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Barred from the Afterlife
A character has died but cannot enter Heaven, The Lifestream, his next Reincarnation, or what-have-you. It's not that he's destined for Hell instead, he can't pass on to eternal anything.

It may be his fault due to Unfinished Business, getting a little too cheeky with Ol' Grim, or being True Neutral and thus not good or evil enough for heaven or hell. Or everyone there was just too scared of him. Alternately, being left in limbo is this universe's version of eternal damnation. For some souls, such a state could actually be worse than Fire and Brimstone Hell.

On the other hand, there's plenty of outside factors that can cause this: His remains didn't get their funeral rites, the Celestial Bureaucracy can't find his ticket for the Afterlife Express, or Death went to Hawaii instead.

Most likely he'll end up Floating The Earth as a Ghost (often with Ghostly Goals,) but more rarely he may be forced back into his decaying body as Undead. Other fates include being stuck in the Afterlife Antechamber, or shunted to The Nothing After Death. Or if he's really lucky he may get Cursed with Awesome, Coming Back Strong and with Purpose Driven Immortality. Although that can suck, too.

Could count as Nightmare Fuel. Except in a serious case of Downer Ending, he or his next-of-kin will probably get a chance to Set Right What Once Went Wrong at some point.

See also the Flying Dutchman and Wandering Jew legends, which frequently involve this. Compare Rerouted From Heaven, where a soul ends up in the wrong afterlife.

Death Trope alert! Unmarked Spoilers! Abandon hope, ye who read past here!


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • At the beginning of YuYu Hakusho, delinquent Yusuke dies saving a child from being hit by a car, which puts the Celestial Bureaucracy in a bind: He was scheduled to go to hell, but his Heroic Sacrifice partly redeemed him... but not enough to qualify for heaven. He ends up working for them fighting demons.
  • This is stated to be the fate of any Death Note user. An ending flashback reveals the truth: there is no Heaven or Hell, just Cessation of Existence.
    • The Relight special of the Anime makes this a bit more ambiguous. At the beginning of the special, Ryuk is talking to another Shinigami. Said Shinigami bears striking similarities to that of Light (though not in appearance since the Shinigami is a walking skeleton) leading to theories that the two are one and the same. However, it's never been officially stated if this is true or not.
  • In the Dragon Ball universe, it's said at one point that being killed by a demon brings you this.

    Comicbooks 
  • Lobo was kicked out of both heaven and hell and is thus immortal. None of the other afterlife destinations will take him either; he even got kicked out of Valhalla for being too violent. Let that one sink in for a bit.
  • According to Whatever Happened to The Caped Crusader?, when Bruce Wayne dies, he is reborn as himself in another universe, and the cycle continues infinitely, barring him from being anything other than Batman even after death.
  • In the Johan and Peewit comic book story "The War Of The Seven Springs" (and its Animated Adaptation "The Haunted Castle"), Aldebert Baufort is prevented from joining his ancestors in eternal rest until the seven springs surrounding his estate are restored, and that the land is claimed by a true Baufort descendant carrying the family seal.

    Film 
  • In Casper, ghosts are people who had some important business left unfinished due to their death. The comic originally portrayed him as a dead child, but after the Fridge Horror for young readers was pointed out, the author retconned Casper as being born from a mommy ghost and daddy ghost.
  • The movie Ghost is all about this—some souls aren't ready for one place or the other at the time they part with the body, and the main character had some things to resolve on Earth before his soul could be at peace.
  • GhostTown has a similar theme to the above movies, as a curmudgeonly dentist has a near death experience and starts seeing ghosts, all of whom embody this trope to one extent or another.
  • Disney's Peter Pan. Captain Hook is preparing to drown the Indian Princess Tiger Lily to force her to tell him where Peter Pan's hideout is. He threatens her with this trope as he does so.
    Captain Hook: Remember, there is no path through water to the Happy Hunting Ground.
  • There's also the 1985 film The Heavenly Kid, where a guy killed in The Fifties is stuck in "Midtown", and has to perform some kind of deed before he can go "Uptown". And it turns out he has to play guardian angel to the son of his former girlfriend. (Oh yeah, and the guy she married was Niedermayer.)
  • In The Searchers, a group chasing an Comanche war party finds the grave of a dead Comanche. One man angrily smashes him with a rock but John Wayne pulls out his gun and shoots out the corpse's eyes. When asked by a Texas Ranger/Preacher what good that did, Wayne answers that by what the preacher believes, nothing, but the Indians believe that if he has no eyes he can't enter the afterlife and just has to wander "between the winds".
  • In The Rapture, Mimi Rogers refuses to give up her anger at God for what people go through and is literally "left behind" across the river, unable to enter Heaven. When asked by her daughter if she knows how long she'll have to stay there she answers: "Yes. Forever."
  • In The Time Of Their Lives Lou Costello, killed in the American Revolution, is bound to an estate by a curse. When the curse is lifted (by the finding of a letter praising him written by George Washington) he goes to Heaven. But he can't get it because the Pearly Gates are locked - for Washington's Birthday.

