Dante and Jacob: An analysis of Jacob’s Ladder

Jacob's Ladder (1990)

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

I find this movie apt as my very first legit post on my blog for two reasons:

1. There’s going to be a remake.
2. The movie and my blog both have a connection to Dante.

For my fellow Medieval literature students and enthusiasts out there, I know you know who Dante is. The caption on my blog is a quote by the Italian poet according to the internet. (Why should I doubt the internet?) But what does Dante have to do with Jacob’s Ladder?

There are different ways of figuring out what the heck is going on in this movie while you’re watching it. For example, the term “Jacob’s ladder” is already a big red flag (hint: It’s about Jacob and a ladder). If I knew what it meant from the beginning, I don’t think I’d enjoy the suspense anymore. It’s a good thing I found something else that solved the riddle of the movie.

What is going on?

Jacob Singer has been seeing weird, hallucinogenic things recently. A bad acid trip, perhaps.

I… I’ve seen things.

Because it kinda is.

Jacob has a seemingly normal life until he started having hallucinations. He is a former professor with a PhD, divorced, and currently works as a messenger and lives with his girlfriend, Jezzie. On his way home from work, Jacob tries to talk to a creepy, unresponsive woman and sees a homeless guy with an extra appendage (which looked like a dong or an expired sausage). Then a train moves past him with a faceless passenger waving at him.

Sup, Jacob.

He starts to questions his sanity and makes a decision to see his doctor. Plot point #1 (I think)! His doctor is dead. So there’s no way to confirm whether or not he is going insane. From this point on, you’ll just have to assume that all the weird crap that’s happening is all in his head and not real monsters.

Then the visions get worse. He goes to a party with Jezzie and a palm-reader sitting on the stairs tells him that he’s dead. He laughs. It can’t be real right? Why would they give away the ending 34 minutes into the film?

I put that information at the back of my head. Knowing that it’s most probably true, I wanted to find the clues. That’s when I found Dante.

The Not-So Good Life

Jacob and his buddies are actually soldiers who survived the Vietnam War. It turns out all of them have been having the same visions. They came to the conclusion that the army did something to mess them up psychologically. After minutes of more visions, violence, broken backs, and dismembered body parts, Jacob is contacted by a mysterious man who claims that he was there during the war. This man was the chemist who made a potent drug called “the ladder” which increases the aggression of a person. The military gave a small dose of “the ladder” in their food hoping that it would improve their performance and it had terrible effects. Instead of attacking the enemy, soldiers from the same troop attacked each other. And that’s how Jacob died.

Back to Dante. The reason why I think Dante plays a crucial part in the film is because of this scene:

Required reading for all souls in purgatory

Around 50 minutes into the film, we see Jacob doing some research on demons but instead of reading books on demonology, we see him reading this. In this particular scene, he is reading Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia. Taking what I’ve learned from film class (and watching a lot of movies), when the camera is zoomed in on something, however insignificant it may be, it’s actually important. I knew for a fact that Jacob was dead the whole time, but this scene just tied it together.

Jacob is in purgatory and the reason why he can’t crossover to heaven is because he’s still holding on to his earthly life. I thought he was just experiencing side effects of the “the ladder” but the weird visions are actually glimpses of hell.

Bertran: Has anybody seen my head? Dante: (facepalm)

Bertran: Has anybody seen my head?
Dante: (facepalm)

That’s also why the scenes look like they’re shifting from one dimension to another. He goes back and forth from earth, purgatory, and hell. The present time is the whole war sequence (which appears from time to time to remind you of what’s really going on) and purgatory is the rest of the movie with a little sprinkle of hell. To make it more obvious, Louis (Jacob’s close friend and chiropractor) says:

“The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you, he said. They’re freeing your soul. So, if you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.”

Louis, the overgrown cherub


Jacob goes to his family’s house, finds a box of old memories, sees his dead son’s soul and follows him up the stairs and into the light. The last scene shows Jacob in the infirmary with a medic declaring him dead.

Are you following me? Why are you following me?

Stairway to Heaven

I was really impressed by this movie. The plot twist was woven into the film in such a way that every scene unravels another clue but the next scene makes you doubt if you’re assumptions are true so you keep watching to find out the truth. The clues are right in front of your eyes. All you need to do is put them all together. It definitely keeps you on your toes. It’s one of those mind-boggling movies that requires you to really pay attention instead of just enjoying it. Confusion sets in at one point but once you get the hang of it, things will be much clearer .

I also like how the theme of the stairs was incorporated (the drug, the palm-reader, the ending) into the key aspects in the movie.

Jacob’s Ladder was released nine years before the more famous he-was-dead-all-along movie, The Sixth Sense. Not a lot of people know Jacob’s Ladder but despite the lack of viewers, they still call dibs on the concept. It’s not a perfect movie but it has a lot of promise. It has a good plot and it messed my mind. That’s all that matters.

I hope the remake gives this movie the extra oomph that it needed. Maybe a CGI of this guy:

I have no idea what I’m doing with this syringe because I can’t see.


4 thoughts on “Dante and Jacob: An analysis of Jacob’s Ladder

  1. I remember seeing this film when i was a teenager and loving it. Much later in life I met someone who is married to an actor, who ended up being the doctor in the movie. Reading you post makes me want to see it again.

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