affiche that introduces Hellbound characters, monsters and urban city Seoul , people attacking on which reads Hellbound both in English and Korean with flame effects around the letters

Hellbound: Netflix’s Recent Korean Series Explores the Human Monster

This blog contains spoilers.

Netflix’s recent South Korean show, Hellbound, has received global attention since it started streaming on November 19. And it has dethroned  Squid Game.  As an example of a horror drama with supernatural elements, Hellbound is concerned with how society comes unhinged when faced with a sequence of horrifying events. Maddening effects of these events find embodiment in the language of street violence, hatred-pouring graffiti, and public condemnation. Very impressive in its wayfinding to show it, Hellbound focuses on fear and human inability to cope with this feeling.

Directed by Yeon Sang-ho and starring Yoo Ah-in, Kim Hyun-Joo, Park Jeong-min, Won Jin-ah. Yang Ik-June, Hellbound contests pseudo-applications of religion, faith, free will, law, and justice and masterfully pins down that it is the people with blind faith following cults and their teachings whom we should fear most.

What is Hellbound all about?

three giant hulk-looking monsters circling aroung a man lying down and burning him with the supernatural power they emit through their hands which seem like a divine light

The series consists of 6 episodes, each lasting approximately 50 minutes. And it builds upon the bloody and merciless killings of sinners by unearthly giant beasts with ashy floating bodies that appear and vanish through an invisible portal. A giant face visits people-to-be-killed at their home, telling them the exact time of their death a couple of days before the condemnation. Needless to say, they are bound to hell. The police and a group of lawyers interested in the cult help victims and secure the future of their children. As for the media, it is after making a profit by broadcasting the brutal murders.

The story takes place in Seoul’s urban landscape. And the city witnesses the rising of a radical religious extremism rooted in a cult known as the New Truth under the leadership of Jeong Jin-soo. The New Truth manipulates the masses of people to believe that God sends three monsters to punish those committed to sin. In other words, the New Truth holds the reins of society by spreading fear.

In another facet of the story, we meet a cop whose wife got killed by a drug addict. He lives with his daughter, who feels guilty for her mother’s death, and secretly seeks revenge. She finds consolation in the New Truth, which worries her father, one of the rare characters with common sense who disapproves of the cult. Additionally, the show introduces us to Min Hye-jin, the lawyer committed to investigating the cult.

What is the meaning or message of the show?

lawyers standing on the street while the rest of the people prostrating on the floor and the vlogger announces their sinful nature
Credit: Seoulspace

To take a closer look at what Hellbound ambitiously pursues, we can divide the show into two sections. First, it shows violent and weaponized forces used to protect the sacred or assumed-to-be sacred ( e.g., cult). Intending to build new religious norms in an extreme form, the New Truth manipulates people. The sympathizers of the cult, such as the Arrowheads, group together and operate following the cult’s guide using violence.

The second phase portrays a more “harmonious” world where street violence is replaced by the patrolling cars of Arrowheads. Sculptures of monsters and the New Truth’s museum exemplify the immortalization of the horrifying events as a historical memory. It suggests that the cult’s aim is to remodel the behaviors of society under the supervision of the New Truth Cult and its associative formations like Arrowheads.

In the first half of season 1, Arrowheads blindly attack anybody that doesn’t respect the New Truth. Society turns into an execution mechanism, terrorizing the streets and even killing innocent, sick, and old people as a message and to punish the non-believers of the cult. However, the scariest part of the show is not restricted to that. It is about how people watch the condemnations, seating themselves comfortably. Feeling satisfied after the sinner’s death, they even smile and perform the ultimate gesture of obedience: prostration.

Hellbound plays with the phenomenon of scapegoating

a woman sitting in a separate room on a chair behind whom there areseated people wearing masks, waiting for her death sentence

In Rene Girard’s theory of scapegoating, everything starts with mimetic desire. Individuals desire to be like each other to the point that imitation effaces all the differences, eventually leading to conflict. This, in return, requires a “scapegoating” or “victimage” mechanism that alludes to ancient religious practices: a mechanism that restores peace and order. Likewise, in Hellbound, in capital-driven urban Seoul, individuals desire particular things: job, career, capital power to buy more and more. Some fail to live up to their potential and commit crimes. The monsters, as a symbol of primeval conflict, appear to alter the social balance in Hellbound.

