New Worlds: The Undead

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Originally this was going to be a part of last week’s essay, but it turns out there’s so much to say about ghosts, it wouldn’t all fit. And corporeal undead are every bit as complicated.

The theme of liminality continues here, and things that are unsettling because they refuse to stay in their assigned category. It’s bad enough when that’s an incorporeal ghost . . . but when it’s a dead body up and walking around, it gets straight-up horrifying.

Partly this because dead bodies are unclean. Even before germ theory, many societies had taboos around touching dead humans, seeing them as spiritually polluted or otherwise dangerous. Not always — sometimes there was a degree of contact we’d find astonishing today, even before you get to practices like cannibalism — but putrefying flesh is unpleasant to say the least, and undertakers, gravediggers, and other people who deal with corpses on a regular basis have often been shunned in polite society.

That sense of contamination is one of the reasons corporeal undeath often serves as a metaphor for disease. Zombies are the most obvious example of this; most of our modern zombie stories bank on the horror of contagion, the idea that if you get bitten (or bled on, or sometimes just touched), you’ll soon be taken over and transformed into one of the shambling horde. Sometimes that carries overtones of racism: as global travel has facilitated the spread of pathogens, epidemics become linked with the fear of foreigners and their exotic diseases. Other versions have used the concept of the zombie to critique modern capitalist consumerism, or the aftermath of the Vietnam War, or various other topics. Narratively speaking, a good monster is often one that can be used to tell many kinds of stories.

Vampires can also have an overtone of contagion, since like zombies, they’re often seen as a creature that can pass its condition on to another person. But as I said above, putrefying flesh is unpleasant; vampires, who tend more often than not to be free from that “rotting” problem, lend themselves to a different set of metaphors. Blood often has a potent symbolic link to sexuality, and while traditional vampires are often deformed in some fashion, Count Dracula established the trope of the seductive gentleman bloodsucker. Nowadays vampires are almost always depicted as objects of temptation and desire.

It’s easy to forget that many of our most well-known types of undead actually came from very specific cultural origins, rather than being universal concepts. Zombies were originally the zombi of Haitian folklore, raised from the dead through a bokor’s necromantic magic rather than reanimating of their own accord, and with links to the horrors of slavery more than contagious disease. And while bloodsucking monsters are found in many parts of the world, “vampires” in the sense we think of them today are distinctly Eastern European. But while some of their traits have their roots in that folklore, others are later accretions or alterations: for example, the original versions were more likely to be created by demons possessing corpses, especially those of suicides or criminals, than by an existing vampire biting or feeding their blood to a human — which we take as standard furniture for the concept these days.

This is important to keep in mind because we have a tendency to slap a universal label on an idea and, in so doing, steamroll flat the variation and specificity of different creatures. The Mesopotamian goddess Lamashtu may drink blood, but she isn’t a Slavic vampire in Near Eastern guise. Furthermore, she is not the Greek empusa is not the Roman strix is not the Romanian moroi is not the Romani mullo is not the Scottish baobhan sith is not the Ewe adze is not the Malaysian penanggalan — starting with the fact that many of these creatures aren’t undead! But in our rush to universalize things, we let the Western, commercialized versions of an idea overwrite the creativity of other cultures, so that jiangshi become European vampires in Chinese clothing, that maybe hop once in a while.

Obviously if you’re going to write about a specific, real-world creature, you should do your research. But if you’re writing about a secondary world, take some time to look at the underpinning ideas and figure out which ones you want to use. Are your corporeal undead cadavers animated by possessing demons? That’s going to imply different actions and counter-measures than one that’s given unlife by its own restless spirit. Does this happen to people who were particularly evil in life, or those who died in certain ways (e.g. suicide), or simply those who don’t receive proper rites? Or does it require the intervention of the living, in the form of necromantic magic?

One common, though not universal, theme among the undead is the drive to feed on humans in some fashion. This transgressive behavior is another part of what makes them horrifying; cannibalism traditions notwithstanding, most societies see consuming other humans as monstrous, and even where cannibalism is practiced, eating people while they’re still alive is pretty much Right Out. But there are differences between feeding on flesh (modern zombies, Islamic ghuls, Scandinavian draugar, and more) vs. blood (creatures that get the “vampiric” label, including the entirely real vampire bat) — and yet it’s not a rigid distinction, as some creatures will happily take either. For jiangshi it’s qi or life force, which as we saw when talking about ghosts is often embodied in breath. Feeding off people can even take the form of sexual intercourse, though at that point you tend to swerve over into demons rather than undead humans. But are these things necessary for them to survive — well, continue their existence — or merely what they crave? What happens if they don’t get it for a while?

Basically, consider what kind of horror you want this to represent for your invented society, what concerns they’re trying to express and what would seem the most transgressive for them, both in terms of violating taboos and crossing category lines. Find where those tensions are, and then plant your monster right on top of them. It will stop seeming like Yet Another Zombie or Yet Another Vampire, and start seeming like something organic to your world, adding to the depth of the setting rather than dragging it sideways into familiar modern tropes. Readers who are tired of the usual zombies and vampires and so forth will thank you.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: The Undead — 7 Comments

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  2. And folklore’s vampires were distinctly less than charming. . . as in, I have heard recommendations of, if you want to see folklore’s vampires in modern times, go watch a zombie movie.

      • I wonder if cinema played a role in that phenomenon. Because, of course, it’s a visual medium, and if one hires a well-known, well-liked, and otherwise charismatic and/or attractive actor to play the part of the monster/villain, the character is thus humanised—and from there, it’s a small step towards idolising the otherwise irredeemably vile.

        • Possibly! On the other hand, a visual medium is also a great way to show you something truly revolting.

          On the other other hand, “truly revolting” is easier to achieve once you have good special effects. Beauty might be more easily represented on the screen in the early days.

      • The charming, deadly creature was part of folklore. The — ehem — Good Folk. Some of which were also life-draining.

        • True to an extent, but I don’t think “charming” and “romanticized” are quite the same thing. They might be pretty, but that isn’t the same thing as wanting to meet one or treating them as the heroes of the story.