“The Walk Home” by Steve Cutts is an evocative, hauntingly beautiful 2015 animated short that offers interesting and profound questions and themes about life, death, good, evil, and spirituality. Everyone should go watch this video right now.
The video opens to a cold, snowy night in a run-down inner city. No cars are moving, the lights are out everywhere, broken windows, graffiti, boarded-up doors, trash-littered streets, and smoke and soot darken the sky. The level of dystopia shown is bordering already on the post-apocalyptic.
We find the main character, an unnamed boy of perhaps 12, awakening on the roof of a busted-up, burned-out abandoned car in an alley. His face is bruised, one eye is swollen shut, and we get the impression that he has either passed out from exhaustion or been previously knocked unconscious.
He lifts himself up wearily, just getting to his senses. Suddenly, half a dozen gang members strut toward him from the alley entrance. Alarmed, he barely has time to get to his feet before one of them punches and swings a kick at him.
The boy flees, crashing into the walls of the alley and falling into a pile of rubble, while the gang members laugh and point. Their faces don’t look quite human – their eyes are completely hidden in shadow.
As he struggles to his feet, the leader pulls out a long knife and brandishes it as he approaches. The boy can only keep running, barely missing getting slashed, while the rest of the gang throws a few bottles at him, crashing in the pavement behind him as he takes cover around a corner. No longer pursued, he begins stumbling through the city in a daze.
So begins the titular walk home. The nightmare of the boy’s waking is only just started. He passes a beggar on the street, with one eye swollen shut, the other alertly following him. He sees a woman in a slim dress, legs askew, slumped on the sidewalk against a building; possibly unconscious, overdosing, sleeping, or dead. He sees a man slumped at a bar table, his eyes shrouded, face distorted.
We see what might be wealthy businessmen or politicians, drinking champagne and celebrating through barred windows, while just outside in the foreground a homeless man and woman are huddled together for warmth.
We see another shot of three men in suits, clutching stacks of money and champagne glasses as they recline on a lounge sofa in a strip bar. Like the politician/businessmen behind the barred windows and the gang members earlier, their eyes and eye-socket areas are completely black, like a skull’s. Here, though, we notice their faces seem to have scales.
Finally we have a shot of what might be a parliamentary procedure of some kind, with a podium and microphone. The attendants and speaker wear suits with what look like award or honorary badges, as the rest of the suits seen so far have, but now their heads and faces are completely reptilian: mostly alligators, a few snakes, and one or two that might be something in between.
The boy continues walking, passing and being passed by a quick montage of more skull-eyed humans, carrying knives, wearing hoodies or trench coats. We see a woman walking who drinks a bottle of malt liquor, tilting her distorted, grotesque head back and pouring it between her alarmingly oversized teeth and jaws, before crashing to the ground.
Flashes of violence and death. Someone shoots an Uzi into the back of someone’s head. Knife-wielding shadows in hoodies appear and disappear in rapid succession. Two thugs struggle violently, their heads porcine, teeth like needles, skin like a radiation poison victim. Three men stomp and kick a woman lying on the pavement. A line of gang members in hoodies sitting on a low wall, their lower faces shrouded by either the hoodie or a bandana or both, their black eyes surrounded only by just enough white to hint at a face. A car fire, and another hoodie with a face mask; the skin of his cheeks and lower forehead like melting cottage cheese. A woman late in pregnancy, her swollen belly protruding from her ragged clothing, lit cigarette in her mouth, a vague look of utter misery and despair. More knives.
The boy stumbles along a row of cars. A frozen image of a face-mask wearing thug slashing a young man in the back or side with a long knife. A woman lying face-down in the middle of a crosswalk, her purse spilled open. More pig-like, evil faces, more destitute and injured or prone victims.
A brief image of a masked, hooded character with others in the background – his face is entirely black, except for eyes glowing and afire.
A car of tattooed gangsters shooting guns in a drive-by; other gang members firing pistols back at them. A dead young man, wearing clothes similar to the boy’s, in a pool of blood from an abdominal wound. A woman struggling against a knife-wielding attacker. That same woman dead in a pool of blood. The gang members from the alley in the opening sequence.
