Dante: The Father of Italian Horror

Dante: The Father of Italian Horror

“Through me you go to the grief wracked city; through me you go to everlasting pain; through me you go to pass among lost souls. Justice it was that moved my great Creator; the divine Power, the supreme Wisdom and the primal Love made me. Before me, nothing but eternal things were made, and I endure eternally. Abandon every hope, all you who enter.”

To celebrate Italian Horror Week here at the Blood Sprayer I wanted to pay tribute to one of the most talented poets of all time, and arguably the greatest work ever composed in the Italian language. I am speaking, of course, of Dante Alighieri and his epic work the Inferno.

The Inferno is the first part of a trilogy of poems, followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso, collectively referred to as the Divine Comedy. What is interesting about the work is that Comedy was a title reserved for low brow and vulgar subject matter, yet Dante chose to label the damnation and redemption of mankind as such, and even went so far as to write the entire work in Italian, rather than Latin, which would have been customary for such a serious topic. The trilogy is masterfully written, with a foundation in thinly veiled allegory that extends out to incorporate moral, historical, literal, and anagogical themes, as well as using mathematical and numerological patterns throughout. Critical analysis has demonstrated that the layers Dante built his magnum opus on are breathtaking, and it is easy to understand why the work is hailed as such a masterpiece.

Now the Inferno isn’t a typical work of the horror genre as we know it today, but in the early 1300’s the poem was unlike any other in both its scope and subject matter, and at times it can be horrific and terrifying. Dante was not sheepish about his portrayal of Hell, nor of the punishments that await the damned, and the graphic and imaginative detail that he included throughout the length of the poem is astounding. The story follows Dante and his guide Virgil as they descend through Hell and examine each of the nine levels.

The entirety of Dante’s Hell is based upon the idea of a contrapasso, or instance of poetic justice, in which each sin is turned against the sinner. A perfect example is that in Dante’s Hell, fortune-tellers are forced to walk forward with their heads twisted around backwards as a punishment for trying to see their future in life. Dante’s use of symbolism and justice are one of the most impressive aspects of the work, and it is apparent when each of the levels of Hell is taken into account. It seems that everyone has heard of Dante, and the circles of Hell, but not many people (Lit majors aside) can actually name off what each circle encompasses, and the punishment for that particular sin. Well fret no more! Let us follow Dante on his voyage through Hell, and take stock of the punishments, and familiar faces that he encounters along the way.

The first circle of Hell is Limbo; reserved for the guiltless who are damned for failing to accept Christ as their savior. All in all, this layer is mild compared to what lies beneath, and those who dwell in Limbo mourn only their lack of closeness to God, and the lack of hope for reconciliation.  In this circle Dante meets such historical figures as Homer, Ovid, Euclid, Socrates and Aristotle.

The second circle of Hell is reserved for the lustful, those who in life let their appetite sway their reason. As punishment, these souls are forever damned to be tossed about by the winds of a violent storm, never finding rest. Again, this punishment is not as harsh as the lower layers, but Dante is just getting started. Dante encounters Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Achilles, Paris, and Tristan in this circle.

The third circle of Hell is dedicated to the gluttonous; who are guarded by Cerberus and forced to lie face down in a vile slush, which is the product of endless foul, icy rain that collects on the ground. Not only that, but they are forever doomed to be ignorant of those around them, senses blocked off by the slush, symbolizing their descent into solitary self-indulgence, and the emptiness of the lives that they led. This is definitely worse than being blown around by winds, and is pretty damn disgusting. Not only are they forced to lie face down in filth; they are even guarded by Cerberus himself.

The fourth circle holds the avaricious and the prodigal, those whose attitude toward material goods too greatly influenced their lives. Dante combines the greedy and miserly, as well as the prodigal (those who squandered their material goods) in this circle, and as a punishment for their behavior in life they are forced to joust with one another, shoving huge weights with their chests in an eternal battle. Not only this, but they have lost their individuality, and form a faceless horde, forever mourning their collective sin. Like the previous circle, the punishments are beginning to become more unpleasant and painful, and still demonstrate Dante’s imagination and poetic ability.

Circle five contains the wrathful and the sullen within the waters of the river Styx. The wrathful are doomed to forever fight each other at the water’s surface, beating and injuring one another as punishment for the harm that their anger had caused others during their life. The sullen are forced to lie under the surface of the water, drawn into the blackness where they will never find happiness in God, Man, or the Universe. These punishments are both very similar to the punishments for gluttony and greed, but they go that extra step; the wrathful are not merely jousting, but are fighting tooth and nail and the sullen are not facedown in filth, but are completely under the surface of the water, surrounded by the dark.

After crossing the Styx, Dante comes to the gates of Dis, which is a city of the damned that holds the lower circles of Hell (reserved for active sins rather than passive), and is guarded by fallen angels, furies and Medusa. At this point the story (at least for me) goes beyond a morality tale, and warning to the sinful, and begins to demonstrate Dante’s capacity for horror. The punishments within the walls of Dis are much more brutal and terrifying.

The sixth circle holds the heretics, and as their punishment they are all imprisoned within flaming tombs, forever damned to burn in their fiery sepulchers. Oddly, Dante does not go into very much detail for this section, not that detail is really necessary. Burning for eternity in a tomb sounds pretty terrible to me.

