What happens to us after we die? It is one of the oldest questions to haunt the human imagination. Many modern people believe the idea of an afterlife was invented to comfort us in times of loss and bolster our sense of importance. Afraid to accept the finality of death, we dreamed up the immortal soul. Be that as it may, belief in an afterlife carries a price of its own.
Perhaps the only thought more terrifying than ceasing to exist is the possibility that we might not. Fear of death pales in comparison to the horror of becoming trapped between death and life, unable to fully enter either condition.
Many of the world's rituals of mourning take on a dual purpose in this light. Beyond comforting themselves, the living also desperately seek to ensure that the dead stay dead. To leave the deceased restless in any way is greatly feared, for who could it be more unwise to offend than one who cannot die? Even if the dead do not themselves take offense, they might fall under the influence of other forces unless protected somehow. Either way, if the dead become active in the world of the living, they become members of a separate type of beings, no longer fully human, which we call the undead.
The undead occur in many forms in fiction and folklore, from some of the oldest tales handed down by word of mouth to that most modern storytelling medium, the computer game.
Most forms of the undead are assumed to be evil, or mindless at best; almost all are believed harmful to the living. However, there are a few exceptions to these rules.
These beings can be grouped into several different categories. Considering the diversity of different cultural sources involved, some overlap between categories is inevitable, but it is still a useful way to introduce the subject.
Usually known as ghosts, these can arise without any supernatural influence other than the spirit of the deceased person. In one sense this makes them simpler than many other forms of the undead, but the circumstances of their creation can be quite complicated. There are almost as many different ways to become a ghost as there are people.
The most frequent key ingredient is for the dead person to be unhappy about something. The problem often relates to the manner of death, but it can be almost anything. In many cultures you would be expected to come back as a ghost if murdered, especially if the murderer is not brought to justice. In some you might become a ghost because the terms of your will were not properly carried out, or perhaps just because your children put the wrong kind of flowers on your grave. Ghosts who arise for any such reasons might simply fade away if the cause of their unhappiness is resolved.
There are a variety of different ways ghosts can make their presence known to the living. They may appear as pale, faded images of their living selves, or as the insubstantial image of a rotting corpse. They may be heard to speak in nearly normal tones, or only to groan and wail miserably. They may seem to address unseen persons, as if replaying situations from their lives; or they may try to speak directly to their living witnessses. Sometimes they are only seen and make no sounds; in other cases, they make sounds but are not seen; and often they make other sensory impressions, such as strange odors, or an unexplained chill in the air.
Some ghosts are said to be unaware of being dead. They wander around in the places they used to frequent while alive, sometimes repeating whatever traumatic incident caused their spirits to become restless. Others are believed to know exactly what their situation is, and know who is responsible, and burn with desire for revenge.
Often, spirits are believed to have little or no power to affect the material world directly. Many lack even the desire to harm the living, and do so only accidentally, mostly by frightening people. In some tales, ghosts have the power to cause indirect effects such as drownings and other accidents, disease, crop failure, and similar misfortunes.
In older tales, at least in Western cultures, it was rare for restless spirits to be portrayed as capable of attacking people in any direct physical sense, although such powers were seen more often in stories and legends from non-European cultures. Modern portrayals are also leaning in this direction.
Another subcategory of restless spirit is one of the few undead types considered benevolent. Some rare ghosts interact with the world of the living to bring some benefit, or prevent some harm, to their loved ones. Many tales of such ghosts are quite similar to the miraculous events sometimes attributed to angels.
General terms for restless spirits include ghost, apparition, specter (or spectre), phantasm, phantom, poltergeist, wraith, shade, banshee and spirit. All of these are somewhat interchangeable terms in older literature and folklore. Notable exceptions include the word "poltergeist" which is sometimes reserved for spirits with the power to move small material objects, and the word "banshee" which often means a female spirit whose wailing is so terrifying it can cause insanity or death.
The most recent stories, especially those told in game form, tend to invent extremely specific distinctions between different types of spirits. Sometimes there are equally specific methods for dealing with each type, so be sure to check any appropriate rulebooks carefully.
