Hellbound, an enthralling short South Korean series that released recently on Netflix, provides a commentary and critique on religion and the zealotry it births. Set in a world quite comparable to ours, the show revolves around the sibylline phenomenon of a mysterious entity informing people that they would be condemned to hell at a given date and time, at which three supernatural beings appear out of nowhere to smash their victims to a pulp before burning them.
However, despite the occult occurrences, they are not what the show focuses on. It is the reaction of the humans to them that takes centre stage.
These arcane events confuse and scare the world’s populace, which leads to the formation of a cult, The New Truth, who explain these incidents as god’s orders. In other words, if you get condemned, you did something to deserve it. That these deaths weren’t murders, but the divine will. That those who died were sinners. This idea takes hold as it aligns with the basal belief of people. In doing so, this cult-like organisation puts forth their definition of what constitutes a sin – something many religions and religious organisations in the real world have tried to do and continue to do.
The show has a conspicuous religious overtone to it, questioning organised religion and how people apply and abuse them to fit their needs. The themes of faith, religion or an absence of it has been adopted by countless stories. While the show might not be a very realistic portrayal of how the world might react to divine creatures or to the information of their existence, it does portray what most know to be true – the sheer chaos that would follow such promulgation. The moral freefall of society in the face of the unknown. Hellbound tries to capture this very downward societal trajectory, and how. In six episodes, we see the world of the story transform from one we could relate to, to one that has adopted fear and violence as its operative.
The New Truth is led by Jeong Jin Soo, a person who claims to understand these events better than anyone else. He founded the cult almost a decade before the events of the series start. But once fear takes over society, Jeong Jin Soo becomes a prophet and The New Truth, which started as a small group, grows into one of the most powerful and influential organisations in the world. They strategically use social media, word of mouth and news media to weaponise people’s fear and feed on their ignorance to forward their cause of unquestioned submission to their will.
The blind faith of the masses, coupled with their fear of the unknown, leads to the organic growth of the New Truth into the dominant authority it becomes. Halfway into the series, as a viewer, you start to realise that the people who have been condemned don’t just end up in hell. The world they are living in has become one too. You don’t fear the monsters, but the humans – because the supernatural monsters, despite their brutality and monstrosity, have dignity. Humans don’t.
The show also succeeds in portraying the harms of blurring the lines between the state and religion, reminding you of the Dark Ages. The New Truth and its deacons, as they self proclaim to be, rise above the law. Their word supersedes the words of the constitution.
Religion has been around for a long time, used by people as a tool to avoid coming to terms with the certainty of death and the eventual inconsequence of human life. The impulse to ground oneself in something bigger than the self is a natural one. But when one is not well adjusted, they take it to an extreme. Hellbound explores this irrationality of humans, introspecting why it is always blind faith that we turn to, to explain something inexplicable, going at times, so far as eliminating people who dare question it.
The show also critiques the hypocrisy of human nature. How most people tuned in to watch the killing of the condemned but also feared these acts and never hoped to go through it themselves. How desensitised they were to the screams of the dying individuals but wanted others to heed to their call for help. It also comments on the dangers of social media, which can become the bellwether to both condemn and commend individuals based on the views of a single figure.
While the story at times resorts to oversimplified characters and very obvious storytelling mechanisms, overall, the series provides an introspective lens to the dangers of religious fanaticism, loss of rationality and dominance of fear, inspiring internal conflict. Never quite sure of what might follow, the series keeps you on shifting sand the whole time.
Priya Singh is a researcher and an accumulation of antitheticals.
Featured image: Netflix