Hellbound, an enthralling short series, provides a commentary and critique on religion, cult and the zealotry it births. Set in a world quite comparable to ours, the show revolves around the sibylline phenomenon of a mysterious entity informing people that they would be condemned to hell at a given date and time, at which three supernatural beings appear out of nowhere, sending their souls to hell (most probably) by brutally burning them. However, despite the occult occurrences, they are not what the show focuses on. It is the humans' reaction to them that takes centre stage.
These arcane events, in the middle of Seoul in broad daylight, confuse and scare the people, which leads to the formation of the cult, The New Truth, who explain these incidents to be god's orders. In other words, if you get condemned, you did something to deserve it. That these deaths weren't murders but the divine will. That those who died were sinners. And this idea takes hold too as it aligns with the base belief of people. In doing so, this cult-like organisation puts forth their definition of what constitutes a sin. Something many religions and religious organisations in the real world, have tried to do.
While the show might not be a very realistic portrayal of how the world might react to divine creatures or the information of their existence, it does portray what most know to be true. The sheer chaos that would follow such promulgation. The moral freefall of society in the face of the unknown. Hellbound tries to capture this very downward societal trajectory, and how. In six episodes, we see the world of the story transform from one we could relate to, to one that has adopted fear and violence as its operative.
When these incidents start occurring, no one knows the reason behind them. The show is quite frank about people supporting or opposing it not having any answers, whatsoever. But it is religious vehemence who take up the charge of explaining these events even if it means twisting the truth. The New Truth is formed and led by Jeong Jin Soo, a person who claims to understand these events better than anyone else. The cult has been around for almost a decade when the series starts. But once fear takes over the society, Jeong Jin Soo becomes a prophet of sorts and The New Truth, which started as a small group grows into one of the most powerful and influential organisations around. They strategically use social media, word of mouth and news media, to weaponize people's fear and feed on their ignorance to forward their cause of unquestioned submission to their will.
The blind faith of the masses coupled with their fear of the unknown leads to the organic growth of the New Truth into the dominant authority it becomes. Halfway into the series, as a viewer, you start to realise that people condemned don't end up in hell. The world they are living in has become one. You don't fear the monsters but the humans, because the supernatural monsters despite their brutality and monstrosity have dignity. Humans don't.
The show also succeeds in portraying the harms of blurring the lines between the state and religion, reminding you of the Dark Ages. The New Truth and its deacons, as they proclaim themselves to be, rise above the law. Their words supersede the words of the constitution, and the authority mostly accepts this shift of power as well.
Religion has been around for a long time, used by people as a tool to avoid coming to terms with the certainty of death and the eventual inconsequence of human life. The impulse to ground oneself in something bigger than the self is a natural one. But when one is not well adjusted, they take it to an extreme. Hellbound explores this irrationality of humans, introspecting why it is always blind faith that we turn to, to explain something inexplicable, going at times, so far as eliminating people who dare question it.
The show also critiques the hypocrisy of human nature. How most people tuned in to watch the killing of the condemned but also feared these acts and never hoped to go through themselves. How desensitised they were to the screams of the dying individuals but wanted others to heed to their call for help. It also comments on the dangers of social media which can become the bellwether to both condemn and commend individuals based on the views of a single figure.
While the story at times resorts to oversimplified characters and very obvious storytelling mechanisms, overall, the show provides an introspective lens to the dangers of religious fanaticism, loss of rationality and dominance of fear, inspiring internal conflict. Never quite sure of what might follow, the show keeps you on shifting sand the whole time. It is a show that not just entertains but also educates.