The seventh circle is dedicated to the violent, and is actually comprised of three sub circles:

The outer ring is for those who were violent against other people and property. As punishment they are immersed in a river of boiling blood to a depth equal to their sin (Alexander the Great is up to his eyebrows) and if they try to escape, centaurs shoot arrows into them. Now I don’t know about you, but to me that is a hell of a punishment, no pun intended.

The middle circle is for the suicides, those who were violent against self. These souls have been turned into thorn bushes that are then fed upon by harpies. Not only that, but when they are resurrected for their final judgment, they will remain thorn bushes, with their own corpse hanging from the limbs. Those who destroyed their lives by destroying their own property and being reckless and wasteful are doomed to be chased by dogs through the thorns for eternity. If that is not brutal and horrific, then I do not know what is.

Finally, the inner circle is reserved for the violent against God, and the violent against nature, and the circle itself is a desert of fiery sand, where flaming flakes fall from the sky like snow. Depending on the severity of their sin, these damned souls are forced to lie on the sand, sit on it, or wander aimlessly through the firestorm.

The eighth circle is vast, containing ten separate Bolgias, or ditches of stone, all of which are dedicated to those guilty of fraud. For the sake of brevity, I will try to keep this section short, as this article is already much longer than I intended it to be, but this is just too good to gloss over.

Bolgia 1: Pimps and seducers march in opposite lines and are whipped by demons as punishment for using others passions to control them.

Bolgia 2: Flatterers are steeped in human excrement, representing their false words.

Bolgia 3: Those guilty of simony (paying for holy office or sacrament) are buried headfirst in rocks and their feet are burned with eternal flames.

Bolgia 4: False prophets and fortune-tellers are forced to march forward with their heads twisted backwards.

Bolgia 5: Corrupt politicians are immersed in a lake of boiling tar, representing their “sticky fingers.”

Bolgia 6: Hypocrites are forced to march forever, weighed down by lead cloaks, representing the falsity behind their surface that weighs their soul down.

Bolgia 7: Thieves are pursued and bitten by snakes and lizards, whose bites transform the guilty into other forms, such as ashes or vermin, thus robbing them of their identity.

Bolgia 8: Those who used their power to cause others to commit fraud are each trapped within an individual flame.

Bolgia 9: Sowers of discord are hacked to pieces by a sword-wielding demon, representing the division they caused in life.

Bolgia 10: Counterfeiters, impersonators, and other falsifiers are stricken with terrible diseases, representing the plague they were on society in life.

This is the stuff of nightmares, and Dante writes thousands of words on these Bolgias, never shying away from disturbing images, creating horror and disgust with every new area.

Finally, the last circle of Hell: the ninth, holding the betrayers. There are four Rounds here, and each section involves the guilty soul being frozen in ice.

The first Round is for those who betrayed their kin, and they are frozen up to their faces.

The second Round is for those who betrayed their city, country, or party. One of these souls is frozen in place, and has his head gnawed on by a man he betrayed.

The third Round is for those who betrayed their guests, and are frozen in a supine position with only their face uncovered.

The fourth Round is for those who betrayed their lords or benefactors, and they are frozen solid in various, distorted positions.

In the very center of Hell, Satan is frozen up to his waist, and each of his three mouths gnaws on one of the three most infamous betrayers in history: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas, the latter of which is gnawed head first and has his back flayed by Satan’s claws.

And there you have it, the entirety of Dante’s Hell. After reading of the torments of the damned, and imagining the scenes that Dante has so intricately designed, it becomes clear why I chose to focus on this work for Italian Horror Week. There is nothing more horrific and terrifying than eternal damnation, and the punishments that Dante has dreamed up are beyond painful, or disgusting, or brutal. There had never been a work of such graphic content before that was so widely praised.

Dante was able to incorporate his enemies into the work as well, dishing out punishments and judgments for their actions in life, thus debasing them while using the basis of religion in order to maintain the status of the work, and thus, in my opinion, qualifying the Divine Comedy as a pre-cursor of the exploitation genres that are so popular now in Italian cinema.

Now before any literary snobs get all huffy about me labeling the Divine Comedy as “exploitation” think about this: Dante used an well-known foundation to all but violate common literary standards of decency, he incorporated a highly controversial topic, used graphic and sensational content, and he did it all 700 years ago before any of this was even remotely acceptable! Furthermore, not only did he get away with it, he was even labeled a poetic master for it. Fulci and Argento, eat your heart out.

Dante’s epic has influenced the horror genre to this very day. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” is now one of the most familiar and cliché lines in any horror movie. Movies like Seven take direct inspiration from Dante. Demons and damnation and eternal torture have become commonplace in modern cinema and literature, and you can trace that popularization back to Dante. The Inferno was even turned into a video game recently!

Without Dante, not only would the horror genre be much diminished, literature and even modern culture as a whole would be worse off. In celebration of Italian Horror Week, Dante Alighieri, I salute you!

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As a Web & Graphics Designer I have a fascination with all thing arts. Especially the dirtier, grittier side of horror related artwork. I scour the web for the best collections of fan-art, movie posters, and horror genre artists to bring them to you.

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