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To Hell and Back: The Dark Side of Near Death Experiences

What happens after we die, and what becomes of us after we push through the mysterious boundary between life and death? This is a question which has enthralled, puzzled, and captured the imagination of mankind since time unremembered. There are no easy answers, and it sometimes seems that there are as many ideas of what happens when we pass on as there are religions and philosophies of those who do; ranging being whisked off to some kind of heaven where loved ones await us, to the idea that we are reborn into new bodies, to the sobering thought that we merely blink out of existence into the chasm of oblivion. In the end no one really knows, and for the most part the realm of death remains an impenetrable, vast sea of mysteries.

One of the only clues we have as to what might lie beyond our mortal coil is the phenomenon of near death experiences, commonly referred to as NDEs, wherein someone who has died or is at the edge of the precipitous ledge between life and death is somehow resuscitated and comes crashing back to the world of the living, often with a bizarre story to tell of their glimpse through a cracked window into the afterlife. Yet even with NDEs there are a plethora of different, very often conflicting accounts of what happens when we die. For some, they are ejected from their bodies to float above their corpse. Some frighteningly remember nothing, only a yawning black void as if they were in a deep, dreamless sleep. Others see a pleasant tunnel of light leading off to some mystical realm or even Heaven itself, and many report actually visiting these realms and being met by long gone loved ones and relatives. And then there are tales from those who were met not by a tunnel of light or love, but rather a peak into a terrifying place of suffering that can only really be described as Hell itself.

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Near death experiences have long been reported by people throughout history, but it was not until the 1970s that it was ever really seriously studied or brought to the public consciousness. Indeed, it was in the 1975 smash hit book, Life After Life, that author Raymond Moody first coined the term “near death experience” to describe the mystical, transcendental, very often bizarre experiences that those brushing with death claimed they experienced. From there the phenomenon captured the attention of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other scientific researchers, who studied these experiences in clinical settings. Although a great many NDEs described out of body experiences or bright visions of something that might be called Heaven, these studies began to uncover a disturbing subset of the phenomenon that seemed to indicate that some of these experiences were far from pleasant, and pointed at people actually visiting Hell itself, or a realm akin to our understanding of it.

One of the first widely circulated reports during these years of such a terrifying NDEs was an account from a George Ritchie from World War II, which was published in his 1978 book, Return From Tomorrow. Ritchie described coming down with pneumonia and being brought to an Army hospital in Richmond, Virginia, where he was pronounced dead but finally revived 9 minutes later with a horrifying story to tell. He claimed that he had had an out of body experience where he wandered around town and met a mysterious figure who took him on a guided tour of various disturbing places. One was a bar where people desperately tried to drink, eat, or smoke cigarettes but could not no matter how hard they tried. This vision of those who could not partake in vices or what they loved most was relatively mild compared to what was to follow. He next found himself in a barren wasteland where spirits of all shapes and sizes were engaged in vicious battle with each other, punching, biting, kicking, and slashing at each other with wrathful abandon. Ritchie would later write of this scary, foul scene:

Even more hideous than the bites and kicks they exchanged, were the sexual abuses many were performing in feverish pantomime. Perversions I had never dreamed of were being vainly attempted all around us.

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This sinister experience would inspire Ritchie to later become a psychiatrist and write several books on the matter, which would serve as popular sources and inspiration for NDE researchers in the 1970s, and this experience remains one of the first popular accounts of an NDE concerning Hell. The case was poured over by researchers who sought to look for related experiences and chart any similarities between them. Unsettlingly, it has since been found that these horrific visions are more common than one might think. One researcher and writer of unpleasant NDEs by the name of Nancy Evans Bush has estimated that one out of every five NDEs involve terrifying traumatic experiences such as black, cold voids, total sensory deprivation, yawning chasms of loneliness, prowling monsters, or indeed visions of an actual Hell, the description of which can vary wildly from person to person. In her book Dancing Past the Dark, Bush explains about these different permutations of Hell thus:

Some are hot, some are cold, some are like deserts, some are like a swamp. Some are too bright, in terms of fire, and some are full of wet, slimy, nasty stuff. I’ve heard descriptions of wells with slimy creatures in them, but I’ve also heard barren wastes with nothing.

No matter what form these visions of Hell after death take, one thing they do have in common is that they are all terrifying. Take the story of Matthew Botsford, who in 1992 was shot as he exited a bar in Atlanta, Georgia by two disgruntled men who had been kicked out of the establishment and were taking out their frustration by shooting guns at the building. Shot in the head, grievously wounded and bleeding profusely, Botsford teetered on the edge of death, reportedly dying and being resuscitated three times on the way to the hospital. When he arrived, doctors made the drastic decision to put Botsford into a medically induced coma in order to reduce brain swelling, where he would remain for 27 days. Although he would later claim that he did not remember anything of his actual death other than a sharp, hot pain, he certainly remembered what he had experienced during his coma.

