Hell Puppets

Ezra Brown and Bailey Kemper


Harry R. Caldwell (1876-1970) was an author, world traveller, avid hunter, and amateur film maker, but above all, he was a Methodist missionary to Fujian, China. Born in rural East Tennessee, Caldwell grew up loving and exploring nature. Later, as a missionary in China, he would write in detail about his encounters with local wildlife, the people he met, and the fascinating sights he saw on his various missions. He also recorded many reels of film, which were recently restored and presented for study. In one specific film clip, Caldwell appears to have taken an interest in what appear to be “hell puppets.” In the brief clip, puppet figures move eerily through what appears to be a small, constructed hellscape, using a mixture of puppetry techniques. There are shadows, some amount of automation, and other three dimensional puppets.

In actuality, this is quite possibly an early predecessor to modern day walk-through attractions which exist in China, as well as other parts of Asia. These puppets were possibly being used to tell the story of someone who had descended to one of the varied hells of Buddhism. These hells work on a bureaucratic, tiered system and upon the arrival of Buddhism in China, also adopted elements of Daoism and Chinese popular religion to better assimilate into Chinese culture. Both presently and in the past, these forms of puppet theatre function as a means of income for the Buddhist monastery with which they are affiliated, as guests are encouraged to make monetary donations in the hopes of allowing their ancestors to avoid the hells. This type of shadow puppetry is also not unlike forms of puppet theatre enacted during specific holidays to honor the god of theatre within Chinese popular religion. However, given the striking similarities to both modern and historic Buddhist hell attractions, that is the most probable origin story of these “hell puppets.”

Extended Explanation

The “Hell Puppets” film clip, which was recorded in Fujian, China by Harry R. Caldwell, may be one of the most vague and disturbing of the amateur film maker’s entire body of work. While many of his short films portray people walking to or from temples, or participating in religious festivals or parades, this very short clip shows what appears to be quite literally some puppets in hell. Caldwell was born in 1879 in rural East Tennessee[1] and would grow up to be an author, world traveller, and Methodist missionary to China[2]. During his time in Fujian in the 1930s, he recorded a series of short films and clips depicting some of what he had encountered there and found fascinating enough to take the time to capture[3]. It was during this time that the recently restored “Hell Puppets” clip was filmed. So what exactly is this brief, blurry clip trying to convey? By analyzing the cultural context of the clip, its place within the religious landscape of China, and Caldwell’s own understandings of what was going on around the filming, one can best decipher what the clip portrays. 

The constructed puppet hellscape in the “Hell Puppets” film clip may seem odd to modern Western observers, but it is actually not unlike similar walkthroughs in the United States. It draws striking similarities to Wisconsin’s own House on The Rock attraction, a large and dubiously constructed residence which houses the designer’s collections of puppets, demons, and a horrifying walkthrough of a larger than life-size fantasy whale.  However, placed in its original cultural context, the model hell through which various puppet figures move seems to make even more sense. Puppetry has a long and rich history in China, as does their use in religious ritual, practice, and artistic representations. The theatricality of puppets is often employed during religious festivals and parades, both in the past and in the present. As seen in the documentary Bored in Heaven, which focuses on religion in contemporary Fujian, theatre and puppetry are used both as a mode of storytelling and a form of expression of religious devotion[4]. To those experiencing both the festival depicted in Bored in Heaven and the “Hell Puppets” clip, they would probably understand themselves as acting out and taking part in something both very real and highly symbolic.

Equally important in understanding the cultural context of this clip is to understand the many stories about hell which the people who originally viewed the hell puppet display would have known by heart. For starters, there is the story of the Theatre God, who is worshipped locally in Fujian.  In his legend, the Theater God, the third son of the Jade Emperor, comes to earth as a human and attempts to rescue the Empress[5]. Upon successfully saving her, the Emperor throws a banquet in honor of the Theatre God, who quickly becomes very drunk. The Theater God passes out in the garden, and the Princess draws crabs on him. Later, when the Theater God is called to return to heaven, he is denied entry due to his messy appearance. He is subsequently condemned to perform his story every time it is reenacted on earth, which does not bother him in the slightest, because he prefers the fun of living on earth to the boring bureaucracy of heaven. It is this story which informs local celebrations which include plenty of theatrical practice. It is possible that the “Hell Puppets” clips is showing puppets used in one of these local celebrations.

The people of Fujian in the 1930’s would have also been well versed in understanding the blended Buddhist, Daoist, and popular religious depictions of hell. As Buddhism was brought to China, it encountered a critique that monastic communities must be anti-family[6]. This did not bode well with Chinese tradition and pre-established religions that emphasized filial piety, so Buddhist monasteries began distributing legends about monks would had travelled to hell, devoted to rescuing their parents or other deceased loved ones from the many levels of hellish bureaucracy[7]. One of the most famous instances of these is the story of Mulian. In this Buddhist Chinese story, Mulian seeks the help of the Buddha himself to rescue his mother from her place in the hells, which was a result of being essentially a wicked person during her lifetime. Mulian is ultimately successful and his mother achieves rebirth in the paradisiacal Pure Land[8].

Over the course of history, these stories about hells, which ultimately profited Buddhist monastic communities by encouraging people to donate to them in order to save potentially doomed family members, ultimately gave way to larger re-enactments of hellscapes. Today, walkthrough style hell attractions depict, often using puppets, the series of different hells within Buddhism. These modern attractions draw a striking similarity to the “Hell Puppets” clip, both in theme and composure. The “Hell Puppets” clip possibly being a 1930s precursor to modern Chinese hell attractions may also explain Caldwell’s interest in the attraction as a topic of study. Obviously Caldwell was, as a Methodist missionary, arguing the existence of only one singular hell and did not necessarily believe in karma. However, the themes of hell as a place of torment[9] (whether eternal or temporary), ring clearly through this clip enough for it to be understandable why Caldwell would have chosen to film this specific attraction in the first place. It is interesting to imagine what he must have thought as he was witnessing this attraction for the first time.

In conclusion, to best understand brief “Hell Puppets” clip, one must have some background in the clip’s cultural context, the history of religion in China, and the preexisting knowledge and biases of the film maker. The “Hell Puppets” display was likely an early version of what later would become full-scale walkthrough hell attractions, but it is also possible the “Hell Puppets” display was a part of a religious festival, possibly honoring the Theatre God of Fujian, China.

[1]Caldwell, Harry. Blue Tiger. New York, NY: Abingdon Press, 1924, 1-17

[2] Caldwell also had a brother performing missionary work in China, so this is largely why he was drawn to the country.

[3] Ibid., 1-17

[4] Kenneth Dean, Bored in Heaven, 2010

[5] This entire passage is a summary of what information is conveyed about this story in Bored in Heaven.

[6] Teiser, Stephen F. “Ghosts and Ancestors in Medieval Chinese Religion: The Yü-lan-p’en Festival as Mortuary Ritual.” History of Religions 26, no. 1 (1986): 47-67.

[7] Teiser, “Ghosts and Ancestors in Medieval Chinese Religion,” 47-67.

[8] Ibid., 47-67.

[9] Teiser, Stephen F. “Popular Religion.” The Journal of Asian Studies 54, no. 2 (1995): 378-95.

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