On the day I died I was at a theme park in Hong Kong. My death, my first death that is, was planned. I had agreed to this death, hell, I had even paid for it. They said it was just a game.
‘The safety word is banana’, she said as she moved up my left side, fastening a plastic sheet to the side of my gurney. ‘You say banana three times, we stop the game’. She moved to my right side, securing the plastic sheet tight across my body, trapping my arms by my sides and leaving my bare feet exposed at the bottom, and then she left.
I blinked up at the cold, fluorescent tube light on the ceiling. A man dressed in a white lab coat, wearing a surgical mask like a hospital orderly leaned into view. Every now and then the tube light flickered, casting ugly shadows on the orderly’s face. A long-suppressed memory licked at the corners of my mind. I’ve been here before, I thought. Not exactly here but somewhere similar. It was much brighter the first time though and I was covered with a soft blanket, not a plastic sheet. Someone leaned over me just like this and asked me questions but I couldn’t speak. Seconds later the drugs that were being forced into my blood stream through a needle jammed into the soft, crêpey skin on the back of my hand, sent me spinning into sleep. And then, nothing. Nothing at all until I woke up what must have been hours later in pain, with a freshly-stitched slash in my flesh and metal inside me in places where there was once only bone.
‘This patient is pronounced dead’, the orderly said. ‘Time of death: 13.23.’ And then I was moving. My custodian into the afterlife spun me on the gurney and projected me through a doorway at such speed that I would have felt sick, had I not already been dead. I flew through the doorway that was hung with strips of plastic, like an abattoir, and came to rest centre stage at my own funeral.
Up to now had more or less maintained my composure by grinding my teeth. A horrible habit, disgusting really, and one that has over the years gradually flattened my back molars and caused my jaw to click when I eat. I stopped when a figure burst into view inches from my face and began shrieking at me in Chinese. He was painted white, like a dead thing, with black ringed eyes and a long frosty beard. I screamed then. It was the kind of scream usually only heard from the mouths of those who are moments away from being brutally murdered. A scream that originated somewhere deep within me, my lower intestine maybe or my bowel, and poured out in a stream of pure terror with one clear message, ‘I’m going to be murdered.’ Which is ironic really because by now I was far too deep into the fantasy that I was already dead.
There was so much noise in the room. The shrieking demon competed with creepy chanting and loud bangs pouring in through a speaker system and my lonely scream hardly seemed to penetrate the din. I stopped screaming – at least I believe I did, a scream like that can go on and on independent of its host – and tried to look around me. The demon went about his business, wafting incense over my corpse and reciting a ritual, and I looked past him at the shrine that had been erected in my honour. It was a nice shrine, much like the shrines I had seen at the Chinese temples I had visited in Hong Kong with little statues of saints, lots of fresh flowers and burning incense sticks. At the centre of the shrine was a photograph, probably about a meter high. A photograph of me. I could tell by my hairstyle that it was a very recent photograph and I was smiling. They must have taken that just before I died, I thought.
Thinking about it now, that a funeral should be directly followed by a cremation seems perfectly natural but as I was wheeled out of my funeral through another plastic curtain and shoved headfirst into a casket, I registered shock followed by a red-hot current of pure fear. It was pitch black in my casket but as the seconds ticked by my eyes adjusted and I could make out the wooden ceiling, just inches from my nose and the silky, pleated fabric at my sides. No sound from the outside penetrated the walls of my casket but inside my own body the din was unbearable. My breathing was like a gale, battering my windpipe and screeching out of my nose and my heartbeat was a painful, irregular thud, like a body tumbling down a long flight of stairs.
In that moment I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I had felt afraid. This kind of fear, as cool and clear and uncontainable as the water in a fast-flowing river, is a child’s fear because to feel this afraid as an adult is surely a precursor for madness. People often mistake fearlessness for naivety. My family might despair at my habit of leaving doors unlocked, my readiness to talk to strangers and the way I like to walk home alone at night. I know monsters exist but I feel no more threatened by them than I feel threatened by a shark attack or the Ebola virus. As long as we don’t cross paths in the exact same pocket of space and time, I have nothing to fear. Am I fearless or naïve I wondered in the silence and darkness of my casket.
