17 January 2010

January Challenge #17:
One Little, Two Little, Three Little Zombies

The Restless Dead, Part 2

"Regardless of their form, all undead have one thing in common: a renewed presence in the mortal world after death."
GURPS Undead, Sean "Dr Kromm" Punch
"Beings of fear and horror, undead are animate reminders of death's inevitability."
Open Grave: Secrets of the Undead, Bruce Cordell et al

Today, I'm tackling a partial taxonomy of the restless dead, concentrating on the close cousins of zombies, the corporeal undead. It's not that the non-corporeal, or spectral, undead aren't interesting. It's a matter of scope. The line must be drawn somewhere, and I'm drawing it to exclude ghosts, spectres, shadows, and the like.

I'm also leaving out vampires. Not only have they been done to death, so to speak, but their variety in folklore and modern media is so vast that they form a category all their own.

Where Do They Come From?

In most early folklore, the restless dead are not made; they just happen. In many cultures, it was widely believed that the dead had to be helped into the afterlife, and that improper disposal of the dead would result their rising to endanger their erstwhile neighbors. Similarly, disturbing the remains of the dead was considered a likely way to rose an angry corpse. Many of the funerary rites we practice today have their origins in preventive measures.

In some cultures it was believed that a spirit could not enter the final rest while their time in the mortal coil was not done, whether because of untimely death or unfinished business. Sometimes this is enforced by some agency of the afterlife, or it may be matter of will on the part of the individual. Vengeance is a powerful motivation that may drive the dead to rise from the grave.

Popular in fiction is the idea that some souls are so evil, that they are barred from the afterlife and left to wander the mortal world. This sort of figure is malevolence incarnate, and when coupled with the physical prowess typically associated with the undead, it makes a powerful antagonist.

Some undead carry a taint that can spread like a contagion. If a zombie eats your brain, you might arise hungry for the brains of the living. This sort of viral spread is popular in Zombie Apocalypse fiction, as it explains how we got quite so many zombies.

Vile spirits wandering unseen in the mortal world may be looking for a chance to possess a recently disinhabited body. This again causes a culture to be very careful about funerary rituals. Sewing up the mouth of a corpse has its origin in barring entry by evil spirits.

An external agency may be responsible to for raising the dead. Necromancers of sword & sorcery fiction raise armies of the undead to conquer the land. Similarly, military labs research nano-machines to enable soldier to fight on after death.

Many religions, both ancient and modern, teach that on Judgement Day the dead will rise up and choose sides in the final battle, not always the side of evil. Variations on this theme are also popular in Zombie Apocalype fiction to explain the sudden massive zombie population spike.

Sources of Power

Left unstated in many works, there looms the question of what empowers unliving flesh to reanimate. Early cultures often simply accepted it as a base fact without need for explanation, but since the Age of Reason, Western culture insists on over-analysis.

Evil may be so antithetical to life that no other motive power is required. The undead hate life so much that severed tendons and rotting muscle continue to make their exertions felt.

If life can be thought of as an unexplained phenomenon, then there might be an opposite energy, unlife if you will. D&D featured this source of power for many years, as Negative Energy in opposition to the live-giving Positive Energy.

Necromancers casts spells to animate the dead to their bidding. Whatever explanation for sorcery in general in the fictional setting can be applied to pushing dead flesh around. Super science of some flavor can also play this role.


A staple of Revisionist Fantasy and Survival Horror, the zombie is a relatively recent actor on the folklore stage. The walking corpse as the mindless servant originates in the blending of African and Western spiritual beliefs in the Carribean in the 18th and 19th centuries. The zombie take its current role as slavering devourer of brains until the survival horror movies of the mid- to late-20th century.


Revenants are the type of undead most likely to play the protagonist in an action movie. For example, in The Crow, Brandon Lee plays a revenant. A revenant has refused to pass into the afterlife, or been denied, until it can settle unfinished business, usually righting a wrong or exacting vengeance. As the revenant is usually a very fresh corpse, unless its business runs long, its appearance is often the most human.


The first modern portrayal of the wight comes to us as Tolkien's Barrow Wight in The Lord of the Rings. Wights typically result from improper burial or the disturbance of the burial site. Not necessarily malevolent, Wights act out of anger at the disruption of their rest, which makes certain implications about the afterlife. Immediate judgement is a recent religious invention, and the souls of the dead were widely believed in Western cultural antecedants to remain with the interred body until Judgement Day. A corpse that has lain undisturbed for a longer period of time will appear more decomposed and may have forgotten earthly relations, sparing not even family members in its violent outbursts.


Originally meaning simply human corpse in Middle English, the lich now epitomizes the "sorcerous" undead. The lich has unlocked some secret to suspension between life and death, neither truly alive nor fully dead. This secret might be magical, spiritual, super science, or some chi trick known only to 600 year old martial arts masters.


Wraith was originally a synonym for ghost, but the hand of Tolkien is felt once again in the Ring Wraiths of The Lord of the Rings fame. There is some disagreement among the authors of Revisionist Fantasy whether the wraith is corporeal or non. There does seem to be a tenuous consensus that whatever their animating power, wraiths are tied to a physical object, sometimes called a fetter. In the case of the Ring Wraiths, the fetter takes the form of the rings gifted to nine mortal kings by Sauron.


Though defined by many authors as undead, ghouls are more frequently portrayed as still living creatures whose debased ways have imbued them with zombie-like characteristics. They may act as carriers of the zombie plague, immune to complete conversion due to built-up immunity from their daily habits.

Weird Stuff

Undead microbes make a good basis for a zombie contagion that starts the Zombie Apocalypse. They would also make an untreatable plague, since the undead are commonly considered proof against poison.

Swarms of small zombie creatures, nearly harmless inidividually, make a terrifiying threat. Invulnerable to poisons, little affected by blades and bullets, these aggregate enemies are vulnerable only to fire.

Depending how you define the metaphor of death, broken technology might be subject to zombification. Rattling, rusted cars that run without gas or maintenance. Broken machineguns that fire from belts of spent casings. Evil skyscrapers that entrap survivors in their crumbling walls.

In Part 3, I'll take some of these ideas and a few more and try to spin them up into game concepts and elements.

About Today's Process

Today, I employed a different process than usual. In previous entries, I just started typing and let the words spill out, then went back to make minor edits, and posted the result in more or less rough draft form. Now that I'm more comfortable with sitting down and writing creatively, I'm pulling in skills from technical writing. This post was built up from a skeleton of major headings, first with a premise statement for each paragraph, then the meat of the text. I'm happy with the results, but it does seem to impact my style.

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