Afterlife Express

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Train2.jpg
"Watch out, brother, for that long, black train."
Josh Turner

A recurring element in Oral Tradition and fiction. A sinister (or at least mysterious) phantom train beholden to no earthly schedule, often times in charge of transporting souls to the afterlife. A vehicular version of The Grim Reaper, then, minus the reaping (though that's not to say that the train that runs over people wouldn't be hilarious). Its conductor—if not the train itself—probably plays chess, too. Interesting in that trains are a relatively young technology, regarding mythology,[1] but they've acclimated extremely well. The spooky train whistle also helps.

May not actually be a train, but you get the idea. Video games love these things. If it IS a train, it may qualify as a Cool Train. Sometimes overlaps with Ghost Ship. Has nothing to do with Soul Train, though it is often referred to as a soul train.

As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.

Examples of Afterlife Express include:


Anime and Manga[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Digimon example: In Frontier (Season 4), Takuya found himself confronted by Dark Trailmon, a train Digimon, after getting annihilated in a battle. Dark Trailmon offers him a chance to avoid going to the Digital World, and takes him back in time to when his journey started. But the catch? He's running around the human world as Flamemon. (His wearing a "rookie level" version of his Digimon form is a way around the problem of two Takuyas existing at once.) He eventually decides to allow his journey to take place, and returns to the Digital World. (And the bad guy they were fighting has long walked away to sort out his lost memories by the time he got back. Oh, well. Next time.)
  • Aria has the appearance of a ghostly train that appears to transport cats to some sort of afterlife. This is a Shout-Out to Night on the Galactic Railroad.
  • Spirited Away: The train Chihiro rides to get to Zeniba's home is intended for use by the dead moving on to the next life, driven by a faceless conductor and holding silent soul passengers (who are creepily represented as semi-featureless shadows). Kamaji comments that it "used to run both ways, but these days it's a one-way ride".
  • Sister Rosette Christopher in Chrono Crusade finds herself riding on one of these after she dies. Thanks to some words of encouragement from another passenger, she leaps off the moving train before it reaches its destination, causing her to revive in the real world.
  • Arguably the "ghost" train in Final Fantasy Unlimited falls under this trope.
  • The entirety of Night on the Galactic Railroad, in which the main character, Giovanni, finds himself and his friend Campanella on a magical train journey across the night sky. At the end of the film it is revealed that Campanella had died saving another boy from drowning, and he has to journey on while Giovanni returns alone. The train scene from Spirited Away (mentioned above) seems to be a visual reference to this film.
  • One season of The Gregory Horror Show had a bit of this. One passenger Gregory encountered was the ghost of a man continually re-living his daily commute to work. And while he wasn't dead yet, a giant chicken was unknowingly traveling to a slaughterhouse for his new "job." The kicker? Said man is the first protagonist.
  • The catbus in My Neighbor Totoro.
  • Shaman King has Matamune, the split-tailed cat spirit, appearing in the afterlife and boarding a train. The image is a homage to Kenji Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad.
    • At the conclusion of the series, all of Yoh's friends and family arrive on a train connected by their souls to save him and the other four Elemental Warriors from being overpowered by Hao.
  • One chapter in Princess Resurrection had Hime and the gang having to board one of these while fighting one of her siblings.
  • Hakaba Kitaro has the titular character put two other characters on a soul train as part of a hallucination.
  • Ghost Sweeper Mikami has a ghost train episode.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: When he's absorbed into the Dirac Sea, Shinji's mind (we think) conjurs up a phantasmal train that is already in motion when he appears on it, and never, in turn, arrives at a destination. While aboard, he speaks to a second, unseen presence who claims to be himself. Whether this other him is in fact the God-Emperor of Mankind remains a subject of debate.

Rei and Asuka both end up in the Hell Train. The real mindscrew is when, later, Touji visits the Hell Train...and sees Shinji and Rei in a similar train alongside him. His only comment is wondering what they are talking about.

  • Galaxy Express 999 has an encounter with a train full of ghosts in the vicinity of Filament, a planet that had been suddenly destroyed some time ago leaving the souls of its inhabitants to live on in that area.
  • At the beginning of Grave of the Fireflies Seita dies in a train station. When the tin containing his sister Setsuko's remains is thrown away, her spirit is released and the spirits of Seita and Setsuko reunite. They then board a lonely train, and watch falling bombs, which segues into the story of how they died with the bombings of Kobe.


