Any story that starts with death and mourning, inevitably leads to some kind of journey into hell.
Joesph, the hero of Super 8, is no exception.
The main female lead in the film, Alice, says at one point that she doesn’t understand the obession Charles and Joseph have about making their film about zombies.
But from the start, it is clear that for some of the characters in this film, death or its equilivent, dominates their lives, and they appear to seek ways to cheat death or reverse it.
So with the death of Joseph’s mother as the opening scene of this film, followed by her wake and Joseph’s isolated in a deathlike setting of a snowy yard by himself, we already had the makings of a myth – one in which the hero might have to die in some ways in order to be reborn.
In jewish mythology, Joseph is seen as one of those heroes who as a dark death like passage to find salvation. The name as Yosep has several common uses such as “to repeat again,” but also “a hardening of one’s heart.”
Joesph’s father, Jackson, clearly has hardened his heart against Louis Dainard, the Dionysus-like father of Alice, who because he was too drunk to go to work one day, allowed Jackson’s wife (Joseph’s mother) to go to work and thus die in the accident reflected in the opening scenes of Super 8.
The Dionysus myth has undertones throughout Super 8, since much of the film deals with abandonment. Ariadne, Cretan princess/priestess who assisted the Greek hero, Theseus, defeat the Minotaur, is later abandoned, only to become the wife of the somewhat irresponsble, beach-combing Dionysus
Dainard’s wife left him at some point prior to the film’s beginning,
His daughter, Alice, later plays the role of a lover turned into Zombie, somewhat reflecting the loss all of the main male characters are feeling, and the need to somehow cheat death.
Joseph clings to a locket that contains a picture of him with his mother as an infant. His father gave it to her at the time of Joseph’s birth and she wore it until her death, crushed under a steel beam, at which point, Joseph’s father got it back and gave it to the boy.
Joseph – in watching films of his mother – recalls has she “is” or rather “used to” look at him all the time.
This is a hugely important revelation since we get the alien in the concluding scenes looking closely at Joseph suggesting that there is a connection. The fact that the alien before taking off takes the locket with him, suggests that at least part of Joseph’s journey to the underworld was to free his mother from the captivity of death.
In some contexts, the word Hades – which is more or less the world of the dead – means “unseen,” and since the alien in Super 8 is very much unseen for most of the film, it is a strong suggestion that the alien is the master of that Greek underworld to which dead must go.
This is strengthened by the fact that the alien chose to create the entrance to his underworld in the cemetery
In a variety of mythologies, the hero makes a descent to the underworld often to bring back something needed by society or to rescue a loved one.This ability to go into the underworld and return is one proof of a hero’s more than mortal status – a kind of deity figure, and since Joseph’s last name is Lamb, we get the sense that he may be a Christ-like figure, capable of defeating death possession the possiblity of immortality.
In Greek mythology, Orpheus entered the underworld in order to bring Eurydice back to the world of the living.
In Christian mytholody Hades compares to the Jewish sheol, meaning grave or dirt-pit, answering Joseph’s friend Cary’s question when they were trying to reach the entrance to the lair.
“Why is there dirt in there?” he asks at a critical scene before they open the door onto the dirt pit that leads them to where the Alien hold Alice capitive.
Of course, the Alien, himself, has been held captive in a different part of Hades, which the Greek’s called Tartarus –a gloomy, dungeon of torment and suffering, where supposedly enlightened scientists kept experimenting on him.
The concept of death as something natural plays a significant role in this film, since creating zombies is an unnatural act, something that defies the normal order by cheating death, and few things so enrage the god of Hades as someone trying to cheat death.
The Romans painted the gate to Hades as a kind of crater, which is more or less what we get in Super 8.
The mourning scene early in Super 8 may also explain part of the problem with the aliens. The kids are debating about the condition of Joseph’s mother after she had been crushed by a steel beam.
The ritual of a wake comes out of the gathering of mourners and the offering of libations to prevent the deceased from returning to the upper world to haunt those that failed to give a person a proper burial.
So in this regard, there is something significantly wrong in the opening scenes that causes the alien to rise up. This may have been the children’s talk, but most likely it was the unforgiving nature of Jackson, who refused to forgive Louis when he came to appologize for being drunk that day at the factory. Louis was not allowed to pay his respect to the dead Elizabeth.
Hades – the mythical land of the dead – like Dante’s hell, has a variety of levels, places where shades of old heroes wander dispondently among lesser spirits who flutter around them like bats. In some ways, Super 8 is filled with such lesser heroes, such as Louis and Jackson, who mourn the loss of something, and according to myth, it takes a blood offering to reawakedn them to the senations of humanity. This further connects the zombie film the kids are making the adult reality, as if most of the adults in their lives are zombies waiting to be set free.
Another part of Hades is a place of forgetfullness which cointains a pool from which common souls flocked to drink – perhaps reflected in the film’s water tower used as a the launching pad for the alien’s return into space.
Hades like the alien in Super 8 was not an evil entity or particularly hostile or evil. His role was to maintain balance, ruling over the dead. He forbade his subjects to leave and became enraged when theyt ried, or someone tried to cheat death by stealing souls from his realm.
The alien’s arrival at the train station when the kids are filming a critical new scene in their zombie film may well reflect the rage over cheating of death that the nature of zombies signify.
The fact that Elizabeth was crushed by a steel beam fits into the mythology of Hades as well since minerals and metals are ruled by the god Hades since they come from underground.
Hades is depized because he represents the finality of death, but he was never evil, just stern, cruel and unpitying, yet at the same time just – so when looking at Joseph in one of the last scenes of Super 8, we see Hades as the alien, passing judgement on the hero,
Sophocles once said "the gloomy Hades enriches himself with our sighs and our tears."
Some ancient scholars believe that Hades and Dionysus were the same god, creating some over lap of characters in Super 8.
Images fleeing dogs and grazing horses in the film may been further allusions to Hades. Who can tell?
The refusal to smoke pot in at least once instance in Super 8 may also be an allusion to the Greek myth when the grieving goddess Demeter refused to drink wine, which is the gift of Dionysus, after Persephone's abduction.
Alice is among a number of people abducted by the alien which seems to reflect the myth of Persephone who was abducted by Hades, and later rescued – but only for a portion of the year, becoming part of that seasonal change. Persephone must return to Hades for part of the year – which brings us back to the image of Joseph on the swing in the opening sequence with snow all around him.
Images from the film of coiling snakes seem to add even more validity to the concept that the alien is Hades, and that at least part of the love story between Joseph and Alice is based on the Theseus and Pirithous.
Both fathers in Super 8 seemed to determined to keep hold of their children, yet neither really seems to know the child they possess.
At one point, during a trap set by Hades, he sets up a feast and as soon as his victims sit down to feed, snakes coiled around their feet and made captives of them.
Habes has been described as a dark, serpent-like monster who drinks water from the sea every day which may explain why the alien chose the water tower as his launch pad.
The constant food references in Super 8 starting with the wake and continuing through to near the end with Charles may be a reference to this.
Guilt plays a huge role in both the original myths and in Super 8, and the ability to forgive. Heracules is racked with guilt when he entered the underworld to rescue Cerberus.
Joesph and his friends become the heroes that must free their world from guilt over the circumstances surrounding the death of Elizabeth, but also in their quest, help free the alien himself.
In the end, they journey into the depths of the underworld to free themselves, not merely Alice, and to allow the adults in their lives to let go of the past, and to move on.
Bad things happen, it is all right to go on living.