    Literature 
  • In the Chalion series, anyone who doesn't get the proper funeral rite can't be taken up by the gods and ends up a lost soul, although they can be redeemed by a living saint. Shamans attach an animal spirit to their soul and need another shaman to separate the two when they die.
  • Meg in The Wish List dies with a perfect balance of good and bad deeds to her name, disqualifying her from both branches of the afterlife. She finds a way back to the mortal world and decides to help an old man fulfill his life's wishes in the hopes of earning enough karma to get into heaven.
  • In the Harry Potter series, ghosts are people who either refused or were too scared to accept death and move on. Apparently, there's no take-backs later on if you change your mind.
    • Voldemort's Fate Worse than Death in the end. Since his soul was still split apart when his physical body died, he could not pass on to the afterlife. He remains trapped in limbo as a stunted twisted thing, presumably forever.
  • In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent mentions that he used to have a recurring nightmare where he died and there was a bureaucratic error: all his friends went to heaven or hell, but Arthur got sent to Southend.
  • In one of the Nightside novels, Sinner is an otherwise-good man who'd sold his soul to the Devil for true love. When he died and went to Hell, it was revealed to him that his "true love" was a succubus who'd only been pretending to care about him ... but he still loved her and was content with his end of the bargain, so much so that having him around subverted the basic premise of Hell. Rather than let a happy soul spoil the atmosphere of the place, the Devil kicked him out again, and Sinner wound up in the Nightside, back on Earth.
  • In Dante's Divine Comedy, those who refused to commit to a position in life were left to run back and forth in the borderlands, for even Hell won't take them in.
  • In Graeme Penman's Motherland it is revealed that the Big Bad 's primary motivation is to get out of this situation. No wonder the Jackal is so grumpy. And it is heavily implied that the same thing will happen to Anthony as they share the same powers.
  • In The Lord of the Rings, the Dead Men of Dunharrow are cursed to an undead life until they have fulfilled their oath to aid Gondor's king in battle.
  • In Croak, this is what happens when a Grim screws up. If the Killer doesn't do their job, the soul is stuck in the body; if the Culler doesn't do their job, the soul becomes a ghost; and if the soul is Damned, they spend eternity in pain and are never able to reach the real afterlife.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Charmed, this is Cole Turner's final fate - he ends up stuck in limbo, too good for Hell but too bad for Heaven.
  • One episode of The Storyteller had a soldier who became Enemies with Death... and "won", putting it in a bag but eventually releasing it. Because of this, Death was too afraid to reap him, Heaven would not take him for his sins, and Hell was afraid he'd become Like a Badass out of Hell.
  • This is how ghosts and zombies are created in Being Human. Ghosts usually die with some particular piece of unfinished business, and are unable to cross over until they can figure out what it is and fulfill it. Zombies are created when something unnatural blocks a soul's transition into the afterlife at the moment of death; body and soul don't separate properly, and the soul is forced to remain within the corpse for several weeks after death, until the body has decayed to the point that it simply can't sustain the soul anymore.
  • In the The Twilight Zone episode "The Hunt" a man does this to himself. He's allowed into heaven but he isn't allowed to take his dog with him. He decides that an afterlife without his dog is a fate worse than death (so to speak) so he refuses to enter and will just wander the path in between heaven & hell forever. Turns out that wasn't heaven, it was hell. Heaven allows dogs in.
  • In the short lived early Fox series Second Chance (not to be confused with the game show of the same name) Charles Russell dies in the Far Future of 2011, and learns he is too bad for heaven but too good for hell. He is given the opportunity to go back to his teenage years and become a mentor to his younger self (played by Matthew Perry). The second season drops the older Charles Russell character, and became a standard Sitcom called Boys Will Be Boys.
  • The spirits trapped in the house in American Horror Story: Murder House.
  • In season 9 of Supernatural, everyone who dies, with the presumable exception of those bad enough for Hell. Aside from evicting all the other angels, Metatron has closed Heaven down for business.

    Music 
  • Jackyl's "Heaven Don't Want Me (And Hell's Afraid I'll Take Over)".
  • A one-line reference in Sonata Arctica's Broken: "Heaven's closed, Hell's sold out."
  • Also, discussed in the Death Cab for Cutie song "I Will Follow You Into The Dark": "When heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied, illuminate the nos on their vacancy signs."