At last, the boy seems to arrived at what might be home: an immense, foreboding high-rise. He stands looking at it, but something eats at him, a disturbing intuition perhaps, guiding him to look down…
..and sees himself, sprawled on the gritty ground in a pool of blood from a fatal wound near his heart.
Shock and horror grip him as he slowly falls to his knees, staring at his own corpse. The snow now falls a bit heavier, and we can see it behind him as he is subtly transparent. Suddenly, other figures approach; pale, translucent spirits of the dead, many of them showing the wounds of their deaths.
A ghostly woman offers her hand, and he hesitantly takes it. The other spirits, now in a circle around him, place their hands on top, and the translucent half-light of each ghostly figure becomes brightened when overlapping another.
Suddenly, like a sun, bright yellow-white light spills out into the world around them in an exploding sphere. We see the violent, nightmarish beings and their guns begin to break apart in the blinding light, their grisly deformed faces dissolving and flying upward, revealing the boy himself underneath each one. Even the original gang member who came at him in the alley with the long knife (and presumably killed him) is revealed to be indistinguishable from him.
All but one – a slowly dissolving, hooded and dark-faced figure. The boy gazes at him from the light, as if perplexed, and the figure seems to gaze sullenly back at him, before turning away and completely dissolving away, leaving nothing beneath or behind.
Descent into Hell
A man once asked me, “How do you think Jesus defeated Satan? Was it like a knock-down, drag-out fight?”
I’ve often wondered about that, for many reasons. I don’t think he was referring to resisting the temptations of Satan in the wilderness, because it’s pretty clear, according to the New Testament itself, how he did so. He stuck to his principles, and resisted temptation, and finally told Satan to get outta there. No real mystery.
So I think he was asking me about what is called the Harrowing of Hell – the period after the crucifixion and before the resurrection, a period which, according to various doctrines, Jesus is said to have descended into the realm of the dead and conquered Death or the Devil (or both), and gave salvation to the righteous and offered the gospels to every soul there.
For it’s one thing to imagine the son of God resisting the devil on Earth – arguably, the entire story of Jesus is him doing exactly that, by living righteously. But what about in the Devil’s home field? What would that be like?
Not so simple, I suspect.
I think we can look to “The Walk Home” as highly suggestive of this kind of process, which is of course not limited to Christian mythology but has traceable roots in Classical mythologies around the world. Shamanism, for example, is centered around the idea of the Shaman entering the spirit world, suffering for it, and returning. The wounded healer archetype is fairly universal in human culture, but I’m going to examine it here in the Christian context.
In the beginning of the video, our first shot of the boy is him lying on the rusted old automobile, arms spread-out in a manner very reminiscent of the cross. Should we take him for an allegory of Christ? Well, unlike most of the other inhabitants of this dark city, he seems to be in it, but not of it. He’s not a part of any gang or other social group that we can see. He seems to be rather innocent, in the sense that perhaps he, like the viewer, is uncertain where he came from or where he is.
If we do take him as an allegory for Christ, we are starting from the position of the crucifixion. Subsequently, he is beaten, chased and persecuted. This is a reversal of his experiences in life.
His walk through the underworld, with its increasingly surreal and horrific imagery, could represent a kind of gradual exposure to the evils of the world, gaining wisdom but, as Ecclesiastes 1:18 points out, much sorrow.
The moment of enlightenment comes after he faces first-hand the fact of his own mortality. Most of us are intellectually aware that we will die, but this is different from the much more profound experiential knowledge, or Gnosis, of it as truth.
For most people, near-death experiences and close calls are dramatic life-changing events that bring a crisp, newfound sense of gratitude. Here, the boy is experiencing death as a retroactive event, a la the Sixth Sense. In that film, the restless ghosts were in denial of their own existence as being dead, but were brought (like Bruce Willis’s character) to a state of acceptance and peace after finally coming to grips with their reality. While initially disturbing, the boy in “The Walk Home” is similarly comforted, for at least, he no longer has to worry about avoiding death.