Comicbooks[edit | hide]

  • In the BPRD story "Night Train", there's a spectral train full of ghost soldiers. Back in WWII, the train had transported soldiers, until a Nazi saboteur destroyed a bridge, wrecking the train and killing everyone on board. In the modern day, the train and its soldiers hunt that Nazi to drag him off to the afterlife for judgement.


Film[edit | hide]

Egon: Did you catch the number on the locomotive?
Winston: Sorry, I missed it.

  • Pirates of the Caribbean's iteration of the Flying Dutchman is the nautical equivalent. In the Caribbean. Captained by Scottish Cthulhu with a Welsh name.
  • The film Heart and Souls features a variant involving a bus that comes (way behind schedule apparently) to collect the ghosts now that they've had time to finish their Unfinished Business. In fact, it is the same bus (and driver) from when the four of them were killed. After they explain that nobody ever told them why they were still around as ghosts, the driver agrees to give them some time to finish their affairs now that they know HOW to, but the bus returns periodically to pick them up one by one with no more negotiation or leeway.
  • Played with in Inception. The train that is mentioned in the famous quote was actually used by the main character and his wife to return to reality after being trapped in a dream state.
    • Not by boarding the train, though...
  • The Frighteners has an afterlife express, but it only goes to hell (those who go to heaven just sort of appear there). In a way, it looks more like a gigantic worm that swallows whoever it's transporting and then sticks pieces of its own skin into them to make sure they stay in place/torture them.
  • The Mummy (1999) has a phantom chariot that comes for Imhotep's soul.


Literature[edit | hide]

  • The Hugo Award-winning short story That Hell-Bound Train.
  • The train in the fifth The Dark Is Rising book, Silver on the Tree.
  • In Maire Philips' Gods Behaving Badly Angel Islington Underground station is a gate to the Underworld of Greek mythology, with the dead taking Tube trains to the afterlife.
  • One of the Choose Your Own Adventure books centered around this.
  • In the conclusion of "Changes", Harry Dresden is about to die when he hears the sound of an oncoming train. In the very beginning of "Ghost Story", we learn that there is a train coming for him, and he has to be dragged out of the way to stop it from hitting him. This is described as a "southbound train", one that presumably leads to Hell. The Big Bad of "Ghost Story" is finally brought down by a rush of spirits so direct and forceful that it is itself described as an oncoming train, and when said Big Bad screams in terror, Dresden says that her scream was drowned out by the "sound of a southbound train".
  • In Graham McNeill's Warhammer 40,000 Ultramarines novel Dead Sky Black Sun, Uriel and Pasanius are dragged off a spaceship onto a Chaos-warped train that runs on the "blood-tracks" and carries them into a Chaos Space Marine capital world in the Eye of Terror.
  • In the third Marla Mason book, Dead Reign, by T.A. Pratt, Marla journeys to the Underworld via a train made of the thighbone of a leviathan. She takes this train from a subway station in San Fransisco.
  • One of Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John stories, "The Little Black Train", has the local Rich Bitch trying to escape a curse that the train will come for her (by removing all the local tracks). "A black train runs some nights at midnight, they say, and when it runs a sinner dies." It comes anyway, but she repents and the train retreats.
  • Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones has one of these.
  • Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: The place that Harry visits in his Near-Death Experience turns out to be King's Cross Station. It isn't made clear whether this is what everyone sees, or whether it's just Harry. And Dumbledore gives him the choice between going back and going on—by boarding a train.
  • In the Star Trek novel I, Q, Q, Picard and Data ride a miles-long train of livestock cars filled with listless people. In this surreal story, what is actually going on is slightly unclear, but they know it will carry them to their doom.
  • In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, it's a ship, not a train, but Death and Life-in-Death play dice for the crew's souls.
  • The Polar Express is a more benign form of the mysterious supernatural train.
  • Played with in Neverwhere. An Underground train of this sort appears to Richard during the ordeal of the Black Friars; however, the catch is that getting on the train, rather than committing suicide on the tracks, is what allows him to LIVE.
  • Christopher Fowler's novel Hell Train has some living people tricked onto boarding a demon train that takes damned souls to Hell.

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Tales from the Darkside: The second season episode "The Last Car" had five souls trapped for all eternity on an Aferlife Express with nothing but a box of sandwiches and eternal boredom to keep them busy. Whenever they go into a tunnel, they turn into skeletons and black out.
  • In an episode of Seriously Weird, Harris and all of the customers of the diner find themselves trapped on a ghost train (the diner originally having been a car from this train) with a ghost conductor determined to drive them to their deaths and down to Hell.
  • The third and final Kamen Rider Den-O movie features a ghost train, hijacked by an evil Rider for his own purposes. The other trains in the series perform much the same function as Soul Trains except for time-lost individuals instead of dead ones.
  • Star Trek: Voyager introduces the Barge of the Dead, from the episode of the same name, where the dishonored souls of Klingons are sent to Gre'thor, or hell.
  • The first episode of Spielberg's Amazing Stories TV series featured an old man wracked by guilt over killing everyone on a train in his youth. At the end of the episode, the train he'd derailed—full of the ghosts of the people that had died—pulls into the station, and the ghostly conductor leads the old man on board.
  • One episode of The Twilight Zone remake had a woman being stalked by a creepy-looking bus driver and his bus full of souls after she narrowly avoid being hit by a car. The Karmic Twist Ending here is that not only did the car actually hit her, but the bus driver isn't Death. He's Life, and he goes to people on the brink of death when it isn't their time yet and shuttles them off to the world of the living again. Sadly, she doesn't realize this until too late and vanishes in a wisp of smoke.
  • Are You Afraid of the Dark?: The Tale of Station 109.1 revolves around an off-the-dial radio station that calls lost souls to the other side. The protagonist, who discovers the station on a hearse's radio, ends up being mistaken for a dead person and accidentally gets sent through the gate.
  • Teen Angel: The afterlife express on this one is an elevator to bring the souls into either heaven or hell, which includes a StarBucks.

Music[edit | hide]

  • The Chuck Berry song "Downbound Train" (no relation to the Tom Waits song of the same name) features one of these headed to Hell and driven by Satan himself, whose passengers have all lived lives of vice.
  • The Chris de Burg song "Spanish Train" is a story about a train carrying the souls of the dead to the Underworld. God and the Devil are playing Poker - gambling with the souls. Naturally, the Devil cheats and wins the game.
  • The Hank Snow song "Ghost Trains" is about a normal person watching two of these racing each other. The drivers seem fairly happy for eternal railroad ghosts, though.
  • The Vernian Process song "The Last Express" centers around this trope:

Will it go on forever?
No one will ever see.
As it rolls along in silence
For all eternity!

  • Iron Maiden has, besides "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (a Filk Song based on the poem mentioned above), "Ghost of the Navigator", where a sailor meets during his final journey a ship filled with ghosts (though Word of God states that they're "ghosts of his subconscious").
  • Not sure if this should go under Music or Western Animation, but the "Blues" song from the Defictionalized band Dethklok from the show Metalocalypse has a song "Murdertrain a Comin' (Why is this song the Blues? Because it's about a train, of course!). A sample of the lyrics:

Here comes the soul collecting train of murder a-comin'
It longs to take your putrid blackened soul away from you
Your face will leave your rotting head, in the early morning
Your guts will leave your corpse, your spine will break and crack in two

All the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain't heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again,
The passengers will please refrain
This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.

    • Amtrak actually still operates a passenger train called the "City of New Orleans", but the rest of the song's predictions are spot on. Effective rail service has almost completely disappeared from the USA.
  • Johnny Cash's "Redemption Day":

There's a train that's heading straight to heaven's gate, to heaven's gate
And on the way, child, man, and woman wait, watch and wait, for Redemption Day.


Newspaper Comics[edit | hide]

  • Lemont Brown of Candorville sometimes dreams that he boards a train from Earth to outer space, where he converses with recently deceased celebrities. For instance, he spoke with Steve Jobs in 2011 and shooting victim Trayvon Martin in April 2012.


Oral Tradition[edit | hide]

  • Railroad folklore says you should never mimic the sounds of a train whilst on the railway tracks, especially at night, lest you summon said Soul/Ghost Train.
  • There's a Stockholm urban legend, that probably started in The Nineties, about Silverpilen, a subway train coloured metal that traps people in weird ways.
  • The United States has many Ghost Trains but the most famous is the one that has been carrying Lincoln's coffin back to Illinois for a hundred and fifty odd years now.


Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • Wraith: The Oblivion features the Midnight Express, a train traveling through the Shadowlands that serves as neutral ground for all the rival factions of the afterlife—including those serving Oblivion.
  • Exalted: The Midnight Express also shows as a mysterious soulsteel and moonsilver train that travels through the Labyrinth, conveying passengers to and from the Mouth of the Void. The Deathlords are interested in taking control of it; to date, they haven't succeeded.
  • "The Train That Ever Was" in the Call of Cthulhu (tabletop game) supplement Fearful Passages, in the adventure "Iron Ghost". It carries its victims to a terrible fate: to be devoured by Azathoth.
  • The Black Engine in Deathwatch campaign The Emperor Protects. It's a daemonic entity in the form of a train, which follows rails designed to allow it to become incorporeal and exist outside real-space. In exchange for it's services, transporting psychic individuals so their souls can be drained, it's fed human slaves on every round-trip.
  • The Tour Bus From the Underworld from the Yugioh Card Game.


Theatre[edit | hide]

  • In Guys and Dolls, the song "Sit Down, You're Rocking The Boat" is about a dream the singer had about sailing away on the boat to Heaven.


Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Kingdom Hearts II: One of The Seven Mysteries of Twilight Town.
    • It turns out to be a magic train that carries people to the Mysterious Tower, home of Yen Sid.
  • Zelda
  • Final Fantasy VI: After wandering onboard such a train, you have to fight it (of course) to get off. Since it's undead, a very common item will easily destroy the boss for you.
    • One creepy detail about the train is that you can look at the schedule book, only to find that they're blank. It happens that the war going on is causing so many deaths that the train is pretty much running nonstop, and has been for some time.
    • Of course, you can also have Sabin suplex it.
  • The same train also appears as a Bonus Boss in the GBA remake of Final Fantasy I. The summon ("Doomtrain") in Final Fantasy VIII is also a reference.
  • In Sonic Adventure 2, there are a few soul trains in the Pumpkin Hill level that keep circling through walls, though they don't really serve any purpose. Except running Knuckles over whenever the player isn't paying attention.
  • In Final Fantasy Tactics, one of the wonders you can discover is a soul train. Likely a direct reference to the aforementioned Phantom Train from Final Fantasy VI, seeing how many of the other wonders in the game happen to be locations and objects from the previous games in the series.
  • In Grim Fandango, the Number Nine express train carries only the most saintly of souls to the Ninth Underworld in four minutes instead of four years like the others who have to travel by different means. Illegally obtaining your ticket, however, has dire consequences, as the entire train quite literally goes to Hell as a result.
  • One of the Darkstalkers games had a stage set on a train with several body parts and a skeletal conductor. For a series based upon horror tropes and everything related to the lore surrounding it, it's rather unsurprising that a Soul Train would be in it.
  • There's one in Skies of Arcadia too. Travels at high altitudes between Nasr, the Lands of Ice, and Mid-Ocean in a triangular route.
  • Sam and Max Freelance Police: Sam and Max board one to visit Hell, LLC.
  • Metro 2033 has one in the level "Ghosts". The headlights are visible as it heads down the rails, but the train itself (and if you look in the windows, the passengers) can only be seen as a shadow via your flashlight.
  • The Infernal Train in Alice: Madness Returns that has replaced the old Looking Glass-line, and is vibrating the Wonderland in pieces as it goes.
  • Indie visual novel Train Of Afterlife is entirely about... well, you can probably guess.


Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • The Tom and Jerry short "Heavenly Puss".
  • An urban legend on an episode of Hey Arnold!. Arnold, Helga and Gerald get into the train. It turns out to be a train to a metalworking factory. But Brainy watches the real ghost train.
  • On the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Graveyard Shift", Squidward tells SpongeBob the story of the Hash-Slinging Slasher, who on every - what day is it? - Tuesday night comes to the Krusty Krab on the ghost of the bus that ran him over. Later that night, a bus arrives in a cloud of fog.

Spongebob: I didn't know the busses ran this late.
Squidward: They don't!

  • Long John Scarechrome's ship in Filmations Ghostbusters.
  • In The Real Ghostbusters episode "Knock Knock", the Ghostbusters board a train in New York, only to realise that it has been taken over by demonic forces, it's passengers killed and turned into skeletons. Their solution? blast them all!
  • Thomas the Tank Engine has both Percy and Peter Sam tell stories about ghost trains. Percy's story (and the accompanying cinematic sequence) is pure horror.
  • The Replacements features Splatter Train, an in-universe B-Movie about a ghostly train who murders teenagers at Make-Out Point.
  • In Futurama, Bender ends up on a roller coaster to Hell... Robot Hell... Complete with Singing Robot Satan...


Real Life[edit | hide]

  1. Although it may be related to the Greek mythological concept of a ferryman (to be specific, Charon) of souls to the afterlife.