairly easy to pick out nearly all of Moody�s 15 NDE elements (LAL, 34-97). There are also stories in which the NDE is not specifically identified, yet they contain specific examples of Moody�s elements and/or NDE related phenomena. In these examples the NDE may be critical to the storyline or it may be of less overall importance then in the previous category. Some of the stories contain specific references to the NDE or related phenomena, but their importance to the overall storyline is minimal or non-existent. And, finally, there are stories in which the NDE is only allegorically referenced for a  variety of reasons. I will identify a number of works within each of these categories and across a variety of forms in an effort to show the wide ranging impact the NDE has had in the field of fictional literature.

Written in 1981 by Peter Carey, Bliss is a novel in which the NDE is critically important. In it, a middle-aged man briefly experiences death as a result of a heart attack. Experiencing both heaven and hell during his brief trip to the �other side�, he returns to life a changed man. Identification of the near-death experience is clearly specific and apparent, yet it is the transformative consequences of these experiences which form the basic foundation of the story. Death Trip, a novel written by Mark Littleton in 1992 is also critically dependent upon the near-death experience for its story. In it a crazed professor at a seminary college has developed a drug which induces temporary death in its users allowing them to embark on brief, otherworld journeys into the afterlife. The professor runs afoul of the law when he forcibly induces these experiences on a young boy in an effort to refine the drug to allow for deeper journeys. Again, the NDE is clear and specific with nearly all of Moody�s elements apparent in the story. In The Edge of Paradise (Anderson, 1995) and In Heaven as on Earth (Peck, 1996), the near-death experience is specifically referenced and critically important to the plot. In each of these religiously focused novels, the body of the protagonist dies from illness but his consciousness continues to exist. What follows are riveting, thought provoking experiences encountered by these disembodied consciousness� as they travel the mysterious world of the afterlife. The 1951 short story A Descent into the Maelstrom, by Edgar Allan Poe, contains a number of Moody�s elements, including a spellbinding description of a vortex of water, the border of an idyllic world, ineffability, a reluctance to tell others and a major transformation in the protagonist�s values and attitudes towards life. Though written 84 years prior to Moody�s labeling, Ambrose Bierce clearly outlines the NDE phenomenon in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. This 1891 story recounts the after death experiences of a man hung as a Confederate spy during the American Civil War and includes the tunnel, a loud buzzing at the moment of death, meetings with spirits of loved ones and the border.  Similarly, Katherine Porter�s 1938 work, Pale Horse, Pale Rider , presents specific experiences of Miranda, the main character, which are clearly examples of a near-death experience (Straight, 107). In fact, Straight contends that these experiences are based upon Porter�s own near-death experiences in the influenza epidemic of 1918 (108).

Lest the reader envision that only �recent� works of fiction contain specific references describing the near-death experience, attention is drawn to Pearl, an obscure poem written in the latter part of the fourteenth century by an unknown poet. This poem describes the journey of the spirit of a man who has been traumatized by the death of his daughter. Obviously written long before the naming of the phenomenon, this is an alliterative work which illuminates the transformative powers of the near-death experience and has been found to contain at least 11 of Moody�s 15 elements (Gunn, 135). Also, in the tenth book of The Republic, written by the Greek philosopher Plato over 300 years before the birth of Christ, there is the story of Er, a soldier who is killed in battle but whose body returns to life on the funeral pyre. Er recounts an incredible story of experiences encountered by his consciousness while his body lies dead on the battlefield. Again, many of Moody�s elements are easily identifiable.

Another common motif which is indicative of modern near-death experiences is the story of fantastic journeys to other worlds. Again, many of the selections indicated were written well before Moody�s labeling of the near-death experience, yet their stories are strongly consistent with contemporary accounts of passages into other worlds as reported during modern NDE accounts. Researchers have found some of the strongest links in the realm of children�s literature. Specifically, Swift�s Gulliver�s Travels, Carroll�s twin tales Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Barrie�s Peter Pan, and Lewis�s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Greene, F.G., Motifs, 206-207). Within these well known, whimsical tales, the protagonists are shown to travel to fantastic other worlds inhabited by a variety of strange and interesting beings. The experiences that these fictional characters encounter have a correlative relationship with those reported in modern NDE accounts (Greene, F.G., Motifs, 212). In his travels to the land of the sorcerers, Gulliver is shown to converse with the dead. Likewise, the young travelers in Peter Pan encountered a number of beings, some of which are thought to be the spirits of dead people (Hearn, Intro). Encounters with the souls of dead people is common in modern near-death experiences (Greene, F.G., Motifs, 210). Alice in Alice in Wonderland  entered her fantastic otherworld by falling into a dark hole, Lucy, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, enters hers by entering a long dark wardrobe. Both of these accounts present imagery suggestive of the tunnel motif which abounds in the modern NDE (Greene, F.G., Motifs, 212 & 221). Additionally, in Alice�s trip into her mirror in Through the Looking Glass, she sees a reverse optical doubling of herself which is reminiscent of similar experiences reported during some out-of-body experiences reported in modern NDE accounts (Couliano, 155). Throughout each of these fantasy works, common NDE phenomena, such as the separation of consciousness from the body, movement by floating or flying, and the radical distortion of time and space, are specifically suggested (Greene, F.G., Motifs, 222). In another children�s classic, The Velveteen Rabbit, Kellehear has identified the theme of death and renewal which he feels is �strikingly similar to the near-death experience� (Kellehear, 36). To support this contention, Kellehear points out that this theme includes a separation at the time of death when the rabbit is taken from the boy and stuffed into a dark sack (Kellehear, 44). Upon its emergence from that sack, the rabbit undergoes a life review and encounters a being, a fairy, who takes it on a fantastic journey to another world in which immortality is common (Kellehear, 44). This image seems to parallel accounts reported in the modern near-death experience (Kellehear, 44).

