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Lord Soth’s Charge (Keith Parkinson)

To finish up this week’s undead theme, I was going to write about another classic undead monster–I have here a long list of mummies, banshees, ghouls, and vampires from around the world (including some flying intestine-head things from Southeast Asia that would cause the most jaded horror enthusiast to cower in dismay).  However, to tell the truth, all the endless moaning and lurking in tombs and insatiably thirsting for life energy is starting to wear on me.   What is the bigger meaning of all of this?  What is it that makes the undead so beguiling to so many different cultures—and yet so oddly uniform in basic motivation and temperament?

Let’s start with the obvious emotional context of the undead.  The concept packages some pretty blatant implications right out front.   The undead represent many of our fears about sexuality—they are always biting necks, wearing diaphanous robes, or grabbing at milkmaids in the night.  They seem sexy and powerful, but turn out to be, at best, all gross and squishy (and, at worst, morally repugnant and dangerous).  The concept that one is infected by a demon-thing to then become a demon-thing oneself also overtly symbolizes all sorts of anxieties about disease and promiscuity.   I’m not going to dwell on this because I left it as an undercurrent in my four earlier essays (and because my parents read my blog), but it segues to an even bigger theme: the undead represent the frustrations of being corporeal.

We have physical bodies which provide for ephemeral pleasures but ultimately rot and fall apart.  Such frailty is a far cry from the platonic perfection which religions promise.  We fear illness and mortality, and we fear the slow failures of senescence.  What could represent that better than a living corpse?  The obsolete hopping vampire is not just wearing outdated threads from the last season but from the last millennium!  Our infatuation with all these blood-drinking spirits, revenants, living corpses, and pale walkers comes from our existential obsession with understanding death—the ultimate taboo and the greatest mystery—“the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns”.

Death the Maiden (Marianne Stokes)

So our fascination with the undead is a reflection of our fear of death.  This is hardly an original or startling conclusion.  But it only half of the full picture: the more important moral behind the living dead is also more subtle.

The undead hunger for life but they can only imitate life’s most weary habits.  The draugr is like the average investment banker, fiercely gathering treasure even after wealth has lost any meaningful value.  The lemures can not forsake the street-side shadows which they haunted in life as footpads.  Vampires are out there in nightclubs (or high schools!) picking up pretty girls with low self-esteem for centuries–when any sane person is driven to despair by the singles scene almost immediately.  Like the bloated & forgetful alcoholic returning to the same bar-stool, or the gambler driven back to the slots after recursive nights of bitter loss, the undead are creatures of dreadful mindless habit.  This is the great lesson from all these horror tropes.

Skeletons Warming Themselves (James Ensor, 1889, oil on canvas)

The undead are not beguiling; instead they are trapped like weary wage slaves going through the motions.   Our fascination with ghosts and zombies stems in part from our terror of the grave–for life is indeed very short—but the true lesson to be had from these sad legions of supernatural clichés is not to be afraid of life.  Don’t allow yourself to be captured in a stupid rut.  Life is for living, not for walking in circles with your arms out while you moan.  Get up from the opium den floor, walk out of your cubicle, flee your damn stupid pyramid scheme.  It’s time to change your loveless marriage!

Haunted Couple; Illustration from The Bridge of Love-dreams (Hokusai, 1809, woodblock print)

Live mindful of death, opportunity flees away.  Once you are really in the grave, the vampire’s bite, the draugr’s gold, all the suffering and cannibalism and exploitation and desire and hope of this world—it will all be meaningless.  In the meantime, there is no reason to act dead until you really are.

Detail from a Roman Sarcophagus

Ghosts and the disquieted dead abound in China and, as elsewhere, these manifold specters hold up a dark mirror to society as a whole.  Chinese folklore features hungry ghosts, hanged ghosts, sexually abused ghosts, and happy, helpful servant ghosts.  There are the wrongfully dead ghosts who were denied justice by merciless bureaucrats and there are drowned ghosts who always lurk in the water grabbing at things.  There are ghost brides, ghost thieves, and ghost hunters.  All of this is in addition to the countless fiends, demons, nature spirits, immortals, monsters, gods, and supernatural animals which make up the endlessly invigorating Chinese pantheon.    Yet out of all the many sorts of ghosts and revenants, one particular category of Chinese apparition stands out as an exemplary type specimen of the undead.   These are the jiāng shī, the hopping reanimated corpses which are analogous to the vampires and mummies of western horror.  In English such undead beings are called hopping ghosts or Chinese vampires.