    Mythology and Folklore 
  • In Norse Mythology "heaven" was called Valhalla, and those who died of natural causes were sent to the realm of the goddess of death Hel (root of the English word Hell, but not as bad). They sometimes resorted to "cheating" by methods such as gently tapping the dying with a sword as they passed away.
  • The legend behind the Jack o' Lantern or Will-o'the-wisp involves a thief cursed with this after tricking either Death or the Devil.
  • Some of the Native American tribes from the great plains allegedly believed that mutilating someone's body after death would bar them from entering the afterlife, so they'd be forced to wander the earth as a spirit.
  • "The Soldier and Death" is a Russian folktale, retold in English by Arthur Michell Ransome and later used as an episode of The Storyteller. At the end of the story, the soldier having tried to enter both Hell and Heaven and, being turned away from both, is left to wander the Earth forever.
  • In The Talmud, the sage Elisha ben Avuya is barred from the World to Comenote  because he'd renounced Judaism, and from Gehennanote  because of his Torah learning. Rabbi Meir, his loyal disciple and friend, vows that after his own death he'll make smoke rise from Elisha's grave, as a sign that he's successfully brought him to Gehenna so that Elisha can be punished and eventually redeemed. After Meir's death, Rabbi Yohanan vows in turn to rescue Elisha from Gehenna and bring him into the World to Come. Sure enough, after Yohanan's death, the smoke ceases from Elisha's grave, because "not even Gehenna's gatekeeper could stand up to" Yohanan.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In the Points Of Light setting for Dungeons & Dragons, honored servants of a god are supposed to go to his or her divine realm after death as Exalted. Due to the heavens being badly fractured, a large portion of these randomly end up on islands just outside their god's realm, completely blocked from entering by any mundane or magical means.
  • Dungeons & Dragons module I3 Pharaoh. The pharaoh Amun-re sacrifices the wealth and well being of his people to build himself a magnificent pyramid tomb.When he's threatened by an angry mob, he lays a curse that will cause the land to dry up if he is killed. A member of the mob kills him anyway, and the god Osiris is forced to carry out the curse. However, he punishes Amun-re by condemning his spirit to wander the land until someone steals his treasure from his tomb.
  • Then there are the vestiges from the Dungeons & Dragons supplement "Tome of Magic". These include such luminaries as Andromalius, a thief whose plan to steal his soul from his patron god worked a little too well, and Acererak, a lich who attempted to fuse with the Negative Energy Plane, got halfway there, and ended up shunted into a mysterious nowhere. Regardless of how they got there, they have a semi-detached, insane existence in a location more mysterious than even the Far Realm, and the binder playable class exists to barter with them for power in exchange for letting them briefly contact the world once more.

    Theatre 
  • Polynices, in Antigone, has been left unburied by the king Creon so that his soul cannot go on to the underworld, in punishment for his rebellion. His sister Antigone takes it upon herself to do so.