There are other, ancient literary works that contain motifs of fantastic journeys that are consistent with near-death ecstatic voyages. In the sixth book of Virgil�s Aeneid, the hero, Aeneas, is depicted visiting the underworld of the dead. His entrance into this underworld was gained by plunging into an open cavern of darkness. His journey takes him through the various kingdoms of this underworld where he encounters the souls of numerous dead people. Finally, at the end of his journey through this mysterious world, he enters into the Land of Joy, a brilliant place of great happiness and beauty. Before his return to the land of the living, Aeneas is permitted a glimpse of the future. It is not difficult to see the suggestion of various NDE elements depicted in this writing. The journey itself strongly suggests a separation of consciousness from the body. The plunging into the darkened cavern is analogous to the modern tunnel account. The brilliant light and the border into the land of ineffable pleasure and beauty are also reminiscent of modern NDE accounts, as are the encounters with souls of the dead.

Similarly, the Divine Comedy, written between 1310 and 1314 by Dante Alighieri, also depicts a fantastic journey into the otherworld. Guided by Virgil, Dante descends through the realm of the dead, encountering the souls of men of whom he is familiar. The underworld into which Dante descends exists without time or change (Auerbach, 142). This is similar to the distortion of time that is common in modern NDE accounts. Homer�s Odyssey is also said to present images that correspond favorably with modern near-death experiences. F.G. Greene, in his intriguing discourse on the subject, points out several images in this ancient Greek classic which, he feels, correlate with the ecstatic, otherworld journeys of some modern near-death experiencers (Odysseus 225-226). He notes that the voyage of Odysseus contains sensations such as floating out of the physical body, the tunnel effect and emergence into worlds of immense beauty and love (Greene, F.G., Odysseus, 226). In his travels through Hades, Odysseus encounters numerous souls of the dead, including his mother. When Odysseus attempts to hug her, she passes right through him. F.G. Greene points out that at least one researcher has reported this phenomenon in modern NDE accounts (Odysseus, 235). Finally, in recounting the meeting between Odysseus and Teiresias, reference is made to another common NDE element, the panoramic life review, which includes future as well as past events (Greene, F.G., Odysseus, 236).

The NDE, and related motifs, have been found not only in epic poems such as Pearl and The Aeneid, but are also present in shorter poetry as well. It has been suggested that the early 20th century poem Renascence, by Edna St. Vincent Millay, describes a transcendent experience akin to an NDE (Cusumano). In Just Lost When I Was Saved, Emily Dickinson presents an image of the narrator�s return to life from death (Henderson and Oakes, 236). And Walt Whitman, in his Song of Myself, describes the luminous dream experiences of a clairvoyant persona whose spiritual illumination includes the sensation of an expanded sense of hearing and touch, a radical distortion of time and space, encounters with the spirits of familiar dead persons and the ability to identify with �all joys and agonies of the past, present and future� (Aspiz, 174-175). Each of these experiences appear to be consistent with modern NDE accounts.

The continuation of consciousness motif is also evident in at least one theatrical writing. In Thornton Wilder�s play, Our Town, one of the characters, Emily, dies and returns with other dead entities, to observe the burial of her former body. Not yet accustomed to her status as a dead person, Emily is permitted to return to life to relive her twelfth birthday. However, not only will she return to relive that day, but she will also actually be able to watch herself live it. This experience would appear to be similar to the reports of autoscopic experiences of some OBE accounts of modern near-death experiencers. Additionally, Emily�s desire to return to the land of the dead at the end of this episode is suggestive of the reluctance on the part of many near-death experiencers to return to life. The life review element, so common to NDE accounts, has been identified in numerous literary works. Nicholl identifies five well-known stories in which the life review is portrayed in characters facing death (Nicholl, 85-86). Nicholl contends that the life reviews depicted in Tolstoy�s The Death of Ivan Illych, Hemingway�s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Porter�s The Jilting of Granny Weatherall, Cather�s Neighbor Rosicky, and Olsen�s Tell Me a Riddle, correlate with the fifth stage of death as identified by Kubler-Ross (Nicholl, 95).  Not every depiction of the near-death experience in fictional literature is important to the storyline of the work. In Hemingway�s Farewell to Arms, the protagonist, Frederic, is wounded by an Austrian trench mortar and undergoes a brief episode where he �felt myself rush bodily out of myself� and �I knew I was dead� (54). After brief sensations of floating, Frederic felt himself slide back into his body. All of these experiences are clearly consistent with the near-death experience. In this instance, however, the phenomenon appears as little more then an enhancement, having virtually no impact on the overall storyline. Yet its inclusion seems to illustrate an awareness of the near-death phenomenon as an intriguing subject, an idea that is understandable since Hemingway, like Porter, is reported to have undergone a near-death experience (Walker and Serdahely, 107).

