Devilish Details: The 7 Wickedest Inflictions in Dante’s Inferno

For those of you bemoaning this late-November holiday and dreading having to suffer the company of your relatives, just remember: it could always be a lot worse. Dante furnished unnerving reminder of this seven centuries ago in his classic compendium of severe yet suitable punishments. As a Thanksgiving Day special Dispatch from the Macabre Republic, here are my choices for the seven worst, most cursed fates in the Inferno–ones I’d be forever thankful to avoid.


7.Torment of the Barrators (Canto XXI)

The Fifth Pouch of the Malebolge combines the worst that the underworld has to offer: passive languishing and active torture. Sinners stew in a “thick and tarry mass” of boiling pitch, and when they surface, gasping for air, they are mercilessly pronged by armed guard-demons. Dante’s image of a cook’s urchins “forc[ing] the meat with hooks / deep down into the pot, that it not float” drives home the point of just how horrid this torment must be.


6.Torment of the Arch-Heretics (Canto IX)

In the Sixth Circle of Hell, “a spreading plain / of lamentation and atrocious pain” sports sinner-stuffed sepulchers kindled to a “glowing heat” by scattered flames. Consciousness of claustrophobic internment and the sense of impending roasting–this nightmarish situation reads like something Poe might dream up (cf. “The Pit and the Pendulum”).


5.Torment of the Alchemists (Canto IXXIX)

Sinners–“each, from head to foot, spotted with scabs”– within the final patch of the Malebolge scratch themselves furiously yet futilely. No sooner is one scab clawed off than another crusted wound replaces it. Just thinking about the woeful Alchemists obsessing over their maddening, unrelenting itches makes me squirm in my seat.


4.Torment of the Sowers of Scandal and Schism (Canto XXVIII)

Clive Barker’s Cenobites seem to trace their ancestry back to the Eighth-Circle, Ninth-Pouch demon that disembowels and dismembers victims with his sword. Dante catalogues woundings of the utmost grotesquerie: one sinner’s face is “opened wide from chin to forelock,” another walks around “with both his hands hacked off,” while a Headless Horseman forerunner carries his own severed head “just like a lantern.”


3.Torment of Traitors Against Their Benefactors (Canto XXXIV)

The demons and assorted monsters of the Inferno are awful in their own wrong-punishing right, but imagine being personally tormented for all eternity by Lucifer himself. Such is the fate of Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius, each chewed down on by the “gnashing teeth” of the titanic, Saturn-like Satan (the clawed “emperor of the despondent kingdom” also subjects Judas to flaying: “his back was stripped completely of its hide”). Add in an icy cold climate for bad measure, and this all sounds utterly unbearable to me.


2.Torment of the Simonists (Canto XIX) 

These sinners are planted head-down inside holes in rock, with only their lower limbs showing. Their extremities are exposed to extreme torment, as flames are set down on bare feet (the agonizing Simonists’ “joints were writhing with such violence, / they would have severed withes and ropes of grass”). Anyone who has ever scampered across scorching beach sand knows just how terribly tender the soles of the feet are; I can’t stand to think of a protracted suffering of such searing.


1.Torment of the Neutrals/Cowardly (Canto III) 

Dante designs a system of increasingly sinister punishment, but my top choice of worst infliction harks back to the very first one detailed in the Inferno. The angels who remained neutral during Lucifer’s war against God, alongside “the sorry souls of those / who lived without disgrace and without praise,” file along as their naked bodies are “stung again, again / by horseflies and by wasps that encircled them.” Maybe it’s just the hopeless insectophobe in me speaking, but this sounds like the most awful and all-too-realistic plight (one that I could actually experience while still alive).


Teetering But Not Toppling (Review of Treehouse of Horror XXXIV)

Sunday night brought the latest (lamentably post-October) edition of The Simpsons‘ annual Halloween special. Granted, after thirty-four years, the “Treehouse of Horror” shows signs of serious aging, but there is enough in the episode to convince fans that all the wicked fun isn’t exhausted just yet.

TofHXXXIV opens with “Wild Barts Can’t Be Token,” easily the weakest of the episode’s three segments. A lame satire on the NFT craze, the short is long on unfunny cameos (by the likes of Kylie Jenner, Rob Gronkowski, and Jimmy Fallon) and forced pop cultural references (e.g. Snowpiercer). Digitized Marge massacres a batch of “Cuddle Kittens,” but such scene of cyberspace violence doesn’t strike a distinct note of horror. The passing gag involving “Ralph-House” (a Brundlefly-style monstrosity created when both Ralph and Milhouse are crowded into the same scanning pod) nearly redeems the entire segment, though.

If “Wild Barts” hurtles toward derailment, the subsequent segment, “EI8HT,” quickly gets matters back on track. This vintage Treehouse piece (spoofing classic horror/thriller films such as Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs) also hearkens back cleverly to “Cape Feare,” a canonical Simpsons episode from three decades earlier (here given an alternate ending in which Sideshow Bob succeeds in murdering Bart with a machete). The wackily graphic violence that viewers have come to expect from the annual Halloween episode is in abundant evidence: the flayed Dermott Spuckler’s skinsuit hung on a clothesline, and the meathooked Nelson Muntz’s body looking like a Cenobite centerpiece, to cite a few examples of unrestrained gruesomeness. All told, a bloody entertaining segment.

Finally, in “Lout Break,” Homer precipitates the fall of civilization by consuming a radioactive donut. Apocalypse (or in Homer’s estimation, “me-topia”) results when those who come into close contact with the mutated doofus are infected and promptly morph into crude facsimiles of him. The “Homerizing” of Springfield’s residents via lyncanthrope-like transformation produces a stunning heap of eye candy, as well as some memorable bon mots (“Donut Stu has Diabetes Type 2”). Yes, this COVID-19-evoking parody (Homer’s plague is spread by “burp-borne transmission”) might be deemed tasteless and done-too-soon by certain viewers, but there is no denying the humor permeating the segment’s bonkers scenario.

An uneven but ultimately enjoyable episode, TofHXXXIV keeps the weathered Treehouse intact for another season. It also furnishes a reminder that The Simpsons’ Halloween special works best when it plays off of iconic horror properties and not when it gets caught up with offering snide commentary on modern (techno)cultural trends. Riffing on the horrific always was, and still remains, the key to providing terrific fare.


Halloween Ubiquity III

For those refusing to make the turn toward the Season to Be Jolly just yet, here is some October overflow to immerse in:


The Pumpkinrot blog keeps keepin’ Halloween alive with a heap of holiday-related eye candy


The Lineup examines tricky treats: Halloween Candy Tampering: Fact or Urban Legend?


Pumpkin-carver extraordinaire Adam Bierton creates a tentacular spectacle in the New York Botanical Garden assembles a cast of the best out-casters: It’s an Excellent Day to Rank Our Favorite Fictional Exorcists


Crime Reads probes the phobias of leading literary terrorizers: What Are Thriller Authors Truly Afraid Of?


Bloody Disgusting props up supreme cinematic examples of a seasonal icon: Harbingers of Autumn: Six of the Scariest Scarecrows in Horror Films


The WWE gets down with Halloween in the filmic short Boogey Night:


The Lovecraft eZine Podcast offers further eldritch fellowship with its annual Halloween episode:


The always-bewitching Christine McConnell continues to practice her craft:


Practical Peculiarities helps party planners get the jump on next Halloween by hearkening back to the 1920s: