Personified Death is a quirky fellow with a variety of characteristics: soul collector, fashionably macabre dresser, and sometimes boat owner. The floating grim reaper is known as the Ferryman, captain of a vessel that transports individuals over bodies of water to the land of the dead. He is an important link in fiction as the transition between life and death is often shown as a literal journey between two physical locations. A sea, river, or estuary acts as a dangerous barrier for those who desire to enter the afterlife. The Ferryman knows the only way for souls to safely cross. Boat ownership carries a grave responsibility.
In film and television, the Ferryman plays a crucial role for heroes by providing a necessary service. Frequently in a story, a still-living hero must cross over into a dangerous world (the afterlife) to retrieve an important talisman. This process is known as catabasis, or being an afterlife tourist. In this fashion, Ferrymen in entertainment act as deathly, cruise ship tour guides or travel agents, bringing a hero to a separate plane of existence. The Ferryman's boat itself represents insulation and protection from the caustic nature of the crossing by emphasizing that the hero intends to return from the afterlife. A hero hopes that death is only temporary and that the Ferryman can accommodate the return passage (in a process known as anabasis, or coming back from a vacation in the afterlife). The Ferryman has a day job in transporting souls. Helping heroes is a hobby.
The Ferryman is a powerful character in a film or television show. A hero needs the Ferryman whether the hero likes him or not. His power is transcendence in palpable form (the form of a boat). Being the gatekeeper to another world is reflected in film through portrayals of the Ferryman as an intimidating peculiarity -- foreboding, villainous, or even wacky. As a character, he takes many forms as filmmakers attempt to flesh out his simple job description.
Regardless, when on his ship, one should address him as "cap'n."
Charon is the archetypical Ferryman in myth and film -- coining the term. Descending from Gilgamesh's Utnapishtim and ancient Greek mythology, he pilots a vessel on the shores of the rivers Acheron and Styx, moving any paying customers across the rivers. If deceased spirits cannot pay, they must wander the Earth as an incorporeal shade for a century. Technically, his brother Thanatos reaps the souls of the dead, but Charon is an important part of the life-death chain. Without Charon, a backlog of disgruntled ghosts would become a nuisance to the living. Charon indiscriminately helps anyone who can afford to hire him -- living or dead. In essence, Charon is the operator of a public transit system between two worlds.
In film, Charon stays mostly true to his ancient Greek roots. A common portrayal of Charon is the mute, skeletal skiff skipper. His silence generates a somber tone in any scene featuring him. The lonely groan of his boat and the trickling splash of his stave add to the ambience. Although, he cannot help but smile while doing his work (because skeletons have no skin and are incapable of frowning).
There is some variation to Charon's depiction on film. In the 1997 animated film Hercules, Charon is a naked skeleton that acts as personal valet to Hades, god of the Underworld. Charon's boat is how Hades travels around the workplace. In the 2010 film Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Charon has a human form with a deathly pallor and the ability to speak. He still wears the traditional dark robe while rowing, but Hades implies that Charon enjoys wearing expensive Italian suits. In the 1981 film Clash of the Titans, Charon adheres to his standard appearance as a speechless skeleton in a robe. The 2010 remake Clash of the Titans has Charon as part of the boat itself.
Oddly, filmic Charon mostly transports living heroes on camera. The story of a film follows the heroic characters and only shows the heroes' interactions with Charon during the actions of catabasis. This interaction is only a brief snapshot of the Ferryman. It probably does not indicate a preference of the Charon character for rich, hero types (in order to ask for large gratuities). He serves his purpose to the hero and the plot of the film.
Charon in Clash of the Titans (both versions) typifies his cinematic character. In the films, demigod Perseus and his warriors need to retrieve the head of the gorgon Medusa. Medusa lives on the Island of the Dead in the Underworld. Charon and his boat are the only way to Medusa. Perseus pays the fare to ride on Charon's boat to the island. Charon dutifully travels to the island, and Persues dutifully slays Medusa and takes her head. These actions are the catabasis and mystical talisman retrieval of the Hero's Journey. Afterwards, Perseus takes the winged Pegasus to the land of the living. Charon does what is required of a Ferryman, nothing more and nothing less.
Presumably, Charon would have preferred Perseus pay for a return trip, illustrating why Charon may have a preference for transporting living heroes. Heroes pay for the trip back -- double the fare of a dead person.
Another Ferryman on film is Davy Jones from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. He is also supposed to transport the recently deceased to the land of the dead. Davy Jones has a much larger purview than Charon because Jones travels the seven seas to do his work. Additionally, he takes a different tack towards being a Ferryman.
However, this Ferryman has gone rogue. In the lore of the Pirates of the Caribbean, Davy Jones is the Scottish pirate lover of the goddess of the sea, Calypso. Jones is tricked by Calypso and cursed to perpetually sail the seas, shepherding the souls of those who die under a sail. He can only set foot on land once every ten years. In revenge, Jones works with the pirate ruling council, the Brethren Court, to imprison Calypso in human form. Davy Jones becomes master of the world's oceans, a squid-faced immortal being with the power over life and death on the waves. He travels the world on his ship The Flying Dutchman, attacking ships with his pet sea monster, the Kraken, and capturing the crews on the verge of death. He offers them the chance to be pressed into his crew for a century or die outright. With all this nautical frolicking, Davy Jones lets his accursed duties slip, and those who die at sea have to find their own way to the afterlife.
This Davy Jones is an amalgam of Death from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the legend of The Flying Dutchman ghost ship. In Coleridge's poem, a dying crew is approached by Death and his partner Fate-Worse-Than-Death (not actually her name in the poem). The two supernatural beings gamble for the souls of the crew. Death wins everyone save the eponymous Mariner and puts them out of their misery, more-or-less mercifully taking them to the afterlife. This aspect is adopted by Davy Jones in his assigned but forgotten duty as sailor grim reaper. Jones' other side is his inability to make port but once a decade. The legend of The Flying Dutchman holds this concept exactly. 18th century sailors report seeing a ghostly, glowing ship sailing upside-down in the sky at dawn and dusk (most likely a refraction illusion). They assigned the ten year penance as a way of explaining the specter as a cursed crew that committed a horrendous yet unknown crime. Interestingly, the upside-down ship is referenced in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End as the way to enter the afterlife.
With these traits, Davy Jones acts as the villain of his films but manages to indirectly fulfill his role as the Ferryman for the heroes, granting them catabasis. His Kraken's maw is a portal to Davy Jones' Locker (originally a metaphor for bodies cast to the bottom of the sea but a literal place in the films). The hero of the films, Captain Jack Sparrow, is eaten by the Kraken with his ship The Black Pearl. He and the ship appear in the afterlife. Captain Jack Sparrow becomes the mystical talisman he, himself, is supposed to retrieve from the afterlife. The other heroes of the film, Captain Barbossa, the zombie monkey Jack, and a marginally interesting young couple, also travel to the afterlife to retrieve Talisman Sparrow. Sparrow manages to find his own way out of the afterlife (anabasis). On the way out, Sparrow and his friends see the multitude of dead sailors wandering the seas of the afterlife without Davy Jones as a shepherd. Unintentionally, Davy Jones fills two roles: the antagonist and the helpful guide to the heroes.
The more Davy Jones flees being a Ferryman, the more he embodies it. Jones can blame fate or screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Destiny and screenwriters are the same thing to a movie character.
Similar to Davy Jones is the Flying Dutchman's ghost from the television series Spongebob Squarepants. The Flying Dutchman is a green, glowing ghost who sails under the seas to steal souls. Stealing souls and reaping souls are analogous, with pernicious intention being the difference. He places the souls in a satchel labeled "Souls." Also similar to Pirates of the Caribbean's Davy Jones, The Flying Dutchman has access to a pocket of afterlife, a psychedelic hellscape, through a zipper called the Fly of Despair. Unlike Davy Jones, The Flying Dutchman is not a morose organ player and enjoys his work, relishing in terrifying the denizens of Bikini Bottom.