This review has not been presented as, nor is it purported to be, an exhaustive listing of fictional works which contain the near-death or related experiences, but rather as a sampling of identified works across a variety of genres, in an effort to show the significance of the phenomenon in the field. 

The Near-Death Experience in the Visual Arts

The focus of this section is on the presentation of a survey conducted to identify works in the visual arts that contain the near-death experience as a major motif. In this instance, the visual arts will be separated into two separate forms, art and film.

In the preceding section on literature, the search for the near-death experience motif was conducted in works in which the themes of the works were developed with the help of extended and continuously flowing written narratives. The identification of the near-death experience motif in these works was fairly simple, either by direct allusion to the phenomenon or through specific allegorical reference. In the search of our first form of visual art, there are no extended or continuously flowing narratives to assist in the identification of the near-death experience motif. Perhaps because of the static nature of most artwork, there were no works that could be specifically offered as representing a complete near-death experience. This does not mean, however, that the world of art is completely devoid of the near-death motif. This search has revealed several works of art that could be interpreted as representative of one or more of Moody�s elements or of specific near-death accounts that have been commonly reported by experiencers. Probably the most widely publicized work of art to be specifically identified as representative of the near-death experience is Hieronymous Bosch�s Ascent in the Empyrean. Created sometime during the late 15th to early 16th century, this �profoundly  significant�  work depicts angels guiding a soul through a dark tunnel toward a brilliant light which has been identified as Abraham�s bosom (MacGregor, 33). This painting seems to contain a number of near-death elements including the tunnel, the light and the encounter with spiritual beings. In addition, the flight of the angels could be construed as reminiscent of the sensation of floating sometimes mentioned in near-death experiences. Although created more then 200 years before Moody�s labeling of the near-death experience phenomenon, it is easy to see why Alice Turner claims that Ascent into the Empyrean �bears an uncanny resemblance to modern near-death experiences� (125). Similarly, Dore�s Vision of the Empyrean, painted in 1868 as an illustration to Dante�s The Divine Comedy, shows Dante and his escort Beatrice, facing the brilliant light of the Empyrean through a vivid vortex of angelic beings (Grof and Grof, 63). This vortex could be seen as suggestive of Moody�s tunnel, while the presence of angels is indicative of the encounter with spiritual beings. The separation of body and spirit is reflected in the painting The Soul Hovering Above the Body by English artist and poet William Blake. Created in the early 19th century, this eerie work shows the soul of a dead young woman hovering above and looking down at her lifeless body. Francesco Traini intimates a similar separation of spirit and body in a section of the 14th century painting, The Triumph of Death. Here, however, souls are shown being dragged from the mouths of the dying by hideous devils (Hughes, 243).

Though not always publicly acknowledged, one of the frequent interpretations of the near-death experience phenomenon is that it, somehow, provides the human race with a glimpse into what our existence will be like after our death (Moody, TLB, 151). As we shall see in the next chapter, two of the major Western religions, Christianity and Islam, espouse the idea of life after death as a major component. Besides the written narratives contained in the various holy books and religious writings, the concept of the afterlife is often manifested in the images contained in religious paintings, sculpture and other forms of art. Of the various themes and stories included in religious art, by far the most prevalent are the depictions of the afterlife worlds of heaven and hell. (Hughes, 7). Although too numerous to list here, many of the works which depict these two opposing afterlife destinations contain images which are reminiscent of near-death experience elements or descriptions of visions recalled by near-death experiencers. For example, in the 15th century painting, The Last Judgement by Fra Angelico, paradise (heaven) is seen as a garden full of beautiful flowers in which joyful friends are spiritually reunited (Aries, 170-171). This painting seems to depict scenes which could be correlative with the paradisiacal scenes encountered in many modern near-death experiences including meetings with the spirits of loved ones, the sense of total peace and well-being and the world of intense beauty. Conversely, many of the depictions of hell contain images that correlate favorably with some accounts of hellish near-death experiences. These accounts include lifeless or threatening apparitions, barren or ugly expanses, danger and the possibility of violence or torture and temperature extremes (Atwater, 41). Bosch�s 16th century painting, Hell, is an example of a work that contains all of these images.

      The large volume of examples resulting from the search for the near-death experience motif in our second form of visual art, film, necessitates their organization into some sort of logical order. Accordingly, the examples will be organized chronologically by year with the earliest examples listed first. A number of the examples in this section were re-made at later dates. When this situation occurs, the initial production will be covered in detail in the year of its release. This coverage will include the title and year of any re-makes. This is the only coverage that will be provided for these re-makes. 

