Land of the Dead: Lessons From the Underworld on Storytelling and Living

Book Cover
Brian McDonald
Star Rating
Reviewer's Rating
Mar 20, 2023

I was, I think, 18 years old when I saw the movie Flatliners; just the right age for it to make a vivid impression on me even though it has never been thought of as a particularly good film. The characters are medical students who agree to take turns temporarily dying ("flatlining") before being revived by the others. They hope to experience a moment of the afterlife to gain insight and wisdom. They wanted, in the parlance of this book, to learn from a visit to the land of the dead.

McDonald writes that we don't have to actually die to gain that wisdom, though, as stories of visits to the land of the dead are all around us. He takes a wide-ranging tour through stories from different times, cultures, and media, drawing parallels and showing how they include different elements of the underworld. Sometimes characters travel literally or metaphorically to that land; sometimes elements of that land visit us. At one point he writes:

There are two types of ghosts--someone who is dead yet dwells in the land of the living, and someone who is alive yet dwells in a place that is dead.

For example. Other examples abound.

This is a book of literary criticism, an extended essay with pictures in graphic novel format. It doesn't, though, require any literary training or expertise; it's accessible and entertaining. He describes the movies Castaway and The Martian as examples of the land of the dead's element of isolation and Indiana Jones's descent into the serpent pit in Raiders of the Lost Ark to illustrate the ubiquitous presence of serpents in the land of the dead. He compares Dickens's Great Expectations to the film Sunset Boulevard in their representations of decay and stagnation. And the everlasting party (that's a trap) shows up in Pinocchio, The Odyssey, and Hansel and Gretel.

The book opens with a tale from Mongolia and an extended look at Gilgamesh, the oldest tale we know. He finds stories where heroes visit the underworld in myths of the Mayans, from Africa, and around the world. Other stories he looks at extensively include: Sisyphus, Our Town, Gulliver's Travels, Hamlet, Little Red Riding Hood, Silence of the Lambs, Moby Dick, A Christmas Carol, Planet of the Apes, The Time Machine, the Buddha's beginnings, the Donner Party, and Shadow of a Doubt. He also notes a special category, in contrast to those where the devil walks among us, he calls "angels from the sky." A supernatural being appears, doesn't change anything about the actual circumstances of the story, but gives the main character a new perspective that changes their outlook about everything. Examples here include Mary Poppins, Cinderella, It's a Wonderful Life, E.T. the Extraterrestrial, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, and Casablanca.

Interspersed with all of this are thoughts about the wisdom those stories provide and the science behind how they become meaningful to us. It is endlessly fascinating and insightful.

This is a place of wisdom. There is always wisdom to be found in the land of the dead. Storytellers have always known and made use of this.


It seems that humans have a deep belief that knowledge and wisdom come from those who have gone before. The dead always have the answers.

Many societies, both ancient and modern, have some form of ancestor worship, such as the building of temples or shrines for the dead. Originating in Mexico, El Dia de Muertos--the Day of the Dead--is celebrated in Latin America to honor loved ones who have died. Even those societies that would claim that they have no ancestor worship build secular holy places to honor the wisdom of the dead [picture of the Lincoln Memorial].

We study the words of Sun Tzu, Aristotle, William Shakespeare, and others because we believe that the dead have a special wisdom.

Just as the ancient hero Odysseus journeyed to the underworld to seek knowledge from the dead, so do we visit the dead for answers. The most common way we do this is through stories.

The word story originates from the Latin word historia, meaning "history." Stories are histories. Each one is a journey to the past--to the Land of the Dead. The underworld--the land of the dead--has been used in stories of all types since ancient times and is still used today.

Maybe it will help you tell better stories yourself.


A journey to a library is a journey into the land of the dead because it is a place where the dead speak.

Stories are the collective wisdom of everyone who has ever lived. Stories themselves are The Library of the Ages and all of humanity is allowed access.

In the book The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, biologist David Sloan Wilson posited that "stories often play the role of genes in non-genetic evolutionary processes." In other words, stories show us how our ancestors did--and didn't--survive different types of conflict and prepare us for an uncertain future. These "story genes" are passed on from person to person, culture to culture, generation to generation. A given story can last as long as it helps people survive.

Don't be fooled by the word survival into thinking this only means physical survival--there are all types of survival. There is social survival. There is cultural survival. And there is also emotional survival.


So how does one reap the benefits of someone else's story?

You can benefit from someone else's story because neurologically your brain doesn't know the difference between an experience that happens to you and one that happens to someone else.

This is because of mirror neurons in one's brain. These neurons fire when one watches, hears, or reads a story, thus causing one's brain to mirror the observed action as if the observer were themselves physically involved in that activity. . . .

It is how we become so immersed in a story that we are able to take advantage of the experiences of others, real or fictional, as if we had been through them ourselves.

Because, as far as our brains know, we have been.

Reviewed by Chris K.
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