Talking to yourself like this inside of your own head is known as executive functioning. This cognitive process is one of the only things that separates the human species from the rest of the animal kingdom. Regulated by the frontal lobe of your brain, executive function regulates emotion, controls our attention and memory, and deals with organisation and problem-solving. All of the things that make us human. Right now, I needed my executive function to convince my respiratory, nervous and musculoskeletal systems to work properly. I need to tell myself to make my heart beat at a stable rate, to slow my breathing down and perhaps to even allow me to start blinking again. I said to myself, ‘this is a game, this is just a game’ and actually started to believe it. Until they cremated me.
Someone started up the furnace and the flames instantly became large and greedy. All around me, red flames licked the inside of my casket and I saw my feet take on a red glow. People are afraid of fire and they should be. Fire is pure destruction and it can reproduce itself, growing to magnificent proportions, obliterating anything it touches without encouragement. Those who are fortunate enough to have never been in close proximity to a large fire often forget about the noise. A fire doesn’t rage in silence, it burns with a roar that squeals and howls as it grows.
And thinking about it now, I think that was what did it. The noise of the fire. That and the fact that I began to feel its heat. Not only had my body lost the ability to control my breathing and heart rate but now my body temperature was out of whack too. My bare feet started to itch with the heat and my cheeks were red. Under my plastic sheet my body was broiling and becoming sticky with sweat.
And right then something inside of me snapped. Like an elastic band stretched past the point of its flexibility something gave way and my mind could no longer operate as a functioning circle of reason. Lower brain took over higher brain, flooding it with distress signals. I entered full crisis mode, panicked and primitive, I felt the snap and came undone.
It was a surreal feeling, losing my mind, and one I hope never to experience again. I can’t recall screaming but I do know that I was making sounds I had no control over, moaning and nonsense noises. If there was ever a time to yell banana three times it was now but to do that seemed absurd. Safety words only apply when you’re playing games and this was real now. There was no way out.
I wasn’t even in the casket anymore. I was looking at myself in the casket from somewhere above it and as I looked down I felt sorry for myself. I thought about how the kids employed to administer this ‘game’ would be just outside, probably laughing at my mental break and uploading the whole thing to youtube as I lay there. I thought about how in a few minutes time this would all be over and I would be free to leave and go on with my life. Because I had a life. I wasn’t dead at all. But try telling the me in the casket that.
I watched myself struggle and thrash until I had managed to bring one arm up and out of the plastic sheeting. My shoulders were still fastened flat to the gurney but I managed to bring my hand up out of the sheet and put it over my mouth. It was the only way to stop the noises and it was comforting to feel my own hand against my face. The sensation of the muscles and joints in my fingers moving felt incredible and the heat from my breathe penetrating the palm of my hand was like an embrace.
I was still insane though and when the flames had died down and I was again left in darkness I think I started to cry.
Moisture dripped down my temples into my hair line, although that could have been sweat from my brow. The door opened at my feet and my gurney with my remains still on it was dragged from the casket and wheeled at top speed towards another plastic-curtained doorway. It would have made sense to end it there and then. Banana, banana, banana and it would have all been over but that just seemed impossible. I was exhausted and I was mad. All of this was completely out of my control.
So began my gurney tour of Diyu, the subterranean maze of Chinese hell. The exact nature of Diyu differs but it is commonly believed that is consists of ten courts, each ruled over by a judge, a Yama king who doles out punishments appropriate to the sins the dead committed during their life. Most punishments involve torture that lasts until death, at which point the person is reanimated in order to undergo the same punishment again and again for as long as the Yama king decides.