While a lot of Christian iconography depicts the Harrowing of Hell in grandiose terms, showing Christ the Conqueror, the Devil and Death in chains, Adam and Eve led by their wrists out of captivity, this is the “knock-down drag-out fist fight” theme. In these kinds of doctrinal conceptions, we can imagine that Jesus, after waking up in the Underworld, marches confidently to rescue imprisoned righteous souls and smites the Devil in the testicles with a well-placed sandal kick. Probably with a witty one-liner.
As R.R. Reno writes in 2008 about Catholic heretic Hans Urs von Balthasar:
…the Church teaches that Christ’s descent was to “the limbo of the Fathers,” which is to say, to the patriarchs of the Old Testament, in order to liberate them. Moreover, this descent was “glorious” and involved no suffering on Christ’s part.
There can be no doubt that Balthasar’s own theology of Holy Saturday teaches otherwise. Inspired by the mystical visions of Adrienne von Speyr, Balthasar developed an extraordinarily vivid account of Christ’s descent into hell. Instead of entering hell in triumphant splendor so as to rescue the Israelites of old whose faith was awaiting completion, Balthasar envisions the crucified Son of God as a depth charge of divine life tossed into the abyss of dissolution. The more deeply the Son sinks into death, the more profoundly does the eventual, inevitable, and triumphant explosion of divine life reverberate.
…Balthasar has Christ descending to what really amounts to the metaphysical depths of nothingness, while, according to Pitstick, the tradition teaches that Christ descends to “the limbo of the Fathers.” Balthasar goes to great lengths to dramatize the agony of separation as the dead Son descends ever farther from the everlasting life of the Father, and again the tradition seems to go in a different direction, emphasizing the invulnerable, triumphant divinity shared between Father and Son.
Why should anyone, even Jesus Christ, enter the depths of Hell with a functional memory of who they are and where they came from, or a full conscious awareness of where they currently are? No one enters the world of the living like that.
The boy of the video has no knowledge to guide him, no teachings to learn from or to spread, no special powers or abilities. Nothing but the spirit as it takes him through a world of endless suffering.
It’s not by his own bootstraps that in the end he is lifted up, but only by trusting in another. (And that other being a creepy ghost-woman.) In other words, faith alone.
Throughout this journey, it’s implied that the goal is pretty simple – how to pass these dark streets without getting stabbed or lost, so he can reach home. Where is home, not just for Jesus, but for any redeemable spirit? Heaven – the Light.
With death, or the realization of his death, the boy stops trying to look for a building or a safe neighborhood. The journey transcends that surface-level apparition. Just as, in Catholic doctrine, Hell is “a state or place,” meaning it doesn’t have to have any physical locality to it whatsoever, so too is the Kingdom of God.
“Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”
The boy, in this moment, finally sees the truth, and together with the other martyred souls, his whole body becomes full of light. Not just their bodies, but the whole world, aka Jesus as the Light of the World. Even the nuclear-like exploding ball of light that emerges is reminiscent of the word “apocalypse,” which of course means “revelation.”
The revelatory detonation literally washes away the sinful outer natures of the lost and tormented/tormenting souls, revealing the universality of the inner Kingdom of God.
The one who simply disappears entirely can be assumed to be the Christian Devil, or Death – there is no soul underneath to redeem, nothing there but evil. Hell has not simply been the target of a prison break and march of conquest, it has been transformed by the power of faith and goodness into a realm of pure light. Home.
Another framework to look at “The Walk Home” comes from Eastern religious traditions, namely Hinduism and Buddhism. The boy is not a Christ allegory here. He begins not in the Underworld, but the modern world as we know it: the illusion of Maya, or ignorance.
The world we live in is fairly accurately (if dramatically) depicted in the microcosm of the dark city. It’s full of suffering, violence, poverty, injustice, greed, impermanence, and fear. Fear above all. We can look at, and even admire, the boy’s individualism and innocence, but he could just as easily do as the other inhabitants do. People join gangs, or even political parties, largely out of fear.
Similarly, the boy is not seeking the Light nor guided by faith. Instead, his actions are guided solely by the fear-based survival instinct. He runs from threats and stumbles haphazardly throughout his life. He is governed by fear; in his experience, fear is represented by the apparently-soulless, evil, even monstrous inhabitants of the city. His fear manifests as the mortal threat presented by incomprehensible Others.