Additionally, we see that society is heavily influenced by the New Truth, going through a reformation, using violence, and submitting to the decrees of hell. To earn the love of God, people do nothing other than watch the condemnations and even arrange murder settings where they practice spectatorship.  As the camera records the people’s smiling faces after the killings, we see how satisfied they are, as if they are redeemed from their guilt. The scapegoating mechanism serves as a ritual for purification or, in other terms, catharsis.

Sinners function as scapegoats in Hellbound, sacrificed to restore peace

Following Girard’s theory, the scapegoats are banished from society to restore peace and harmony.  To put it differently, society finds a reason to make a sacrifice and chooses people on the margins. For instance, in the context of Hellbound, the victims or scapegoats happen to be sinners targeted by three demons and deserve to go to Hell. Out of fear, people start spying on each other. And the believers of the cult take care of the rest by killing the non-believers or punishing them through the use of violence.  As Girard states,

In order to be genuine, in order to exist as a social reality, as a stabilized viewpoint on some act of collective violence, scapegoating must remain nonconscious. The persecutors do not realize that they chose their victim for inadequate reasons, or perhaps for no reason at all, more or less at random.

In this context, the unconscious acts of people can be linked to their illogical reactions due to fear. In the first half of season 1, they are sure that the ones who got Hell’s decree deserved it. However, it starts to change in the following episodes. It is very likely that the scapegoating mechanism will stop working, because people realize that it’s not only the sinners who get a decree from hell but also the innocent ones (e.g., a newborn baby).

Museums are active agents and creators of values

man is being condemned by the cult leader on the stage,
Credit: Newsweek

Starting from the 4th episode, we start seeing the first implications of the new era dominated by the cult’s truths in more concrete terms. The pseudo-religious cult enlarges the repertoire of their actions by incorporating technology such as the New Truth app, sculptures of monsters as part of the urban landscape narrative, and, thirdly, the museum. Serving as a memory site, the museum exhibits the gospels of the New Truth and the table and chair where the first victim sat and kept checking time in fear. Also, a video installation of a victimized unmarried woman with two children is part of the showcase at the museum.  Hence, killings are memorialized as a form of art and something to be preserved. That’s the very example of how you make history and remind people of how to act.

In the second half, Hellbound suspends the legitimacy of the cult

So, this is a world where the patrolling cars of Arrowheads stop people and ask where they are heading and why. Everyone starts spying on each other. Out of shame, people choose to die in isolated places. Even if they don’t sin, they accept their fate and die without letting their families know. Also, some of the victims are patients in mental hospitals who probably can’t make logical decisions. The cult covers the death of people who die without sinning because it goes against the legitimacy of the cult’s foundation: the sinners get punished. Hellbound complicates the situation more when a newborn baby gets a decree from Hell. After that point, the show starts asking questions about what sin is. That adds a philosophical depth to the series.

The Man Behind Hellbound: Yeon Sang-ho

Yeon Sang-ho is sitting at a wooden table as the cartoon affiche is attached to the picture's left side afterwards

Born in 1978, Yeon graduated from Sangmyung University with a degree in Western painting. Formerly known as an animation director, he made his debut with Megalomania of D in 1997. Both screened at film festivals, The Hell and Love is Protein are successives of Megalomania of D. His later work, The Fake, is one of the first works Yeon experimented with the cultish religion in Korea. Then, Train to Busan and Peninsula came out as two ambitious works by the director, gaining universal acclaim.