Here’s a diagram?

Like vampires, jiāng shī feed off of the life energy of the living and command supernatural powers, but there are some big differences.  Jiāng shī are created in many different supernatural ways when the po, an aspect of the soul, is returned to the body (this often involves a shock of yin energy from cats or the moon), but they are essentially of two varieties:  1) recently dead souls who died far from home and literally hop back to where they are from sometimes with the help of a Taoist sorcerers, and sometimes through pure homesickness ; and 2) ancient corpses which have gone so long without decaying that they become reanimated by dark yin magic.  The Chinese name means “stiff corpse” and the undead monsters are literally stiff from rigor mortis.  Because of this handicap, jiāng shī have a hard time with mobility and their movements are often unnatural and erratic—hence they are believed to move by means of hopping (although some of the more powerful and ancient ones are also reputed to fly).   Unfortunately their lack of agility is more than made up for by superhuman strength.

They are not ladies’ men like western vampires and–hey! What’s going on here?

Contemporary hopping ghosts look like contemporary corpses–except for the fact that they are animated and are hopping violently and quickly towards you to suck out your qi energy (oh and they have long sharp fingernails).  Ancient jiāng shī, however, have a very distinctive and operatic look:  they are dressed in Qing dynasty graveclothes and they have pale green skin and white hair (as well as claws and fangs).  Both sorts of hopping ghosts bear an overwhelming smell of putrefaction with them—which is so appalling that it is occasionally fatal.  They feed on qi energy which they strangle/gouge out of their victims, either manually or by hopping on top of the heads of sleepers.

If you are having trouble with hopping ghosts, there are several ways of dealing with them.  The animated corpses are driven off by Taoist mirrors, brooms made with real straw, rice, or fresh chicken blood.  Sometimes applying a yellow and red Chinese death blessing to their forehead will give the jiāng shī peace (although this should be attempted only in extreme circumstances!).  They cannot abide the light of the sun.  In the end though there is only one sovereign remedy to permanently get rid of jiāng shī, and it is the ultimate solution to any undead problems.  If you burn a jiāng shī and all of its accessories (creepy funeral suit, coffin, etc.) you will be permanently rid of the monster.

Good old fire!

Some things are easy to write about.  For example, the world’s largest catfish was an effortless topic—what a great fish!  There is plenty of information about the animal and its giant size makes it instantly fun and interesting (although the specie’s widespread decline does bring a sense of mounting unease).  For a wide variety of reasons, other subjects are considerably more difficult to address.  Sometimes the information is unavailable or the data is lurid and upsetting.  In a poignant incongruity, one of these troubling topics happens to be the world’s smallest catfish, the candiru, which hails from the Amazon basin of Brazil.

Vandellia cirrhosa

The term itself “candiru” can mean either the species Vandellia cirrhosa, or it can refer to several genera of similar small catfishes. There is apparently even a genus “Candiru”.  To put it bluntly the candiru is a vampire catfish.  It enters the gills of larger fishes and sucks their blood–well actually, it doesn’t suck the blood as such. To quote “fishbase” an online fish resource, “[The candiru] bites mostly at the ventral or dorsal aorta arteries, and the blood is pumped into its gut by the host’s blood pressure. It does not need any special sucking or pumping mechanism to quickly engorge itself with blood, but simply uses its needle-like teeth to make an incision in an artery.”  The candiru is small.  Vandellia cirrhosa rarely exceeds lengths of 1-2.5 in (2.5-6 cm) with a width of 3.5 mm (although much larger specimens are known).

The junction of the Amazon River and the Rio Negro, (near Manaus, Brazil) is the principal haunting ground of the candiru.  The catfish hides in the sand or mud.  When prey swims by—either in the day or at night—the candiru uses its tremendous sense of smell and powerful eyesight to hone in on the other fish’s gills for a blood meal.  The Candiru has backwards pointing spines behind its gill covers.  It can lock itself into a victim’s flesh with these razor sharp rays.

The…um…Lovely Beach at Manaus, Brazil

The candiru is not picky about its blood source and this has made it one of the most feared fish in the Amazon.  It has been known to enter swimming humans through various orifices or through open wounds.  Lurid ethnological reports from as far back as the 19th century detail this fish’s intimate depredations of human hosts.

Argh! Drop those in bleach and go wash your hands with holy water!

It is entirely whimsical—even childish—to speculate about whether the catfish is averse to garlic, possesses immortality, has become a hero to preteen girls, speaks with a strong Baltic accent, etc.

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