The search for the near-death experience in film reveals our first example, a 1930 offering entitled Outward Bound. This obscure drama is based upon a popular Broadway play and takes place aboard a mysterious ship filled to capacity with a disparate group of passengers, all but two of whom are dead. This allegorical fantasy chronicles the experiences of these two misfits, a young couple who have committed suicide but have not yet crossed over to the land of the dead (IMDb). This movie, which was re-made in 1944 as Between Two Worlds and in 1961 as The Flight that Disappeared, presents the continuation of consciousness after death, encounters with spiritual beings and the journey to the other world which are all suggestive of the near-death experience. A few years later, in 1934, Death Takes a Holiday depicts Death as he takes on human form and, eventually, falls in love. Dismayed by this feeling he decides to return to the netherland. To his surprise, the object of his affections insists on accompanying him. Reluctantly he agrees and they both return to the land of the dead. While some of the concepts in this film could be construed as reminiscent of modern near-death accounts, the relationship is considered very, very allegorical (Migliaccio). Moving on to 1939,  there is nothing allegorical about the relationship between the near-death experience and the classic musical fantasy film, The Wizard of Oz. Probably the most well known of the movies to be cited here, Migliaccio has identified The Wizard of Oz as  �the absolute best movie capturing most of the key NDE elements� and, he conjectures, it would �take hours to make all of the connections� between the two (Migliaccio). The hero, Dorothy, is struck in the head by a falling window frame and knocked unconscious. During her period of unconsciousness, she embarks on a fantastic journey that begins with her house being sucked into the vortex of a huge cyclone that deposits her in Munchkinland, a section of the Land of Oz. This strange and beautiful land is inhabited by a number of small, odd beings that respond to Dorothy�s pleas for help in getting back home by directing her to the great Wizard in the Emerald City. Her journey to the magnificent Emerald City is marked by numerous encounters with other strange beings, some of which have very familiar faces. Upon her return to consciousness, Dorothy undergoes a significant change in her appreciation for life. Besides the obvious correlation between the cyclone and Moody�s tunnel, The Wizard of Oz, contains at least 9 other elements including, ineffability, the separation of consciousness, encounters with loved ones, the being of light, the life review, approaching the boundary, the return to physical body and the transformation of values and attitudes toward life.

The decade of the 1940�s finds a plethora of films that contain the near-death experience, or related phenomena, as a major motif. The 1940 box office flop, The Blue Bird, tells the story of a young girl�s magical trip through the past, present and future in search of the Blue Bird of Happiness (IMDb). Her travels, which include a visit with her dead grandparents, could be seen as correlative to the separation of body and spirit and the journey to the other world, common in near-death accounts. Also in 1940, the animated Disney classic Fantasia includes an out-of-the-body scene in which Mickey, as a sorcerer�s apprentice, floats out of his body during a dream (Greene F.G., Motifs, 213). In 1941, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, is seen as a landmark film in the establishment of the imagery of the near-death experience shown in almost all near-death related films of the 1940�s (Migliaccio). Re-made in 1978 as Heaven Can Wait, this supernatural comedy presents the experiences of Joe, a professional boxer (a professional football player in the re-make) who is mistakenly ushered to heaven by an overzealous celestial escort. Because his mortal body has been cremated by the time the mistake is discovered, Joe is permitted to return to Earth in the body of a murdered, cold-hearted businessman. Ineffability, hearing oneself pronounced dead, the tunnel, the light, the life review and a variation on the return to the physical body are all apparent here. There was another Heaven Can Wait, released in 1943, which presents the story of a dead man whose spirit goes to hell only to have his credentials questioned. What follows is an entertaining review of his life, concentrating especially on the women he has known. The separation, the life review and the encounter with others are all evident in this sophisticated comedy. Also in 1943, the  musical drama Cabin in the Sky, relates the story of Joe Jackson who is seriously injured in a barroom brawl. Dreaming of a heavenly struggle for his soul, Joe is permitted to return to life to clean up his act. The separation, the light, the life review and the change in values are identifiable in this delightful classic. Possessing a similar relationship to the near-death experience as Here Comes Mr. Jordan, the 1943 fantasy production A Guy Named Joe, tells the story of a dead Army pilot who ascends to heaven and whose spirit returns to Earth to assist his grieving girlfriend to find love with another pilot (IMDb). This movie was re-made in 1989 as Always. In the 1946 comedy, Angel on My Shoulder, the Devil arranges for a deceased mobster to make amends for his misdeeds by returning to Earth as a well respected judge (IMDb). The separation, the life review, the value changes and the change in attitude towards life are some of the elements represented here. One of the �must see� movies for every Christmas season is the 1946, James Stewart classic, It�s a Wonderful  Life. An aborted suicide, a guardian angel and the transformation of a life in shambles make for a real tearjerker of a movie. While not specifically a near-death experience motif, the plot does provide for some interesting thematic considerations (Migliaccio). In addition, the life review, value change and the change in attitude toward life are clearly evident. We close out the decade of the 1940�s with a British film entitled Stairway to Heaven  (1946) or, as it is known in the United Kingdom, A Matter of Life or Death. This romantic fantasy outlines the experiences of a World War II RAF pilot who bails out of his crippled bomber without a parachute. He mysteriously survives the ordeal but soon learns that his apparent good luck is the result of a miscue by the angel of death. Stuck between death and the land of the living, the pilot suffers a near-death experience during an operation. While undergoing this experience he envisions a heavenly court convened to rule on whether he should be permitted to remain alive to wed his American sweetheart or if he should be sent on to the land of the dead. There are numerous near-death concepts present in this interesting and thought provoking film, including heavenly transports, medical reductionism, spirit guides, temporal distention, and the big judge in the sky (Migliaccio). Additionally, the tunnel, encounters with loved ones, and feelings of total peace and well being are apparent.