For all the unease and even terror at the thought of spirits that linger after death, bodies that cannot rest after dying are worse. If restless spirits are like cold fingers running down the spine, restless bodies are more like a punch in the stomach.
To a narrowly logical being, this reaction might seem strange. If it comforts you to imagine lost loved ones are still alive in a spiritual sense, some might think there should be greater comfort in imagining they might become physically active again. Quite a few stories feature someone who naively thinks this is a good idea, but it almost never turns out to be good for anyone.
Our instinctive feeling that dead bodies ought to stay down is often stronger than our hope of an afterlife. No matter how deeply religious, people are likely to view a moving corpse as a sign of evil forces at work, except in the very few cases when they are strongly convinced of the opposite.
Our revulsion at the idea shows in the gruesome imagery often used to portray these walking dead. Their bodies continue to rot. Their wounds cannot heal. Often, they shamble at only a fraction of the speed a living person can walk, and retain little or none of the mental function a living person would have.
Even the least disgusting of the walking dead, the clean white bones of the reanimated skeleton, is somehow creepy in a way that the most gruesome disembodied phantasm is not. The putrid imagery of restless corpses in earlier stages of decay can provoke a strong visceral reaction in almost any living human, a fact which many horror film makers have rushed to exploit. As modern people turn away from worrying about the fate of the immortal soul, disembodied spirits become less scary than hungry zombies.
Not only are restless bodies a far more physical threat to the living than ghosts are, they also symbolize a deeper violation of the peace we might hope to find in death. Many of the restless spirits we imagine as responsible for their own condition. If they would just let go of whatever is bothering them, they could be freed from the burdens of the physical universe. Bodies, however, are more often dragged away from their eternal rest by some malignant force, which enslaves them to serve its own dark purposes.
Sometimes, the walking corpse is thought of as completely mindless, just a puppet controlled by the will of its reanimator. It is common to think of walking skeletons in this way, but the more intact animated corpse often called a zombie is also sometimes included. The dead person's soul is assumed long gone, to wherever it is that souls go; the corpse or skeleton is merely an object conveniently shaped to become an obedient servant.
By far the more frightening possibility, however, is that the soul or consciousness of the dead person becomes trapped in the body, a helpless witness to acts commanded by the evil force that has gained control over its body. For example, the voodoo concept of a zombie as a person killed and then brought back to life enslaved to a sorcerer's will is so terrifying that even a marginally plausible threat of this fate can give someone tremendous influence over those who believe in it.
Another vivid example of this fate worse than death are the flesh-eating undead sometimes called ghouls, as popularized in the "Dead Trilogy" of horror films by George Romero, and adapted with some modification into many games, such as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and Resident Evil.
The "Romero Zombies" in particular were created by some mysterious impersonal force, never fully explained in the films. They had no identifiable "master" like voodoo zombies, but they did appear to retain some memories from their previous lives. In several scenes they hesitate, as if trying to resist the compulsion to kill and eat their former loved ones, but they always fail to regain their humanity.
(As a side note, the original ghoul of ancient Arab legend cannot be considered undead in the true sense of the word. These creatures are not really thought of as human in origin. They are evil spirits believed to prowl the wastelands in search of human flesh to eat.)
Unlike ghosts, the walking dead usually cannot be appeased or persuaded in any way. Instead, survival boils down to the intensely physical alternatives of fight or flight. In some tales, even the severed body parts of these undead will continue to attack their victims; in others, any part that loses its connection with the brain becomes inert, and destroying the brain destroys the creature, returning it to the fully dead condition of an ordinary corpse.
