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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  The obsolete hopping vampire is not just wearing outdated threads from the last season but from the last millennium!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

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