The 13th Floor

How JACOB’S LADDER Explores Buddhist Concepts Through Cinematic Horror

WARNING: This essay will discuss the ending of the 1990 film JACOB’S LADDER. If you haven’t seen the film, and wish for its conclusion to remain a surprise, do not read this essay. If you do know the ending — or are righteously flippant about endings — then read on, adventurer.

“And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.”

 

-Genesis 28:12

Adrian Lyne’s JACOB’S LADDER is one of those horror films that has spent its life constantly re-establishing itself as a worthwhile classic. It’s certainly a very good — if not great — feature, and it was well-received when it was first released back in 1990… but it’s so odd and unique that it is often neglected in conversations about horror movies. Like THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM or PIN before it, it constantly needs to reassert itself to be acknowledged.

But in addition to being a scary, stylish, mature, and terrifying film, JACOB’S LADDER is also profoundly religious. Indeed, JACOB’S LADDER may teach Western audiences more about the tenets of Buddhism than any other horror film. While it may be named after the eponymous biblical figure, its heart actually lies in deeply Buddhist concepts of transmigration — and takes many cues from the 14th century work THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD.

JACOB’S LADDER, if you haven’t seen it, is about a man named Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) who, in 1975 New York, finds himself plagued by nightmares of his time served in Vietnam. He lives with his girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña), who, while loving, is often short with Jacob.

Jacob’s closest friend seems to be his doctor, played by Danny Aiello, who serves as an angelic presence in his life. Indeed, it will be Louis who gives Jacob the most salient advice throughout the film — making him a legitimate spiritual sage.

Jacob begins having more and more horrific visions, and his old friends from Vietnam also eventually reveal that they, too, are having similar experiences — visions of demons, of creatures, of madmen staring at them through the shadows. Even Jezzie appears to mutate into some kind of monster. Some of these demonic visions are among the scariest of the 1990s, and are certainly unique; apart from HELLRAISER, you won’t have a more striking image of Hell on Earth in any American feature film.

In the film’s most powerful vision, Jacob imagines himself to be carted into a mental hospital that is seemingly infected with evil. Demons and bloodied freaks lurch about in Jacob’s mind. He thinks he’s going mad — and in the world of JACOB’S LADDER, madness is but the first step to Hell.

Plotwise, this may all have something to do with an experimental drug that may have been given to him and his platoon years earlier. With the wartime flashbacks, the visions of Hell, and the drugs lingering in our protagonist’s brain, clearly JACOB’S LADDER is metaphor for war trauma. War is literally Hell.

But it’s also about much more than that, mostly thanks to the presence of Louis, and to some of his profound words. Indeed, Louis will be the one to quote the 14th-century German theologian Meister Eckhart (and how many modern horror films actually bother to look up 14th-century German theologians anymore? I can think of none), when he says the following:

The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you… They’re freeing your soul. So, if you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.

This is a sentiment that originally came from a Christian theologian, yes, but it’s staggering how much that very statement falls in line with the center of Buddhist thought.

To offer the big twist in JACOB’S LADDER, it is revealed at the end of the film that Jacob actually died on the battlefield years earlier, and the events of the film were simply his vision of releasing life before dying. It sounds cheap on paper, but it’s surprisingly effective in Lyne’s hands. Yes, the whole movie was a death dream… but it was a significant one.

Much of Buddhism — to offer a brief and embarrassingly incomplete primer taken from THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD — is centered on the notion of transmigration: When you die, your soul imbues another being, and you are reincarnated endlessly, constantly moving up a hierarchy of beings. You may start as something low like a worm, but, with hard work and peaceful living, you may reincarnate as a higher being — a mouse, a cat, a bird, a horse, an ox, a human. Bad deeds in life cause you to slip in the hierarchy, while good deeds cause you to rise.

When one reaches the final state — pure enlightenment — one has finally earned the honor of passing on, of no longer reincarnating. You become pure thought. The physical no longer concerns you.

When one dies, according to the BOOK (and, again, this is based only on my own study of it), one finds themselves in a realm that looks and acts just like life — but those still attached to the physical cannot properly tell the difference. The attachments you formed in life — the things you weren’t able to “let go” of — are still around you. It’s only by accepting that you and all around you are ephemeral that you will be allowed to pass on. By clinging to the physical world, however, you face off against a slew of wrathful, blood-drinking deities that torment you. This is perhaps oversimplified, I admit; I am not a practicing Buddhist, only an enthusiast.

The film’s screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin (DEADLY FRIEND, GHOST, DEEP IMPACT), once spent several years of his life in a Tibetan monastery practicing Buddhism and learning all about the ins and outs of the afterlife. When returning to civilization, he wrote a deeply spiritual screenplay that would eventually become JACOB’S LADDER. As such, the film feels like an effective horror film… but also like an educational tool for Westerners to learn the functional ways of Buddhism.

Buddhism, of course — like all major religions — is far more complex in its theology than anything that could be summed up in a single horror movie, and the breadth and depth of actual Buddhist spirituality is not scraped against (you may want to try something like the three-hour Korean epic WHY HAS BODHI-DHARMA LEFT FOR THE EAST? for that sort of thing), but in a pop media sort of way, JACOB’S LADDER is the perfect introduction to spiritual concepts that have informed modern Buddhism in many major ways. Attachment to the physical is seen as a spiritual detriment — and moving on through life, and past life, with complete and utter peace, are tantamount in Buddhism. JACOB’S LADDER may be unsettling and terrifying, but it is ultimately about that same peace and freedom. It’s about freeing yourself.

The final shot of the film, when Jacob has finally met his death, he has an expression of peace on his face. We went through Hell, but we came out on the other side. Angels guided us, and we had a chance to find what we needed. It’s a profoundly terrifying, but profoundly hopeful film.

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