Interestingly, the decade of the 1950�s shows a dearth of near-death related films. In 1951,  The Spirit of St. Louis references the out-of-body-experience reported by Charles Lindbergh during his transatlantic flight (Migliaccio). Also in 1951, one of the numerous renditions of the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, was released. Although not specifically related to the near-death experience, the life review element, the transformative consequences of the life review and self-judgment are similar to accounts from modern near-death experiences (Migliaccio). The final example from the 1950�s is the 1956 musical Carousel, which tells the story of a carnival barker who dies during the commission of a robbery and is permitted to return to Earth for one day to take care of unfinished business. The light, the life review, the separation and the changes in values and attitude toward life are all portrayed.

While the 1950�s showed few examples of near-death related films, the 1960�s produced even less. During the search, only one film during the entire decade was found to contain the near-death experience motif. This single example, however, is the epitome of a filmed NDE. Released in 1962, Carnival of Souls begins with a car containing 3 young women plunging over the side of a bridge into the river below. Quite sometime after the accident, one of the crash victims is seen emerging from the water, apparently unhurt. The film follows the seemingly lucky young woman as she resumes her life only to be haunted by strange visions. She travels to Utah and is mysteriously drawn to an abandoned carnival. She soon finds that the carnival is not completely abandoned but populated by the town�s dead. Shortly after her awareness of the true nature of this strange carnival and her experiences therein, the venue shifts back to the river where the car crash took place. In the closing scene we see the car being removed from the river with the body of the young woman still inside! While there were not specific references to Moody�s elements, the plotline clearly is indicative of a near-death experience.

The 1970�s began with the made for TV thriller, The Man Who Haunted Himself, a 1970 film which tells of a man whose physical body is seen resting from a car accident but whose alter-ego escapes to lead a life of moral decay. While this film is also not specifically based on the near-death experience, it does make references to some near-death experience elements including the separation and the life review. In 1978 we find the movie, Resurrection, which, according to Migliaccio, is the first movie to be specifically based on Moody�s research. In it, a woman briefly experiences the afterlife as the result of a car accident. She returns to her hometown to recuperate and discovers that she has a strange power to heal people, evidently a result of her short trip to the other side (AMG). Nearly all of Moody�s elements are evident in this, the first �modern� movie to reflect the near-death experience as reported by experiencers (Migliaccio).

The 1980�s saw an explosion of near-death related movies, such as the 1980 film Somewhere in Time, which contains an out-of-body scene and makes clear references of going into the �light�. Released in 1981, The Devil and Max Devlin, relates the story of a man who dies in an accident and goes to hell. There the devil tells him that he may return to Earth if he procures the souls of three innocent youths for the Devil within two months. The separation, the encounter and the journey to the otherworld are indicated here. Both Dreams Come True (1982), in which two teens learn to separate their souls from their bodies during sleep, and All of Me (1984), in which the soul of a recently deceased millionairess mistakenly lands in a man�s body, are suggestive of the separation common in near-death reports. The 1983 science fiction thriller, Brainstorm, is said to directly reference the near-death experience and devotes a good deal of time to the out-of-body and near-death phenomena (Migliaccio). The interesting and thought provoking comedy from 1985, Impure Thoughts, takes place in Purgatory where we find four dead men reminiscing about growing up in a Catholic school (AMG). The timelessness of the afterlife, as well as the life review, change in values and attitude toward life and the encounter with others are vividly displayed here. Also from 1985, The Quiet Earth, a science fiction thriller from New Zealand, presents the story of three Kiwi�s who are apparently the soul survivors in the world in which a science experiment has caused all other creatures to vanish into another dimension. The common link between each of the survivors, and apparently the reason for their survival, is that each of them suffered a near-death experience at the very moment the experiment went awry. In the flashbacks of the near-death experiences nearly all of Moody�s elements are apparent.  The out-of-body experience, the encounter with others, the life review, the return to the physical body, and the changes in values and attitude toward life are all graphically portrayed in Richard Pryor�s 1986 autobiographical drama, JoJo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, a movie about a man�s near-death experience and its consequences. The 1987 fantasy, Made in Heaven, is a romantic film about the soul of a dead man who meets the soul of a yet to be born woman in heaven. The two fall in love but are soon separated when the soul of the woman is �born� on earth. The man�s soul is permitted to return to Earth to search for his lost love. A number of Moody�s elements are apparent here including hearing oneself pronounced dead, the separation, the encounter with others, the light and the boundary. Likewise, a number of elements are illustrated in the 1988 dark comedy, Dead Heat, in which a dead cop continues his crimefighting career against resurrected dead criminals by having himself resurrected by the same machine that brought back the criminals. The out-of-body experience, ineffability, the feeling of total peace and well being, the light and corroboration of out-of-body events are included.