    Videogames 
  • D of Another Code lost his memories when he kicked the bucket and his desire to get them back keeps him from moving on.
  • The plot of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow revolves around stopping the titular lords, who are (among other nastiness) barring the way for dead souls to heaven using an evil mask.
  • Souls in Final Fantasy X must receive a sending ritual from a summoner in order to reach the Farplane. Souls that don't get this ritual become Unsent (sentient undead) if they're lucky, otherwise, their jealousy towards living beings warps them into Fiends. This leads to some Fridge Horror: At the end of the game, there's no more summoners, since the Big Bad was powering them. The sequel reveals Fiends are still appearing, but no one is sure why. Someone's going to connect the dots and have a Heroic BSOD at some point... That said, circumstances both on Spira and in the Farplane have radically changed between games, implying that the Fiends are more "ambient" energy than anything else.
    • This is part of the reason Kuja, the villain of Final Fantasy IX has nothing to lose and everything to gain from being evil. His boss, Garland, will provide him with as much power, wealth, and luxury as he could ever want, but only if Kuja follows his instructions. Otherwise, he'll just take Kuja's soul back and make a new version of him. The problem is, even if Kuja succeeds, Garland will do the exact same thing. So Kuja has absolutely nothing to lose by screwing over everyone but himself. Garland knows this.
  • The basis of Painkiller is that the main character has died, but cannot enter Heaven with his wife until he does some work for the angels and kill the generals of Hell.
  • In the Titan Quest expansion pack Immortal Throne, Hades' invasion of the mortal world causes Charon, the Styx's ferryman, to neglect his duties, resulting in the dead becoming stranded outside the afterlife. The player resolves this by killing Charon and presenting his oar to one of the trapped souls, allowing the soul to become the ferryman in Charon's place.
  • In Might and Magic: Heroes VI, dead souls are supposed to be delivered to the goddess Asha for reincarnation, but those who die particularly violent or unjust deaths can find themselves trapped in the mortal world as ghosts. Necromancers who worship Asha sometimes try to bring comfort to them, in the hopes that they can rejoin the cycle.
    • In Heroes Chronicles, Tarnum is a ruthless Barbarian leader whose original good intentions (to free his people from the Bracadan Magocracy evaporated thanks to paranoia and desperation. He has become a tyrant. So when King Rion Gryphonheart of the new nation of Erathia killed him in Combat by Champion, the barbarian Ancients refused Tarnum the peace of the afterlife until he atones for his sins. Thus, Tarnum becomes the Immortal Hero. The rest of the chapters are focused on Tarnum trying to make up for all he has done. A Heroes IV campaign has a young Barbarian chief attempting to re-unite the Barbarian tribes. That young chief's mentor is Tarnum. After the chief succeeds in his task, the Ancients consider Tarnum's debt repaid and offer him to join them in the afterlife. Tarnum refuses and stays with his people.
  • In Vagrant Story, anyone who becomes tainted by 'The Dark' is fated to die an incomplete death. For most people this means being reborn as a walking corpse, but some people, such as Sydney, and possibly Duke Bardorba, have studied and manipulated The Dark to such an extent that they've become functionally immortal.
  • In the video game Malice if you die you end up in a limbo stage where all you need to do is talk to the Grim Reaper who promptly sends the title character (a demigoddess) back to the living world (i.e. you restart the level you died on) simply because he doesn't want to deal with the complicated paperwork of processing a god.
  • In Touhou, we have Yuyuko Saigyouji, the princess of the Netherworld, the place where souls wait for their Reincarnation. However, because her body is being used to seal the Saigyou Ayakashi she cannot enter the cycle of reincarnation and is stuck forever as a ghost. She seems to be enjoying it, though.
    • In the extra stage of Imperishable Night, Yuyuko talks about eating the liver of the immortal Fujiwara no Mokou and inheriting from her the effects of the Hourai elixer, which removes the concept of death from the victim. She claims that if a ghost were to ingest this elixir, they would become an immortal ghost and never be able to rest or reincarnate. Then she decides that Mokou's liver looks tasty and that she wants to eat it anyway. It's left ambiguous whether she actually went through with it.
  • In Jade Empire, this happens to everybody as a result of the Water Dragon being bound. When the game starts, twenty years worth of restless spirits have piled up, and the Empire's really starting to feel the effects.
  • The Nameless One from Planescape: Torment cannot die. Certain very powerful beings can destroy his body beyond the ability to reincarnate, but if that happens this is the result as he never registers as 'dead' in death's book. Two endings of the game sees you rectify your state of immortality. Death — and transportation to your just dessertsimmediately ensues.
  • This trope forms a large portion of Grim Fandango's plot. The Land of the Dead is clearly just an Afterlife Antechamber, and many souls can't go directly to their final resting place due to past misdeeds. Some are simply forced to spend up to four years traveling to the Gate; others, like Manny, have to work for a prolonged time before they're allowed to leave. The most saintly souls can reach the Gate in four minutes by boarding the Number Nine train, but the main plot revolves around them getting robbed of their tickets, which leads to this trope.
  • After encountering the apparent ghosts and other imprints of the dead upon the Metro, the citizens in Metro2033 theorize that the nuclear war destroyed the afterlife, damning everyone to eternal purgatory.

    Webcomics 
  • In The Order of the Stick, Eugene Greenhilt cannot go to the afterlife until one of his descendants kills Xykon because of a Blood Oath. This is the general fate of people bound by a Blood Oath of Vengeance and who die with it unfulfilled. An exception is made for those who died actively trying to fulfill their oaths, as Roy found out.
  • In the original and abandoned pictures for sad children storyline, Paul, who is a ghost, being unable to go to hell is the main plot.
  • Bleedman's Grim Tales from Down Below has Billy die and end up in Heaven. But the saints get fed up of him and kick him out (literally). Billy then ends up in Hell. But they get fed up of him there as well and he ends up wandering the Earth as a spirit.
  • In Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic, the gods of Man and the gods of Orc couldn't agree on who should claim Glon the half-orc, and he convinced them to send him back to life so he could determine which of his two heritages was his "true" one.
    • Glon's dying human father asked to be buried with three grave coins, instead of the usual two. This means that he was technically denied a proper burial, and therefore has an excuse to stick around as a ghost.
  • This is the initial premise of Slightly Damned, albeit something of a bait-and-switch from the very start.

    Western Animation 
  • In one episode of Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers, the rangers encounter the spirit of Monterey Jack's ancestor Sir Colby who was cursed to Wander The Earth in death after abandoning his post in life. By scaring off Fat Cat and saving the Crown Jewels of England, he redeems himself and is able to pass on in peace.
  • In the direct-to-video film from Transformers Prime, when Megatron is confused as to why he hasn't crossed over into the Well of AllSparks yet. Unicron explains this is due to all the Dark Energon Megatron pumped into himself - he's now bound to Unicron. Whether the imprisonment of Unicron's anti-spark fixed the problem is pretty much left up in the air.


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