In a world where sinners are damned to hell for their wrongdoings, Netflix’s “Hellbound” creates a world where Korean civilians are forced to live under the watchful gaze of God. Released on November 19, 2021, the show quickly reached the Netflix Top 10 TV shows chart. Directed by Yeon Sang-ho, this six-episode dark fantasy and drama thriller contains a thrilling premise, but also examines the dangers of religious extremism. Caution: spoilers ahead.
“Hellbound” successfully evokes a resounding sense of dread within viewers through the conceptual and visual design of its monsters. Yeon’s initial development of “Hellbound” was inspired from his own personal nightmares, making the show feel more genuinely terrifying and capable of resonating with audiences. In one of Yeon’s dreams, he was being chased by unrecognizable beings and this fear left a strong impression on him, inspiring the plot of “Hellbound.” In the show, the monsters based on his nightmares are looming shadows of dust and darkness; they are depicted with unnerving smiles and deformed features, an artistic choice that intentionally takes viewers away from their visual comfort zone. Evoking an intimate and collective fear of the supernatural unknown, Yeon artfully triggers an innate terror that resonates with most, if not all audiences.
By establishing scenes of gruesome deaths and feelings of false hope and inescapable fear, Yeon offers a realistic and chilling depiction of a compelling, apocalyptic world. In one particular scene, as a distant rumble gradually gets louder, anxiety spreads amongst a crowd of people before the window of a café suddenly bursts. The show quickly cuts to a horrified man being chased down by the dark, hulk-like monsters before being burnt into a crisp, leaving only remnants of his skeleton. This, apparently, is only one of the many violent and mysterious killings that have been reported across Seoul. As people quickly connect the murders, they begin to realize that all the victims have pasts of crime and wrongdoing. At this moment, a realization finally settles in; a divine, inescapable force has come to punish all the crimes of humanity. The inevitability of absolute judgment in “Hellbound” not only evokes the audience’s vicarious dread of inevitable punishment, but also somewhat forces them to confront their own morality.
The show does more than just establish fear, however. It also discusses themes of religious extremism in today’s society. Particularly, this show raises the question of to what extent religious beliefs should influence our obedience to the law. In order to survive, people must now resort to what is right or wrong according to God. Because of this, police are shown to be inferior and irrelevant to how people should live. This brings danger to the public, as there is no clear method for how people should behave or live righteously. Furthermore, the way to approach people’s wrongdoings also becomes more ambiguous. Should a criminal be sent to jail or beaten by those who uphold the ‘justice’ of God? And as more communities begin to form around this idea of ‘righteousness,’ what happens when they take it a step too far? Members of one such organization,“The Arrowhead,” do not hesitate to use violence to show their extreme dedication to establish their own perceptions of righteousness. For example, one of their most brutal attacks was to assault an elderly woman whose daughter was speculated to be a sinner to death. Ultimately, the world loses stability and people have no choice but to live in fear.
“Hellbound” is disturbingly violent yet hooks an audience with a fresh take on divine punishment and human morality. Taking on the relay baton from “Squid Game,” Yeon’s work also demonstrates the artistic creativity and importance of non-Western television.