If I had been something resembling of sound mind this might have been a good time to contemplate the sins I had committed in my life and consider ways I might atone for them. As it was I was only vaguely aware of the horrific pantomime that was happening all around me and experienced it as a baby might, as a series of noises and shapes and colours, all of which made no sense and terrified.
The period of time one spends in Diyu and the punishments they must endure depends on the severity of the sins committed during their lifetime. I don’t know what sin I committed for the Yama King to decide that I must pass through the Chamber of Tongue Ripping but it must have been bad.
Feet first I was projected through the plastic curtain, coming to rest under the apoplectic face of my first Yama King. He was painted bright red with thick black eyebrows that flicked up past his temples and a long, straight, kung-fu master beard and he shrieked an incantation over my remains. Someone or something spun my gurney so that I twirled around in the centre of the room. The ceiling was alive with thick, red, dripping tongues hanging like hideous flesh vines from bodies strapped to the ceiling and walls. Some of the tongues were long enough to reach me and could curl up and dart straight like a disgusting party horn, licking my face and bare shoulders. I manage to free my hand enough to stop the leathery tongues from touching my eyes.
After this point the chambers blended into one long, excruciating parade of terror. I was no longer watching myself from a disembodied perspective, which was a relief, but I still had no control. We all fear the loss of control, of facing harm and being unable to stop it, but the experience of fear itself is often nothing more than a loss of control. Fear has been a necessary component of our evolution as a species and those of us who felt no fear in the face of predators would find themselves quickly eliminated from the gene pool. We’re hard-wired to take note of the distress signals issued from the lower brain and act accordingly but what use is irrational fear? Most of us will only experience true danger, events during which our lives are placed in danger, a handful of times, if at all. If we could switch off fear events which normally seem traumatising would not be perceived as trauma. That you have nothing to fear but fear itself is trite but also true. It really is all in your head.
Feeling violated and weak I was wheeled and spun through a gauntlet of screaming corpses that flung themselves down on top of me. One room was slick with blood and another was all white with sheets of cotton hanging down from the ceiling. Between them, glimpses of a lunatic dancing towards me holding with a bloody knife. And then there was a room on fire where my bare feet were abused by an evil spirit with a red-hot poker. Strapped down at the knees I could do nothing but look at the horror, the decomposing body parts dripping from the ceiling and walls and mumble and scream. A Yama king slapped a disembodied arm across my thighs and then I found myself back where it had all started. Back in the morgue.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked and seemed so genuinely concerned that I tried to rearrange my face so that it resembled something other than catatonia. I nodded and as soon as he unclipped the plastic sheet that covered me I jumped off the gurney onto my feet. Stars burst behind my eyes and then everything went black as I stood and breathed for a few minutes to clear the head rush. What now? Someone handed me shoes and socks and pointed towards a doorway. I looked around for more instructions but there was another stretcher being pulled into the morgue and they were busy helping a flushed and smiling man to his feet. Eventually I started to walk barefoot towards the exit, half expecting someone to stop me.
Outside it was unbelievably bright and warm. It was happiness in surround sound and Technicolor as people everywhere were holding hands, laughing and talking, enjoying their family day out at the theme park. Dishevelled and still barefoot I just stood watching for a few minutes, still waiting for instructions. The queue for the ‘game’ I had just escaped from was huge now, and snaked almost all the way to where I stood, at least 30 metres from the entrance. Seeing where I had just came from and registering the mental anguish in my eyes the people standing at the end of the queue starting to laugh. I just shook my head, no, don’t do it but that just amused them more. They couldn’t wait to get in there.
In a wordless exchange I bought a coke and tried to bring myself back. I had gone to Hong Kong as a tourist hoping to see the way the people of Hong Kong lived and now I had seen the way they died. I breathed deeply, felt the sugary coke invigorate my body as quickly as if I had mainlined it and contemplated joining the queue for a rollercoaster. What could I possibly have to fear now?