Finally, the decade of the 1990�s follows the lead of the 1940�s and 1980�s in that it saw a multitude of films released which contained the near-death experience motif. This is particularly true of the year 1990, which, like the year 1943, produced four near death related films. Flatliners is a 1990 science fiction thriller about five medical students who search for answers about the afterlife by exploring the near-death phenomena (IMDb). While up to 11 of  Moody�s 15 elements are identifiable, this movie misrepresents the near-death experience to such an extent that one near-death researcher has labeled it �a massive disappointment� (Migliaccio). Also in 1990, we find two near-death related ghost stories. In the first, the blockbuster hit Ghost, we have the story of a man who is killed during an apparent mugging. The man becomes a ghost and learns that his death was no accident as he returns to Earth to seek justice and protect his lover. Although off the mark on many of the details, Ghost does present superb special effects for the out-of-body and near-death experiences (Migliaccio). The second film, Ghost Dad, relates the story of Elliot, a man who dies in a car accident but returns to Earth as a ghost. A scientist, who halts Elliot�s passage to the afterlife, urges him to find his body, which he does. Meanwhile, his daughter also dies in an accident, has an out-of-body experience and returns to her body. Eventually Elliot does locate his body and returns to it. There are 9 elements represented here including the out-of-body experience, ineffability, hearing oneself pronounced dead, encounters with others, reluctance to tell others, the change in values and attitude towards life, corroboration of out-of-body events and returning to ones body. The fourth film from 1990 is Jacob�s Ladder, a personal favorite that relates the experiences of Jacob Singer, a Vietnam veteran who is haunted by his war experiences and the death of his son. The unexpected ending finds that Jacob had really died during his wartime service, therefore we are left to ponder the reality of his subsequent experiences. The tunnel, the meetings with others, the light, hearing oneself pronounced dead and the life review are all identifiable in this surrealistic drama.

The 1991 comedy, Defending Your Life, is the story of an advertising executive who is killed in a car accident and finds himself in Judgement City. Everyone there goes on trial to determine whether they move on to the afterlife or return to their prior life. This movie presents the tunnel, the feeling of peace and well being, hearing oneself pronounced dead, the light, the life review, the border, and the changes in values and attitude toward life. In the 1993 psychological thriller, Fearless a man is involved in a horrific plane crash but, remarkably, he walks away as one of the few survivors. His efforts to help save some of the other survivors during the aftermath of the crash lead to him being hailed as a hero. He develops a �messianic� complex that causes him to become alienated from his family (AMG). He begins to work with some of the other survivors in an effort to help them cope with the tragedy, including a woman who has lost her two-year-old child in the crash. She reciprocates and helps him re-establish contact with his family. The light, the feeling of total peace and well being, and the changes in values and attitude towards life are identifiable in this movie. Also, specific references are made to the painting, Ascent into the Empyrean, previously discussed in this chapter. Also from 1993, Heart and Souls, outlines the experiences of four individuals who are killed in a bus accident. At the exact moment of their deaths, Thomas is born and the spirits of the four bus riders are, somehow, entangled with Thomas� consciousness. In this delightful comedy we find the out-of-body experience, the feeling of total peace and well being and the changes in values and attitude towards life. Our final example of near-death related films shows that the motif can be found in almost any genre. In the 1996 adult film, Cyberella: Forbidden Passions, the erotic, afterlife encounters of a �cyber seductress� are seen fulfilling a variety of intimate dreams (IMDb). The separation, encounters with others, the tunnel, the light and the border are illustrated here.

As is evident from this investigation, the near-death experience motif can be found in numerous films throughout the various genres, from children�s fantasies to adult oriented stories. While fairly extensive, this list of examples of films containing the near-death, or related phenomena, motifs is not intended as an exhaustive listing of near-death related films. I would think, however, that it does provide a basis upon which to judge the significance of the phenomena in the general field of visual arts and in the specific field of cinematography. 

The Near-Death Experience in Religion

In this section I will present the results of a search for the near-death experience motif in the literature of various Western religions. Specifically, I surveyed the scriptural and mythical literature of Christianity, Judaism and Islam to identify instances which appear to report or describe the near-death or related experiences.

According to Noss and Noss, one of the most important functions of religion is to create a connection between the material, perceptible world which surrounds us and mysterious,  powerful, unseen forces and spirits (3). It would seem natural, then, that the literature of religion would contain a significant array of accounts and stories of near-death or related experiences. Indeed, Zaleski points out that nearly all religious traditions contain stories of people who return from death with stories of visits to other worlds

(LWTC, 20). In particular, the various accounts of prophets, sages and saints in Christianity, Judaism and Islam contain stories of their journeys to the other world, voyages through heaven and/or hell and ascension to the seat of divinity where they receive divine or special knowledge to bring back to the world or a sanction to prophesize (Zaleski, LWTC, 20). In many cases these ascents bear a striking resemblance to the accounts of modern near-death experiences (Zaleski, LWTC, 25).

The most widely read book in Western society, on the subject of spirituality and life after death, is the Christian holy book, the Bible (Moody, LAL, 101). Stories of return from death seem to abound in the Bible. Rawlings identifies I Kings 17, as one of these stories (46). In this selection there is the story of the prophet Elijah and the widow�s son. In verses 17-24, the son becomes ill and dies. The widow, who has been hosting Elijah for several days, beseeches him as a man of God to intervene on her son�s behalf. In verse 21, Elijah �stretched himself upon the child three times� and prayed to the Lord to �let this child�s soul come into him again�. In verse 22, the soul of the child returns to him and he revives. The stretching upon the child could be seen as a description of a procedure similar to what we now refer to as cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (Greene, H., 250). Also, the acknowledgement of the departure and return of the child�s soul is reminiscent of some descriptions of the separation during the near-death experience.

Likewise, II Kings 4 recounts the story of the Shummanites son who, in verses 34 and 35, is revived from death in a similar manner by the prophet Elisha. Elisha himself is brought back to life in II Kings 13: 20. In the New Testament, Mark 5 relates the resurrection of Jairus� daughter, in Luke 7: 11-15, we find the son of widow Nain resurrected and Lazarus is resurrected in John 11: 1-44. All three of these resurrections were performed by Jesus, the son of God and arguably the most prominent resurrectant of all (Rawlings, 46).                        