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Botsford claimed that at first there was pure nothingness; an unbearable void of perfect blackness, which he described as being like “thick, black ink had been poured over my eyes.” This chasm of total darkness began to slowly be illuminated by a blooming light that appeared to come from some glowing abyss below him that was belching out waves of incredible heat and noxious smoke. It was then that Botsford noticed that his hands and feet were shackled with chains and that he was suspended in midair amongst the heat and smoke by some unseen force. It was also then when he began to notice a chorus of anguished screams and unearthly shrieks pervading the air around him as if from an endless sea of tortured, oppressed people. Looking down into the dizzying pit below in a panic, he claimed that he could see strange beasts and less defined things with glowing demonic eyes wandering about, snapping and snarling. The smoke that was vomiting forth from below was also notable for the fact that each plume had framed within it a soul that writhed in torment. Throughout all of this, Botsford described the whole sinister scene as being permeated by a crushing sense of utter loneliness and despair that pierced him to the core.

In addition to all of this, Botsford said that the infernal, relentless heat was starting to char and sear his flesh, and as soon as he began to believe that he would be burned down to the bone, ash, and nothingness, all of it grew back to begin the agonizing process anew. Even worse was the arrival of hideous, horned creatures with glowing oval eyes and sharp fangs, which proceeded to rip and gnaw the cooking flesh from his body and devour it, after which the flesh would again grow back. As he hung there roasting above this red, pulsing chasm of snapping beasts, and the shining eyes closed in again and again to feed, Botsford was allegedly grabbed by a giant hand and pulled away, accompanied by a booming voice that declared “It’s not your time.” When he snapped out of his coma, he realized that he was no longer in that terrible, bleak place, but rather in a hospital room with a bad headache and paralyzed on his left side. The whole experience was so unsettling that Botsford would go on to write a whole book about it entitled A Day in Hell; Death to Life to Hope.

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Mention of some sort of evil monsters, demons, or beasts is a common feature of many hellish NDEs. In 1981, Veronika Barthel saw such apparitions in her own NDE, which occurred after she was spectacularly struck by lightning in her car. After losing consciousness, Barthel says that she found herself being roughly dragged along by demons and that all around her she could see these demons throwing people into caves or stabbing them with wicked spears. Around their feet were writhing masses of enormous snakes that seemed to carpet the ground everywhere. Barthel described the scene thus:

The creatures that I saw there were more terrifying than anything I even saw in a horror movie. Today I know that they were demons. As soldiers they where marching past me, and in the middle of them were people that were screaming with pain. It was very difficult to breathe down there, because of the terrible smell of this place. I saw a lake, which looked like the inner part of a volcano, where people were cursing because of great pain.

Another similar report comes from a Bill Wiese, who described being shoved into a cell where he was accosted by vicious, reptilian beasts, which proceeded to throw him around, punch, kick, scratch and stab him. Throughout this encounter he was bombarded by a cacophony of screams that seemed to reverberate about the walls from all around him and which he surmised were those of others being tortured in a similar fashion. When he came to, 23 minutes had passed, and this inspired the title of a book Wiese would write about the experience, called 23 Minutes In Hell. The near death experience of London based art historian Evelyn Hazel has a similar feel to it, when after reaching a critical stage of meningitis she found herself in a dark pit fighting against being pulled into the depths by a hulking, ferocious, three legged beast.

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Not all NDE versions of Hell involve such nefarious creatures, but are equally disturbing in their own way. In January of 1991, Angie Fenimore attempted to commit suicide and found herself at first subjected to what is called a life review, a common NDE feature that basically involves a person’s life flashing before their eyes, often from the perspective of those they have affected in some way. After this, she recalls being surrounded by a vast sea of darkness, in which she could make out a group of young people skulking about in the murk. As she approached the group, she claims that she was able to speak to them with her mind, saying “We must be the suicides.” However, this managed to elicit barely a response from the group, who all seemed morose, lackadaisical and generally uninterested in communicating with each other. She continued into an open field where she saw others wandering about aimlessly and equally reluctant to talk with anyone, stuck in some sort of dazed stupor. It dawned on Fenimore that the damned souls of this forsaken place were so bogged down in their own anguish that they lacked the ability and will to reach out to others or make connections, and that they were doomed to this stark desolation for eternity.

Although many of these dark NDEs tend to be most readily reported by the highly religious, this is not always the case. In 2005, college professor and lifelong devout atheist Howard Storm was on an excursion to Europe with some of his art students when he suffered a perforated stomach. He was told by doctors that he required immediate surgery to save his life, but as he waited for an operation he felt himself slipping away, fading to the point that he even said his last goodbyes to his wife. As he began to drift out of consciousness he reported that he suddenly found himself standing next to his own body and he noticed that his stomach pain was gone. Attempts to call out to his wife failed, as she seemed to not even notice he was there.

Before Storm even had a chance to fully adjust to the bizarreness of seeing his own body in the hospital bed, he was startled by strange voices calling out to him, which said “Come with us. We’ve been waiting for you.” Looking around, Storm saw that the source of the voices was a group of indistinct, shadowy figures congregating around the door to the hospital room. In a daze, he went to follow them as he had been asked to do, but when they left the room they emerged into a dark, thick fog that seemed to lead into a tunnel of some sort. The figures he was with seemed friendly enough at this point, and playfully chided him to keep up as they pushed on down the misty tunnel.