However, he finally stops running, for whatever reason, and looks down. Here, his worst fears are revealed before him: his own death. Everything that he has fought to protect must end, and has, in effect, already ended. His struggles have been for nothing. There is, in the end, no running away from the truth.
In some dreams or perceptions, we experience ourselves through ourselves, as an actor looking out into a dream world; a first-person point of view. In others, we experience ourselves in a third-person point of view; a dissociated, rather than associated, state. By looking at his own body, as if standing over it, he is experiencing a dissociation from his identification with his physical existence. He is suddenly realizing that he is not who or what he always thought he was.
In meditative practices, this realization is a key moment which recontextualizes our view of reality. In the default philosophical paradigm of naive realism, we assume that everything is exactly the way we perceive it. Our aversions, attachments, fears and self-concept are unquestioned. But when one comes to know, through whatever means, that things are not as they seem, we begin to pierce the veil of Maya.
This process – and it is a process, not a momentary epiphany, although it can begin that way – can lead one to the point of what is called Enlightenment. Obviously this is represented in the video by the bright Light.
Fear, although powerful and justifiable within the context of Maya, dissolves with the light of understanding. This understanding is also Gnosis, that is, a kind of gut-level knowledge that transcends intellect, logic, reason, or belief. Until then, for example, we fear the Other – other people, external situations or events. This fear is based on ignorance, namely the illusion of separation and separateness.
In the Yogic tradition, Brahman (the Self) is pure consciousness, and this is the absolute nature of all reality. This Absolute consciousness is differentiated, and filtered down into a lesser state of awareness called Atman, or the individualized self. Brahman is Atman, but Atman is not aware of this and believes it is the Ego of you, me, or anyone else. In this sense, we are one Self, dreaming that it is multiple selves, dwelling in finite space and time; but nothing actually exists other than Brahman, not even space or time.
So in this sense Enlightenment is literally about waking up from the dream of reality. In the video, the dreamlike grotesques are blown away by the light of awareness, revealing the boy underneath – there never was an Other.
He was here all by himself the whole time, imagining that he was a whole city full of various people; just as, in a dream, you are not aware that the other characters and the places and even your dream-self are just figments of consciousness. Not even your consciousness, since the you that you think of as you is Ego, the false self.
Ego, the illusory separate character played by Atman, has no existence. Whether this Ego is an innocent child or a scraggly homeless man, a criminal or a victim, a lizard or a human, these are all just masks. The more “impurity,” such as greed, anger, and so on, the more distorted, frightening, or even comical these masks can be. The process of Awakening is the removal of these masks entirely, not the transformation of them.
And it may be that the only way to permanently remove Ego is by death. You might never be able to truly “realize the Self” because, by the time it happens, you might no longer exist, so who are you to realize anything?
Still, we might catch glimpses of the truth – when we’re not running away from it.
“The Walk Home” is one of those videos I find myself watching repeatedly. You do catch things you might have missed the first time, or even the first few times. Aside from the spiritual philosophical mumbo-jumbo I like to deal in, it’s a powerful social commentary and a warning about many problems of our times.
I don’t have anything to say about what Mr Cutts intended to convey by this video, nor am I making any interpretations on the basis of presumed authorial intent. Death of the author, I say!
And I find it hard to consistently invest myself emotionally into any particular belief system, so the two views I’ve presented are not meant to be mutually exclusive and I find a sense of meaning in both. I find the commonalities insightful.
In both cases, the realization of one’s own death is an essential part, either of redemption, salvation, or enlightenment. In both cases, we are hampered by either sin or illusion, or both, in terms of how accurately we can perceive ourselves, other people, and the world. In both cases, there is a need for trust (or faith), and a letting-go of our material concerns, required to see clearly.
The spiritual path is not a lovely dance through a rose garden. Singing songs of praise, bowing and praying, seated calmly in a lotus position, lighting incense, reading holy texts, having the right beliefs, or even intending to be on a spiritual path are not required. The spiritual path may look like nothing of what we consider to be “spiritual” – it might be a terrifying journey through terror, degradation, humiliation, agony, alcohol, drugs, violence, poverty, hopelessness and despair.
Thanks for reading. Maybe I’ll see you on the walk home.