At this point it may be advantageous to differentiate between a resurrection and an event which may be more appropriately referred to as a resuscitation or revival. In a resuscitation or revival, the person may be clinically dead but the body has not suffered the decomposition of cell death, while a resurrection is the raising up of an individual that has been clearly dead for a considerable amount of time and has begun to decompose (Greene, H., 246-247). Keck reiterates this difference and adds the fact that a person who is resuscitated will die again whereas a resurrected individual becomes immortal (Keck, 84). This difference would seem to be an important point in the determination of whether an event is an example of a near-death experience or a divine intervention, since almost anyone can have or cause resuscitation but only God can resurrect. The resurrection of Jesus is a foundational fact in the Christian religion, yet in a 1992 editorial in the Journal of Near Death Studies, Roger Cook raises some intriguing questions about whether Jesus actually died or was in a coma when removed from the cross (193-194). Through presentation of information from the accounts of Jesus� ordeal and known practices the Romans employed in crucifixions, Cook suggests that Jesus� apparent return from death was, in fact a resuscitation and that, during the ordeal, he had gone through all the stages of the near-death experience (Cook, 197).

Moody, in Life After Life, reviews Acts 26:13-26, which describes the Apostle Paul�s conversion on the road to Damascus. He notes that Paul�s story includes an encounter with Jesus, an event similar to the encounter with a being of light and of being blinded by a brilliant light (102-103). Additional references to the light occur in John 12:35 -36, Isaiah 9:2, and Acts 9 of the Living Bible (Rawlings 89-90). In 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, of the New English Bible, we find a story written by the Apostle Paul which relates an experience he had some fourteen years before. In this story, told in the third person, Paul tells of visions and revelations he had in the �third heaven� during an apparent out-of-body experience (Hunter, 44-45). Apparently this experience was initiated as a result of a stoning he suffered in the town of Lystra, the account of which is described in Acts 14:14-20. The third heaven of which Paul spoke, is synonymous with �paradise� or the dwelling of God, a place often described by near-death experiencers (Hunter, 45). In addition, Paul tells of hearing �words so secret that human lips cannot repeat them�, an expression which correlates with the ineffability experienced in many near-death experiences (Hunter, 45).

In non-scriptural Christian literature, there are also a number of stories which are reminiscent of modern near-death experiences, especially in the medieval stories of otherworld journeys of ordinary people (Zaleski, LWTC, 30). In the last book of the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, a sixth century pope and spiritual writer, there is the story of a hermit who died and went to hell, was sent back to mend his ways and, subsequently, spent the rest of his life making amends, a merchant who is returned to life when it is discovered that his death was a mistake and a soldier who returns from death with a tale of a �purgatorial test bridge� (Zaleski, LWTC, 30). In the eighth century, the Venerable Bede wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which contains the account of a man who revived during the offering of his last rites and tells a tale of a visit to purgatory. Guided by a luminescent being, this man journeyed through purgatory and the pit of hell, into a world of intense, flowery beauty. He returned to life such a changed man that Bede remarks that the man�s transformation was even more remarkable than his return to life (Zaleski, LWTC, 30-31). Finally, it has been conjectured that St. Catherine of Siena experienced what could be described as a near-death experience. Upon revival from an unconsciousness brought on by an unknown malady, St. Catherine remarked, �If you only knew what I had to give up to come back to you� (Hill, 8). An apparent reference to the feelings of bliss reported by near-death experiencers.

In the Talmud, the Jewish holy book of ancient rabbinic writings, we find at least two reports of near-death experiences (Neumann, 229-230). The first report, Perashim 50a, tells the story of R. Joseph, son of R. Joshua b. Levi, who became ill and died. R. Joseph returned to life, however, and told a tale of a visit to a strange world where all the social status of the inhabitants were reversed from those that exist in this  world. Still, in this strange place, the sages were esteemed and the martyrs of Lydda were exalted. A review of this account reveals that R. Joseph recounts a number of Moody�s elements including the out-of-body experience, encounters with spiritual beings or guides, entrance into a mystical world of intense light and beauty, a vision of knowledge and a panoramic life review (Neumann, 229-230). The second Talmudic near-death experience, Rosh Hashanah, 17a, involves the story of R. Huna, the son of R. Joshua, who becomes so ill that funeral shrouds are prepared for him. He recovers, nevertheless, and reports that although his death had indeed been decreed, God reversed the decree and allowed him to return. A review of this story reveals that R. Huna met with spiritual beings and a supreme �being of light�, made a decision to return to his body, and experienced the panoramic life review (Neumann, 230). Besides the obvious correlates of these accounts with modern near-death experiences, it is particularly interesting that the experiencers in both tales were specifically asked what they had seen during their deaths, not if they had seen anything. The suggestion here is that the Talmudic sages were not only aware of, but expected the near-death experiences of these individuals (Newmann, 230). A third Talmudic account which could be construed as a near-death experience, appears in Ta�anit, 25a. Here is the story of R. Elazar ben Pedat, who became very weak and fell into unconsciousness. Upon his revival, he reported a meeting with God in which he was given a choice whether to die or live. In this story we find a meeting with a supreme being of light and the return to the body as a consequence of a decision by the experiencer (Neumann, 230). Although these are the only full fledged near-death experiences identifiable in the Talmud, Neumann points out a number of other passages which seem to refer to specific near-death elements, including autoscopy (Shabbat, 152b), encounters with spiritual beings (Ketubot, 104a), the life review (Ta�anit, 11a), and the sense of overwhelming peace and well-being (Ketuvot, 103b) (237-249). In addition, the Zohar (1956, II:126b; 173, V:186; 1989, p. 846), and (1956, I: 218b-219a; 1973, II: 309-310; 1989, p. 857), seems to make reference to the idyllic world (Neumann, 237-241).

