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  The obsolete hopping vampire is not just wearing outdated threads from the last season but from the last millennium!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

Woodblock prints of ages past show giant octopuses ripping apart boats and feasting on sailors like popcorn.  These artifacts of ancient sea-lore make for rousing images, but they are quite wrong:  octopuses are fierce and cunning hunters but they present little danger to humans—with a noteworthy exception.  The truly dangerous octopuses are not giant monsters (perhaps the artists of yesteryear were thinking of the mighty giant squid?) but rather tiny jewel-like beauties from the genus Hapalochlaena which includes only three or four species.  Known as blue-ring octopuses the tiny creatures swim in tide pools and shallows of the Indo-Pacific Ocean from Japan down to Australia (where they are most prevalent).  Blue-ringed octopuses live on shrimp, crabs, minnows, and horseshoe crabs.  They are tremendous hunters who use camouflage, stealth, and guile to catch their prey.  However, these tools pale before their greatest weapon: the little octopuses are among the most poisonous creatures on planet Earth.

(photo by Aluki from Flickr)

Like the flamboyant cuttlefish, the blue-ringed octopus does not like to bite without giving warning but advertises its toxicity with vivid coloration.  The octopus can conceal itself with tremendous prowess however, as soon as it becomes aware of a predator or some other threat, it dials up its coloration changing from muted reef tones to brilliant yellow with iridescent blue rings.  If you see something like this in the ocean, for heaven’s sake don’t touch it.  The octopus’s warning colors let ocean predators know to leave it alone but immediately attract humankind’s magpie urge to grab shiny things.  Although blue-ringed octopuses are good natured and have been known not to bite people who were provoking them rather intensely, their bites have caused more than seventy recorded fatalities in Australia. The octopus has a tiny beak and often a victim does not realize they have been bitten until they began to fall into paralysis and their respiration starts to fail.

Argh, I said don't touch it

The venom of the blue ringed octopus is a complicated pharmacological cocktail which includes tetrodotoxin, 5-hydroxytryptamine, hyaluronidase, tyramine, histamine, tryptamine, octopamine, taurine, acetylcholine, and dopamine. The most active ingredient tetrodotoxin blocks the sodium channels which conducting sodium ions (Na+) through a cell’s plasma membrane.  This causes total paralysis for the octopus victim, however if clever and persistent rescuers are present at the time of the bite they can rescue the unfortunate soul with continuous artificial respiration.  This is no small matter as bite victims are often rendered completely unresponsive by the paralytic victim.  Although completely conscious they are unable to communicate in any way or even breathe.  If artificial respiration is initiated immediately and continued until the body can metabolize and eliminate the toxin, bite victims can survive (although it sounds like rather an ordeal).

Blue ringed octopuses are tender and solicitous mothers.  The mother octopus lays a clutch of approximately 50 eggs in autumn which she incubates beneath her arms for about six months (during which time she is unable to eat).  When the eggs hatch, the mother octopus dies. The baby octopuses reach sexual maturity in about a year.  Despite their cleverness and beauty, the animals are as ephemeral as they are deadly.

Under its mother's watchful eye a baby southern blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa) emerges from its egg.

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