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As they got deeper into the tunnel and the darkness got more profound, the figures began to change their tone to a more ominous demeanor. They gradually went from playful to decidedly more aggressive, as they started pushing him and tripping him up on purpose. This slowly graduated to increasingly violent shoves, and even the figures’ voices became more guttural and demanding, their chiding turning into harsh insults and disdain. The increasingly spooked Storm decided he did not like where this was headed, and told the figures he wanted to go back. This request sent the shadowy wraiths into a fury. They began to attack him in earnest as they spewed venomous obscenities at him. Storm would say of the encounter:

We had a big fight and the fight turned into them annihilating me, which they did slowly and with much relish. Mostly they were biting and tearing at me. This went on for a long time. They did other things to humiliate and violate me which I don’t talk about.

Although he was a strict atheist, Storm claims that as he collapsed under the relentless attack he began to desperately pray, which made the creatures even angrier and prompted them to shriek with rage “There is no God!” Nevertheless, Storm prayed over and over again as he cowered on the ground, which he says culminated in him suddenly being pulled away from the assault and whisked off back into his own body. Storm was badly shaken by the experience, and would go on to write extensively on it in his book, My Descent Into Death.

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Perhaps the most frightening and bizarre aspect of these negative near death experiences is that they do not always seem to follow the rules that one might expect. If there really is a literal Hell, then one would assume that only people who have done terrible things would go there, yet this has proven not to always be the case with those who have suffered through these terrifying experiences. In many cases, the person has not done anything that would seem to make them deserve the torment they have gone through. There are other weird features as well. Although the religious are more prone to reporting their experiences, it generally does not seem to always matter whether a person is religious or not when it comes to having NDEs in general or the experiences they produce. Even for those who are religious, the experience can be somewhat different from what they have been brought up to believe will happen to them in the afterlife. Researcher Nancy Evans Bush has said of the matter:

Mystical experiences in general do not follow doctrinal precepts. They are what they are, and the doctrines are off in another room somewhere.

In short, things don’t always play out the way a person of any particular faith would have believed they would before the experience. Another interesting oddity when it comes to NDEs both light and dark is that although they may take different forms they still remain in general surprisingly consistent across religions and cultures, often displaying rather spooky parallels. Positive NDEs consistently feature out of body experiences, life reviews, and an ascent into some sort of light, whereas negative ones feature darkness, desolation, and some form of tortuous anguish, regardless of the culture or faith. It does not seem to be linked too strongly to cultural preconceptions or expectations, at least on the basest level. One NDE researcher, psychologist Tony Lawrence, has explained on this thus:

There seems to be a general lack of cultural factors determining the content of these experiences. People from many different cultures will describe meeting a figure of light. They don’t meet Jesus or Vishnu or Buddha – although afterwards they may sometimes describe what they saw in that way. The cultural influences only seem to emerge in the interpretation of what was seen, not in the basic experience itself.

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There is a great deal of debate and controversy over just what causes NDEs and what they mean. Theories as to the causes of these experiences range from hallucinations caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain, to the side effects of medication, to some last desperate dream or nightmare created by a spasm of the mind in the throes of death, to simply flat out lies and wishful thinking. Yet it has proven to be a phenomenon that continues to defy any easy answers. After all, many of these accounts have come from people who were so beyond the world of the living that they displayed no brain activity at all, meaning that it is unlikely they were just hallucinating as they would not have been able to physically perceive that. There are also the numerous reports from otherwise sane, reliable people who insist on what they saw. Can all of their testimony be completely written off as delusional ravings? On the other side of the fence are those that say that these NDEs are indicative to a realm beyond our own, maybe even a literal Heaven or Hell, or at least evidence that “something” happens after we die, as little of it as we may understand. However, there is really no way to collect any physical evidence for what one sees in the dark places beyond our material world. For now, we just don’t know what to make of any of these near death experiences, and they remain a frustratingly elusive specter. The only thing we do know is that these experiences have a profound and lasting impact on the lives of those who experience them. As NDE researcher Kenneth Ring has said:

You never recover your original self. That is lost to you. It’s not your physical body that has died, but something in you. You won’t be the same again.

It is quite possible we will never know exactly what awaits us after we die until we actually make that final voyage for ourselves. How can we ever know for sure? Many look to NDE’s for some form of answer, but are these experiences even real, or are they merely the final desperate, dream- like hallucinations caused by the coughing, flickering brain of a dying mind? Is there a realm beyond our own that awaits us, whether it be a pleasant paradise or land of delight or torment? The question of what becomes of us when death inevitably comes for us will likely be an enigma that will haunt the living for all eternity. We can only look at the clues that people have brought back from NDEs, wonder what they mean, and hope that the sinister, nightmarish visions of Hell we have seen here are not based in reality, or that at least such a fate does not await us when we finally fall over that edge that separates life from the chasm of the unknown beyond it.