Some vampire tales include elements of enslavement similar to the voodoo zombie concept, such as the ability to recruit minions who are also vampires, but are subservient to the one who recruited them. (Drawing parallels between this idea and multi-level marketing is left as an exercise for the reader.) Mummies can also overlap into this category of restless bodies, because some of them are involuntarily reanimated. However, mummies are perhaps better considered in the next category:
The Unnaturally Prolonged
Despite the many differences between them, the restless spirits and the restless bodies share a crucial quality. Both are more dead than alive. The limits imposed by their undead condition exceed any advantages it may confer on them, and thus also help to define their very nature. These limitations exist at two ends of a spectrum. Hence ghosts are often defined by their limited power to affect the material world; zombies, on the other hand, although solidly physical in nature, are often mentally deficient in some way.
The most terrifying and powerful of the undead are the types that are more alive than dead. This state of unnaturally prolonged life still imposes some limits, but also renders such creatures significantly more powerful than an ordinary living person. They retain most of their mental function and most of their free will, and are often thought to gain enhanced physical vigor as well.
A prime example of this is the vampire as it first appeared in Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, and was then copied in almost every other film, fiction, and game portrayal of vampires since. Dracula was physically robust, having "the strength of twenty men" as Stoker phrased it. He could change into various animal forms and even into a kind of mist that could pass through the tiniest of openings, giving him almost the same advantages of mobility a ghost would have. His mental powers were equally fearsome, verging on brilliance at times.
Luckily for the novel's protagonists, Dracula did have some limitations or they would never have had any chance against him. Anyone interested in the subject of the undead who has not yet read this book should place the highest priority on reading it. The book is flawed in some ways, but its cultural influence is huge. In fact, the modern meaning of the very word undead appears to originate from its pages. (An Oxford dictionary I checked reports archaic usage of the word "undead" as a synonym for "alive" but those references were all more than 300 years old when Stoker brought the word back to life with a new meaning.)
Another example of the unnaturally prolonged undead is the mummy. The power attributed to these beings is probably one of the legacies from the heights of ancient Egyptian civilization. Other cultures have left behind mummies, but few achieved anything with the impressiveness and longevity of the pyramids, so apparently we find it plausible to assume there is something equally impressive about their mummies.
Like the vampires, the mummies have grown more powerful in the literary imagination in the last century or so. In older tales, they had little more power than ghosts, mainly limited to causing bad luck for people who disturbed their tombs. Later, in early movies, they developed the ability to shamble around and frighten people. It is only with recent advances in special effects technology that mummies have really started to chew up the cinematic scenery.
Similar to the mummy in some ways is the lich, a creature owing its imaginary existence almost entirely to the influence of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Its name is borrowed from an old word for a corpse. Many of its traits seem borrowed from those of J.R.R. Tolkien's Ringwraiths, but the need to dissociate it from that copyrighted idea has been fulfilled quite successfully - perhaps too successfully.
Within their highly contrived context, liches are assumed to be the most powerful form of the undead, partly because they start the process of becoming liches while still alive, and partly because they have to be quite powerful in the first place to have any chance of successfully becoming liches. Despite all this, for some reason the concept of the lich seems to lack the psychological resonance found in the other types of undead, even ones supposedly far less powerful. This may be only because the lich (as distinct from the Nazgûl) has not yet found any literary promoters so influential as Bram Stoker or even Anne Rice, but it also lacks the long history of legends and folktales that give the other undead their sense of mystery.
The lich concept might resonate more deeply later on, as humans gradually discover the consequences of genetic and other technologies that promise to delay death in the glittering visions of the futurists.
The Future of the Undead
With the growing influence of rationality and science, we might expect that the undead would hold less fear for people with a modern outlook, but this does not seem to be the case. Vampires, zombies, ghosts, and mummies continue to be enormously popular in the literature and entertainment of the modern world.
With a little reflection, this is not terribly surprising. Modern medicine has yet to change the most frightening fact of mortality: not death itself, but the perilous twilight landscape between death and life.
Out of habit, almost everything I've said here about the undead has been phrased in the neutral language of careful objective scholarship, but in reality it is mostly lifted from the psyche of one North American who is probably a bit more morbid and introverted than it is really healthy to be, despite living in the early twenty-first century. Because of this, I am open to correction if I have made any errors, although I have tried to avoid saying anything grossly false.