There are horror films – Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us from Evil and William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration come to mind – that are fundamentally, irreducibly Christian in character. That is, not only were the filmmakers who produced them Christians, but the films themselves cannot be spoken of meaningfully as anything other than Christian art. The Ninth Configuration, for example, is a probing look into the immutable goodness of God in the midst of a world that appears, at first, to condemn ‘goodness’ itself to the realm of myth.
A kind of humanist yarn about the value of human life, We Go On is something of a distant cousin. We follow Miles, an agoraphobe who keeps having nightmares about dying in a car crash. He recently inherited a good sum of money, so he decides to offer a sizable cash reward for anyone who can prove to him, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is an afterlife.
It takes a sharp turn around the end of act one that causes you to reevaluate nearly everything you’ve seen so far and stacks its deck so that what plays out in the following two acts are not a foregone conclusion. Once we get the big reveal early on, we are not left waiting for the next inevitable plot twist. Instead, what follows unfolds organically, and unfolds well.
To say that the film is clever is correct, but inadequate. It is clever. It goes in fascinating directions. But it’s not primarily clever. And it’s not primarily interesting. We Go On has brains, certainly, but is much more noteworthy for having a soul.
One issue that most contemporary horror movies suffer from is that they’re populated by a ‘horror movie characters’ – and, of course, we are told, ‘horror movie characters’ are ubiquitously unlikable. The trend is, at best, annoying.
We Go On is unusual for having human characters. Throughout the film, Annette O’Toole’s character, Charlotte, makes increasingly questionable decisions, some of them so dubious that they probably ought to spoil her for us. But they don’t. She remains relatable throughout, even admirable, despite her shortcomings. She is a ‘compromised protagonist’, crossing well beyond the line that separates ‘decency’ from ‘indecency’ at points.
But she does not become the villain, and it scarcely crosses one’s mind to worry that she might. Because she plays Charlotte as a flesh-and-blood person, and our hearts beat along with hers. Such characters are a rarity in any film, let alone modern horror.
Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. Like many of the best horror films, We Go On plays like a human drama. On paper, it’s about ‘the afterlife’, but only insofar as Miles and Charlotte’s metaphysical curiosities are a vehicle for the film’s more concrete ruminations.
I think about the afterlife much less than when I was a young child. And when I did, my concerns weren’t nuanced. I could not imagine any version of heaven that wouldn’t be insufferably boring, but someone had told me that the alternative was to get lit on fire for eternity. At that point, I was too young to know what the word eternity meant, but it was a big word that I’d never heard before, so I assumed it meant a long time.
Like most children who grew up in the Bible Belt, I asked the pastor to dip me in the magic water so I couldn’t get lit on fire for ‘eternity’. He called this ‘baptism’. I didn’t know what the word ‘baptism’ meant either, but I knew that water was the opposite of fire, so that seemed like a fool-proof way to stay untoasted.
When I think of ‘the afterlife’ now, it’s different. For one, my assumptions are more developed, and infinitely more orthodox. There is a somewhere that people go when they die. More than one, actually. Ages ago, these questions were considered, not haphazardly by charlatans, but with great care, by some of the greatest minds and warmest hearts that the Christian world has ever produced.
Those inspired to peruse the writings of these ‘Church Fathers’ will be surprised to find almost the opposite of what they expected. That ancient trope about the dusty old misogynists who amassed political currency in order to bury their theological opponents and coerce their agenda in the newly Christianized empire is difficult to substantiate given what writings we actually have, by and about the church fathers from during their lifetime, from Christian and Pagan sources.
What’s remarkable about them, in truth, is not that they believed in ‘heavens’ and ‘hells’ but their lack of interest in speculating on the subject. Nearly every secondary source you’ll find on the subject will bring up the pseudepigraphal Apocalypse of Peter, with its visceral descriptions of the torments of hell, and carry on from there into a diatribe about the gruesome Patristic imagination.
Those who shepherded the church after the deaths of the Apostles had a grisly inner life, we are told, and found perverse delight in teasing out the possibilities of how their God might take eternal revenge on his enemies. The suggestion seems to be that ‘God’s enemies’ were suspiciously synonymous with whoever was on the bad side of the folks who ran the churches. If, however, you read the Church Fathers instead of their elite German expositors, you might wonder whether Harnack’s protégés are talking about the same Gregory of Nyssa.
They were much more occupied with questions about the incarnation of the Son of God. Did he exist before he formed in Mary’s womb? He did, they determined after searching the scriptures and one of the copies of Plato on hand: He was the preexistent Son of God, and was, in fact, God Himself. Did God incarnate need to be Male? Absolutely, they determined: Because God is not male, the incarnate Son had to be. The reason, of course, being that since the incarnate God must be born, and men could not give birth in the first century CE, the incarnate Son would be a literal son, and his mother would be the God-bearer – ‘theotokos’, as they called her.
And what might it mean, they asked, that God himself would take on flesh, become a human, and be crucified to ransom us from Satan and reconcile us to God? For one, they figured, it means that every human creature, everywhere, is of incalculable value to the Godhead. And, of course, they’d go on, there’s only one God. Anybody that the one God values is infinitely worthwhile.
Which is to say, in the old Rome where people were only people by happenstance of birth or usefulness, the Patristic doctrine of the incarnation created – for the first time in history, if the primary sources at hand are representative – the concept of the human person.
In a universe where God himself became a human being on our behalf, all humans are irrevocably peopled. All competing criteria by which we might determine who is-and-isn’t a person are brought to nought. We do not earn personhood by participating well in the human community, nor by fitting the proper mold for what makes a good friend, or citizen, or family member. Nor by being born a certain race or embodying a certain gender identity, nor by being ‘neurotypical’ or ‘able-bodied’, as we used to say.
No. We are all, all of us, already people, period. And we can’t not be, and we can’t stop being so, because the God who knit our blood and bones and flesh became us, because he could. It didn’t sully his Godness; it irreversibly declared our peopleness. This, always this, and only this, is why “there can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female” (Gal. 3:28).
Which is to say that Athanasius might have appreciated We Go On, not because it touches on life-after-death, but because it only does so to remind us of the incomparable preciousness of life-before-death, to use a kitschier phrase than I’ve indulged on this blog up to this point. He’d follow the journey of Miles and Charlotte and grin, and say he’d written a book about that when he was seventeen, and maybe ask a couple questions about the film, like “What is a car? What are those rectangular contraptions they keep talking into? How am I watching people on this electric box? What is electricity? What year is it? How did you reanimate my corpse? I think that’s a sin.”