In this set of hell scrolls, the true tortures begin here in the third hell with heads and hands being removed, tongues being ploughed and sinners being transported to their various retributions. The tortures in the hells to come become more and more imaginative and gruesome. Yet the curiosity of the viewer and the cartoonish nature of the tortures would seem to trump any desire to turn away. Like a horror movie, there is something oddly (and disturbingly) entertaining and colorful amidst the carnage.
"Mulian saves his mother" was not merely one of the broadly popular stories informing these visions of hell; it was also a widely performed multi-night opera in its own right. As Qitao Guo translates one late Ming description of preparing for such pageantry:
There were heavenly gods and earthly deities, Oxhead and Horseface, the Ghost Mother of Death Gate, yaksha and rakshas, saws, grindstones, and three-legged cauldrons, the Knife Mountain and Icy Pond, the Sword Tree in Yama's palace, and the Iron Wall and the Blood Lake, all just as they are in the transformation picture of Wu Daozi, [said to be the first great hell mural painter from the Tang]. Tens of thousands were spent to construct them in paper. The audience was very uneasy; under the light of the lamps, their faces had a demonic quality. In suites like "Summoning the Evil Ghosts of the Five Directions" and "Madame Liu [a.k.a. Mulian's mother] Flees the Stage," more than ten thousand people shouted at once.
These hell scrolls should be viewed in this larger context of hell's spectacle being communicated through multiple simultaneous media. People desired and delighted to see these horrors, and merchant lineages would finance their performances. As Qitao Guo concludes:
"Mulian" differed from many other plays, however, in that it was staged in a ritual matrix, often both to amuse the gods and to exorcise the ghosts. During the performance, deities and demons swarmed over the stage, at times erupting into the audience and rushing out into the surrounding fields or streets. A "Mulian" spectator from the Huizhou region said, "[We] love but also fear to watch; the more frightened we are the more we want to watch." "Mulian," staged with incomporable force, was full of horror, but it also included many comic scenes and was often performed on important occasions or annual festivals. Festivity combined with terror to create an atmosphere that was at once tense and joyful, in which moral values and religious precepts could be absorbed unconsciously.
While these scrolls would have been hung to mark the progress of the newly dead through purgatory, perhaps they should also be approached through that same paradoxical combination of horror and delight as they indirectly communicate their value system. It is a guilty pleasure.