In Zoharic literature compiled according to tradition in the second century, there appears the story of R. Cruspedai (Neumann, 231) R. Cruspedai became ill and apparently died, only to revive a short while later with a story of a voyage to another world. Up to seven near-death elements can be seen in this story, including the separation, meetings with loved ones, the idyllic world, the being of light, the feeling of peace and well-being, the panoramic life review and the return to the body (Neumann, 231). Similarly, up to five near-death elements are manifested in the Zoharic account of R. Jose of Pike�in, including the separation, spiritual guides, the idyllic world, the being of light, and the return to the body  (Neumann, 231). In this story, R. Jose tells of how his son�s cries at his death persuaded the Heavenly Academy to successfully petition God to grant him an additional 22 years of life to teach the Torah to his son. Finally, in 1978 Y. Klapholtz produced an extensive anthology of rabbinic and Hassidic stories entitled Tales of the Heavenly Court, which has been found to contain at least 14 separate accounts which have been identified as near-death experiences (Neumann, 232-233). Finally, Bretherton postulates the concept that the most familiar and popular Psalm (Psalm 23), the Shepherd Psalm, may actually be a near-death experience in the form of the recollection of an unknown Psalmist who returned to life following a postmortem visit to Paradise (110-115).

 In my review of the Qu�ran, the Islamic holy book, I could not identify any narratives which specifically related to near-death experience accounts. There were, however, a number of Suras that seem to suggest the near-death experience or its elements. Specifically in Suras 73-75, we find �Thus Allah does plan to preserve alive those considered dead and show you his Signs that you may understand�. Suras 43-45 state �Allah takes charge of souls at the time of death, and of those not yet dead during sleep. Then He raises those in respect of which He has decreed death, and sends back the others for an appointed term�. Additionally, Sura 123 seems to make reference to the light when it says �Can he who was as dead and We gave him life and appointed for him a light whereby he walks among people, be like one who is, as it were, in utter darkness�. And, despite this dearth of scriptural narratives, Islam still contains the near-death motif in much of its non scriptural literature and myths (Zaleski, OWJ, 23). The miraculous transport of the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem, and his subsequent ascension to visit the seven heavens, is seen as an otherworld journey akin to the modern near-death experience (Zaleski, OWJ, 23). The mi�raj stories, issued in response to a challenge to Muhammad�s right to prophesize, show his being greeted by various forerunners at each of the heavenly gates and his ascension and acceptance by God at the divine throne, clearly reminiscent of accounts from near-death experiencers (Zaleski, OWJ, 23).

It seems fairly clear from this review that the near-death experience is a phenomenon which can be seen, in certain ways, as an integral part of the religious traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Yet some of the most vociferous skepticism against the near-death experience, in Western culture, has emanated from the religious community. This skepticism seems to be particularly strong in the Christian community where the near-death experience is seen as contradictory to many accepted scriptural tenets (Greene, H., 297-298). Yet, as Hill points out, it may not be that the near-death experience necessarily contradicts scriptural doctrine as much as it may be that those doctrines have not been correctly interpreted (28).  

Conclusion

Throughout this paper I have attempted to show the significance of the near-death experience in Western cultural traditions by identifying works in the areas of literature, art, film and religion which contain the near-death experience as a major motif. Although the list of examples identified herein is quite substantial, the space constraints of a paper like this prevents the presentation of all identified examples. Still, those that are presented seem to show that the near-death experience motif has been a part of the literary, artistic and religious foundations of Western cultural traditions since early antiquity. The significant and wide-ranging influence of the near-death experience on these traditions is evidenced by the presence of the motif throughout the various genres within each. The examples listed here include some of the most revered classics of Western civilization. At least one researcher has suggested that the root of some of these great works may be the result of  �NDE-type insights� experienced by recognized creative geniuses like Dickens, Wilder and Dante (Flynn, 6). While most of the works listed would not be considered classics, the influence of the NDE phenomenon within them is unmistakable. The presence of recent artistic and literary creations, as well as the publication of new research papers on the identification of the motif in existing literary, artistic and religious works, attests to the continuation of this influence.  Nowhere is this influence manifested more prominently then in the cinematic tradition. While the existence of the NDE in film waned following the initial surge of the 1930�s and 40�s, it seems to have regained its momentum in the 1980�s and this surge has continued in the 90�s.

To conclude, the historical longevity and recent proliferation of the NDE motif throughout the identified works seems to support my contention that the near-death experience phenomenon has been, and continues to be, a significant factor in Western cultural traditions, despite the reticence of the various disciplines to acknowledge its existence.

 

Works Cited

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Always. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Universal, 1989.

All of Me. Dir. Carl Reiner. Paramount, 1984.

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Angelico, Fra. The Last Judgement. 1430, Convent of San Marco, Florence.

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Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms.  New York:  Scribner�s, 1957.

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