The Concept of the Undead, and a Carnival of Terrors

The Concept of the Undead, and a Carnival of Terrors
© Photograph by Dominique Wesson

Stories concerning the Undead have always been with us. From out of the primal darkness of mankind’s earliest years, come whispers of eerie creatures, not quite alive (or alive in a way which we can understand), yet not quite dead either. These may have been ancient and primitive deities who dwelt deep in the surrounding forests and in remote places, or simply those deceased who refused to remain in their tombs and who wandered about the countryside, physically tormenting and frightening those who were still alive. Mostly they were ill-defined — strange sounds in the night beyond the comforting glow of the fire, or a shape, half-glimpsed in the twilight along the edge of an encampment. They were vague and indistinct, but they were always there with the power to terrify and disturb. They had the power to touch the minds of our early ancestors and to fill them with dread. Such fear formed the basis of the earliest tales although the source and exact nature of such terrors remained very vague.

Moreover, as mankind became more sophisticated, leaving the gloom of their caves and forming themselves into recognisable communities — towns, cities, whole cultures — so the Undead travelled with them, inhabiting their folklore just as they had in former times. Now they began to take on more definite shapes. They became walking cadavers; the physical embodiment of former deities and things which had existed alongside Man since the Creation. Some remained vague and ill-defined but, as mankind strove to explain the horror which it felt towards them, such creatures emerged more readily into the light.

In order to confirm their abnormal status, many of the Undead were often accorded attributes, which defied the natural order of things — the power to transform themselves into other shapes, the ability to sustain themselves by drinking human blood, and the ability to influence human minds across a distance. Such powers — described as supernatural — only learnt an added dimension to the terror that humans felt regarding them.

And it was only natural, too, that the Undead should become connected with the practice of magic. From very early times, Shamans and witch doctors had claimed at least some power and control over the spirits of departed ancestors, and this has continued down into more “civilised” times. Formerly, the invisible spirits and forces that thronged around men’s earliest encampments had spoken “through” the tribal Shamans but now, as entities in their own right, they were subject to magical control and could be physically summoned by a competent sorcerer. However, the relationship between the magician and an Undead creature was often a very tenuous and uncertain one. Some sorcerers might have even become Undead entities once they died, but they might also have been susceptible to the powers of other magicians when they did.

From the Middle Ages and into the Age of Enlightenment, theories of the Undead continued to grow and develop. Their names became more familiar — werewolf, vampire, ghoul — each one certain to strike fear into the hearts of ordinary humans. They were no less fearsome than the vague, shapeless entities that had circled the fires of ancient people — only now they had a form and a definition. Now, they were set within a context of fear. Moreover, they reflected some of the cultural attributes of those who believed in them — the Semite, the European, the African, and later the West Indian. Thus, golems, afreets, zombies, djinni, and draugr wandered by night (and sometimes by day) causing fear wherever they passed. As in earlier times, they may have been seen as the physical manifestations of old gods and powers or the walking dead — those who lay in the churchyards. They also included demons — beings that had never been indeed born but yet included elements of both the living and the dead. Is it any wonder, therefore, that such a caravan of horrors traversed the world on a daily and nightly basis? Such undead beings appeared everywhere and in all cultures.

The purpose of this introductory article (and more in detail, forthcoming ones) is to detail at least some of the entities previously mentioned and to examine their possible origins. It is not meant to dismiss them as fearsome beings, nor to explain them away, nor to deny the horror that they generate. Rather it attempts to present a picture of terrible entities that have frightened mankind across the years, that have shaped common nightmares, and have inspired the darker elements of the literary imagination. It seeks to celebrate that which lurks in the shadows or which gazes from the darkness at the solitary passerby with a frenzied and hungry eye.

Look behind you down the darkened street! Is that a movement beyond the furthest streetlight? Peer out of your window into the gloom! Was that something, half-glimpsed, that moved away as you did so? Listen! Was that a cry or a voice speaking from amongst the shadows of the hallway? The ancient horrors of the Undead are perhaps far nearer than we would care to imagine. Browse the pages of this medium, if you dare, and discover just what might be lurking out there in the gathering darkness.

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