When it comes to his recent work, the K-drama series Hellbound, it is actually based on a cartoon. For this project, he collaborated with the cartoonist Choi Gyu-Seok. In an interview, he explains how he came up with the idea and the monsters. He discloses that he intended to do something related to fear, and he imagines that monsters’ existence dates back to ancient times. As asserted by many, the monsters don’t look real or convincing. However, as Yeon highlights, his main concern is the realistic portrayal of fear as a feeling. Doubtlessly, he achieves this in Hellbound.

What to watch next

While watching the series, I kept thinking about two films that do not necessarily share a similar pattern but play with concepts of religion, free will, sinning, and forgiveness in unsettling contexts: Secret Sunshine and Cure.

Secret Sunshine (2007)

a sad mother lying on the sofa in her house, the cqarpet is on the floor, a ray of sunlight invades the room, as she is thoughtful and looking with empty eyes

Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine is about a mother trying to cope with the grief after her son’s abduction and eventual death. As she goes through stages, one of her solutions to not surrendering grief becomes religion. She attends the masses in the church every Sunday. And she shares God’s love with neighbors until she finally comes to a point where she forgives the murderer and visits him in prison just to tell him he is forgiven. However, she realizes that he looks too great ( for someone in prison) and has already forgiven himself. That encounter becomes the breaking point in the film. She asks, “how can God or you forgive you before I do so?”. After that meeting, she realizes that nothing has changed; her belief system falls apart. As one of the gems of South Korean cinema, Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine asks great questions about religion, sinning, and forgiveness.

Unlike in Hellbound, here, the focus is on the individual. She assumes that religion will help her to restore a peaceful mind, but it doesn’t.

Cure (1997)

a detective is sitting on a chair and holding a ligher in his right hand

One of the scariest films you could ever see is probably the J- horror Cure directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The film’s focus is on a group of detectives trying to solve mysterious murder cases. The victims are found with an “X” carved into their necks and chests; the murderers near the scene. They merely confess their crime, not remembering much and why they kill. They say that it felt like a very normal thing to do at that moment. As the investigation goes on, the detectives find a guy who happens to have talked to the murderers (before the murders took place) and is suffering from short-term memory loss. He doesn’t remember who he is, driving everyone crazy with his repetitive questions. Later, it turns out that he was a psychology student with an obsessive interest in mesmerism.

Overall, the film is about humankind’s inclination to destroy and monstrosity. As Koji Yakusho, who plays the detective in the film, remarks, “To me, it’s not a horror film. It’s a monster movie about a monstrosity of a man.” Whether it is done under the effect of mesmerism, hypnosis, or cultish religion, they all show one thing: how people lose their sense of being under certain circumstances when being blinded by them.  Also, as indicated in the review of the film, “the title evokes a religious or cult-like feeling.” Well, “Cure” suggests healing, which is especially associated with stress relief in the context of the film, as we see especially in the case of the detective. Lastly,  “cure” has the same function as catharsis, which brings our minds the satisfaction that spectators of the killings get in Hellbound.

Last words: Is Hellbound worth watching?

people with white masks walking on the streets for public demonstrations

“Hellbound is a cosmic horror drama that aims to touch upon the fear of a human that they feel when faced with a massive, surreal cosmic terror. The crux of the genre is to leave the mystery as is while focusing on the detailed description of humans who are faced with it.” Yeon Hang-so 

A “surreal cosmic” horror, Hellbound, has gained global attention, which it truly deserves. By focusing on fear, social mechanisms activated under pressure as a result of conflictual relationships, and profit-based media agencies, it points to the challenges of achieving harmony as a society. From that standing point, the show shares a common background with Squid Game. Both explore human nature and what humans are capable of doing under pressure.

Above all, Hellbound ambitiously toys with the intertwined relationship between violence and the protection of the sacred. It also offers an insight into how cults work. Cults that play with the rhetoric of divinity and sinning, hiding behind a divine image they keep selling. These people are the ones who are the most scared. For instance, in his confrontation with the detective, the cult leader tells how desperate and scared he is. Such people only exist and maintain their authoritative status as long as people believe in them. Based on all those facets of the show, is it the three monsters or people that are scarier? What do you think?

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