An episode of Spongebob Squarepants titled "Shanghaied" illustrates The Flying Dutchman's role as Ferryman. In the episode, The Flying Dutchman accidentally weighs anchor on Spongebob Squarepants' house. Spongebob, his friend Patrick Star, and his neighbor Squidward Tentacles climb the anchor chain to the spectral ship. The Flying Dutchman then informs his guests that they now share his curse by setting foot on his ship. They are now his cursed crew, forced to help The Flying Dutchman in his efforts to scare the residents of the sea floor and steal their souls. His new crew proves themselves inept, and The Flying Dutchman decides to devour them. After a few more trips through the Fly of Despair, Spongebob and associates work together to find a way to prevent themselves from becoming a snack. They discover The Flying Dutchman's weakness: his dining sock, which he requires to be able to dine. The group captures the sock and trade it to The Flying Dutchman for three wishes. Again, the Ferryman as a foe accidentally provides his enemies the mystical talisman to defeat him. Spongebob uses one of the wishes to turn The Flying Dutchman into a vegetarian. In turn, the Flying Dutchman turns Spongebob and compatriots into vegetarian-friendly fruit.
In another episode, "Spongebob vs. The Big One," The Flying Dutchman runs into Davy Jones when he is sent down to Davy Jones Locker. In a shared moniker joke, Davy Jones is actually singer-actor Davy Jones from The Monkees. He torments The Flying Dutchman with used tube socks. Two Ferrymen meet, somewhat.
In the episode, ten year old Bart Simpson sells his soul to his friend Milhouse van Houten, claiming that his soul does not exist. He writes, "Bart Simpson's Soul" on a piece of paper and sells if for five dollars. Bart begins to have doubts about the veracity of his claim on souls. Strange occurrences start to indicate that he has indeed lost his soul. In a dream, Bart dreams that all of the children of Springfield are rowing boats with their souls towards an island dreamland. Bart sees that Milhouse has both a Bart and a Milhouse soul. Bart has difficulty rowing the boat that is obviously built for a two man crew. Bart's soul is his Ferryman for traversing the harsh waters to another world, but Bart is missing his soul. Ostensibly, Bart cannot enter Heaven without his soul. He wakes up from the nightmare and quickly determines to get his soul back from Milhouse.
Bart descends into despair, searching for his Ferryman and undergoing an ordeal similar to entering the afterlife. Bart reaches the bottom of hopelessness and is saved by his sister Lisa. She returns Bart's "soul promissory note," which he voraciously eats. Lisa explains that Bart earned his soul through surviving hardship. Bart does not care. That night, in his dream, Bart has his soul. He and his Ferryman easily traverse the sea to the island, overtaking the other children.
A more abstract instance of the Ferryman is in the animated The Beatles' film Yellow Submarine. In the film, the character of Old Fred sails the titular saffron submersible from his trippy homeland of Pepperland to England. Old Fred is the Ferryman and is sent to retrieve four souls. He finds Ringo Starr and his band mates John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. Fred takes The Beatles in the submarine and begins the long voyage back to the Pepperland. The voyage of the Yellow Submarine is a trip into the depths of the human psyche with Fred as the guide (read: an acid-induced experience with Fred trying to prevent a bad trip).
Most other uses of the Ferryman allude to the dangers of the sea passage to another world, but Yellow Submarine illustrates precisely the hazards against which the Ferryman guards. Only strong souls sail these waters. Fred, the Beatles, and their Yellow Submarine pass through different seas that illustrate the different fears of the human condition, similar to the fear of death that a dangerous afterlife represents. In the Sea of Time, The Beatles have their lives flash in front of their eyes as they age and grow young. In the Sea of Science, they experience the dangers of perception. In the Sea of Monsters, The Beatles discover how fear feeds itself by creating monsters.
Old Fred the Ferryman takes the heroes down into another world. The Hero's Journey pauses on catabasis as the Yellow Submarine descends. Reaching the end of sea passage does not mean the end of the Beatles' journey, but Fred's purpose is reduced. After The Beatles' work is completed in Pepperland, defeating the Blue Meanie Menace, they return to England. Presumably, Old Fred takes them home in anabasis, fulfilling his role as Ferryman. Their return home is marked by a return to live-action from animation. This voyage and homecoming is a metaphor of death and rebirth similar to a character entering and departing a land known as the afterlife.
Ferrymen take many forms but serve the basic function of moving souls from one place to another, living or dead (but mostly living). They provide a service to characters in film and television by advancing the plot in physically moving the plot from one location to another. While the Ferrymen may forget their true purpose, lose their way, or lose themselves, the Ferryman in film ensures that dying is not permanent for a film's heroes. If a film character needs to cross a body of water to a strange land, they need a boat. More importantly, they need a person to navigate. They need a Ferryman -- the tour guide of death.